Reflections on the Hypatia affair

I’ve been thinking for a few days about whether I had anything worth saying about the publication of Rebecca Tuvel’s “In Defense of Transracialism” in Hypatia. I don’t know whether what follows is worth saying, or worth your time to read, but I did decide to say it.

First things first: when I read the paper, I was troubled that it was published. I was surprised and dismayed by the deadnaming of Caitlyn Jenner, and disappointed by the apparent lack of engagement with the literature in trans philosophy and critical race theory. I’m one of the people who believes that the paper should not have made it through review, and that it was a mistake for Hypatia to publish it in its present form—or maybe any form in which it could be said to be the same paper. I say these things with no relish whatsoever; I consider Rebecca Tuvel a friend (though we’ve only met in person once) and a decent human being who cares very much about social and interspecies justice. (We came to know each other through our common interest in animal liberation theory.)

But my own reaction to the paper is far less important than these two facts: (1) Many trans people and people of color feel that the paper trivializes and even contributes to their oppression through its methodology and its deadnaming of a trans person, and (2) many, many people who know the literature on trans theory and critical race theory much better than I do say that the paper fails to engage with that literature. These facts are important because on both counts, these other people are much better positioned than I am to know what they’re talking about. If someone says their experience of oppression has been trivialized and even exacerbated, we should be inclined to believe them. And if peer review means anything at all, then when a large number of people who work on the scholarly topic at issue say that a paper falls short of a key standard and shouldn’t have passed review, we should take that claim very, very seriously.

So my question to those who don’t work on trans issues or critical race theory, but defend either the substance of the paper or its publication or both, is: how are you in any position to know what you’re talking about? Sure, I have concerns about the paper myself, as I just said. But if I’d been asked to referee it, I’d have told the editors that they should look around for someone who’s actually qualified to review it because bringing me on would be Amateur Hour. No one ought to care very much whether I or any other non-specialist thinks the paper should have been published, but they should care a great deal about the opinions of those who actually know what they’re talking about. The prevailing view among those people seems to be that the paper shouldn’t have been published.

Many people seem to be characterizing this as a witch-hunt against a philosopher who defended a verboten thesis. My impression, at least of the criticism I’ve seen, is that this characterization is a very bad one. Critics of the paper, and of Hypatia, do not universally oppose the paper’s thesis, much less the decision of a journal to publish a paper defending that thesis. Instead, they object to what they see as an author’s failure to engage with the scholarly literature on the topic in question (a literature produced largely by people whose scholarship is informed by the racism and transphobia they experience daily) and to a journal’s failure to ensure that a published article situates itself within a literature with which authors and readers should be at least somewhat familiar. This isn’t thought-policing. It’s a demand for scholarly rigor in an area in which real people’s lives and well-being are implicated in the questions asked and answers given. If one wants to argue that the article is rigorous, is adequately situated in the relevant literature, then one should make that argument. Don’t fall back on the lazy assumption that this is a case of the “intolerant Left” devouring its own when they simply say the wrong thing. We’ve seen that tired old move before.

In fact, from what I can tell, a fair few of the paper’s vocal critics actually do believe that the topic and the thesis (or something close to it) are important. They (and I, by the way) think that at least some opposition to the idea of a person being trans black sounds an awful lot like the sort of garbage we hear from trans-exclusionary radical feminists: that trans women are not women but instead self-loathing or mentally ill gay men in a world where gender is determined at birth. TERFy opposition to the notion of trans blackness gives me serious pause. I don’t have a settled position on trans blackness, though my unsettled position on it is skepticism. All I can say, right here and now, is that to reach a settled position I would have to ground the question in the concrete realities of blackness and its history—realities reported by the very people who experience them. And I’m certain that I don’t know nearly enough to write a paper on any of this.

That observation about intellectual humility brings me to my next point. People who see their own marginalization manifested in the article’s publication, and their own experiences of oppression trivialized in the article’s argument, are angry about it. This anger is valid, and when it’s expressed we should all hear it and make a good faith effort to comprehend it—if at first we don’t understand—and to learn from it. And we shouldn’t always expect that people will express that anger in ways that make immediate sense to the rest of us. The fact that some of these expressions have been heated and vigorous doesn’t really bother me.

But I am bothered by the self-righteousness of philosophers and others who speak from positions of relative privilege—white and/or cis and/or masculine and/or tenured—acting as if they’re so woke that they would never make the kinds of mistakes they’ve charged to Tuvel. To those folx, I say get over yourselves. Take this opportunity to reflect on your own epistemic limitations. Me, I can say that among the many reactions I have to this case is a strong “there but for the grace of God” type of sentiment.

I know I’ve written at least one poorly researched paper on a topic I should have approached much more carefully, using philosophical methodology that was insensitive to historical and contemporary realities. I even presented it twice at conferences (refereed both times, mind you!). One time it was met with interest, the other time with anger and even a sharp scolding from an audience member. I managed to convince myself that the more receptive audience had the better measure of the paper, and submitted it unsuccessfully to a couple of journals. I eventually let the paper die one of those quiet, unmarked paper-deaths, and I can now say with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight that that’s the best thing that could have happened to it, and to me. But I got lucky. I’d wager big money, which I don’t even have, that I’m not the only one whose negative felt response to Tuvel’s paper has the ring of a pretty painful self-critique.

And that’s to say nothing of the hate mail Tuvel says she’s received. If you’re sending harassing or threatening emails to her, then you’re some kind of new punk, period.

Finally, I was rather amazed at the speed at which all of this happened. I actually saw people on social media essentially saying, within a day or two of the article’s publication, “when will we hear from so-and-so on this?” and “why has the editorial board been silent?” The fact that it’s now possible for people to weigh in on a situation within minutes or hours of the initiating event does not mean that it’s always reasonable to expect them to do so. Perhaps so-and-so isn’t glued to their social media accounts the way others are. Perhaps the editorial board is comprised mostly of people who didn’t see this coming and needed time to figure out what the heck had happened and to think about how to respond. The rush to form and disseminate views about this whole matter, and the expectation that others should do the same, kind of unnerved me. On the one hand, I understand that a great many people were hurting and wanted answers, but on the other hand, there could be many reasons why answers were not always immediately supplied. The associate editors, for example, took a day to correspond with each other in order to construct a response. Think what you will, good or bad, of their response, but the fact that they took time to think about it before issuing it strikes me as a good thing.

That’s all I have. Thanks for reading this far.


  1. Jason, I found your entry here enlightening, even thought I don’t agree with it. Some responses from a stranger.

    A question: do you think that the standards for retraction are higher than for that of peer review? Peer review is not a majoritarian process, but a process in which two or three experts authorize a contribution to the community of scholars. This builds in, in fact, some idiosyncrasy, on top of the idiosyncrasy of the journal picking the reviewers in the first place (they prejudice the process just in that selection). This idiosyncrasy is tolerable if there are enough publishing venues, for it builds into intellectual space a certain pluralism in what gets published. Something I don’t think is so great, but you find valuable, get published and vice-versa. So we need a pluralism of venues (Hypatia yeah) and pluralism in what potentially comes through that venue. We don’t as a rule ask for article to be retracted because we respect our colleges (those who reviewed the piece) even if we disagree with them, even vehemently. We also do not ask for retraction because we think that the issue of the validity of the paper should be worked out in the space of reasons rather than through a campaign to retract. Retraction is most serious thing that can be done to a paper, and should only be done if a paper violates fundamental norms.

    I take it that you think that your 1 and 2 are fundamental norms. Lets take 2. I completely trust folks when they say that the paper does not engage the literature widely enough. This is a fault of the paper. But tons and tons of papers, some good, some bad, have this fault. We don’t ask for retraction, we engage in critique. So with consideration 1 the question of trusting the people better positioned to know is not at issue, for I trust them. I just don’t accept the entailment you make on the basis of that consideration.

    With respect to 2, I find it reasonable for Hypatia to add a note to the next issues about the deadnaming. But that is not a retraction. As many have pointed out, the norms of harm here have changed quite rapidly, so some forbearance is deserved. Here again I am trusting those who are in a better position to know.

    You then say “This isn’t thought-policing. It’s a demand for scholarly rigor in an area in which real people’s lives and well-being are implicated in the questions asked and answers given.” Here I disagree: we’ve gone through all of this rigmarole because someone’s paper was not rigorous enough? You want me to make an argument that the article is rigorous. But that is precisely what I don’t think I need to do. Again we are not arguing about whether the paper should have been accepted, but whether it should be retracted, which is basically never done.

    You then say: “People who see their own marginalization manifested in the article’s publication, and their own oppression trivialized in the article’s argument, are angry about it.” This seems to be on point, this seems to be what has compelled the response to the paper and the call for its retraction. I agree with you that the anger of many readers is something that needs to be taken seriously. But there are readers of this paper from the groups discussed by the paper who do not have this response to the paper or who have made very similar arguments (see Adolf Reed). How should adjudicate between these responses? Do we decide this by majority vote? What is the decision procedure by which the gates to the space of reasons is opened or closed? The reason why this is perceived as an episode of the ‘intolerant left’ is that it appears to be an attempt to control these gates. Now one can argue that those gates are never neutral, that power is always structuring what can and can’t enter, or be take seriously, in the space of reasons. This is completely correct. But that by itself does not entail the removal of this contribution from the space of reasons. It entails more contributions to show why it is wrong or problematic.

  2. Jason, I don’t know if you watch television, but even without, Jenner refers to himself as “Bruce”, says that he does not care if people use the masculine pronoun for him (hence, I am), says he is not a woman, and makes no secret of his past name constantly (as recently as two days ago). So no, there is no dead naming happening here and to suggest this indicates a complete misunderstanding of the term and/or the reality of Jenner.

    1. this really, really concerns me. if the entire premise of this conversation about deadnmaing is that we need to respect the wishes of individuals, it is beyond bizarre to me that we are supposed to disregard Jenner’s own wishes in this regard. If saying “Caitlyn (formerly Bruce)” is deadnaming, than Jenner engages in deadnaming, in which case I am truly lost as to who/what is being protected.

  3. “So my question to those who don’t work on trans issues or critical race theory, but defend either the substance of the paper or its publication or both, is: how are you in any position to know what you’re talking about?”

    I’ve followed the discussions on this but have yet to see, even in response to requests for one, an indication of which arguments from these literatures Tuvel should have discussed. Not a single relevant argument has yet been mentioned. I think the best explanation of this is that the mob calling for retraction does not know of any such argument. This explanation is reinforced by the blatant misrepresentations of the paper in the associate editors’ letter; if you haven’t understood a paper, you’re unlikely to be in a good position to say which arguments it should engage with.

    More generally, I’m disappointed by the fact that philosophical standards have fallen so far that to say, “you didn’t cite members of group x” is not seen as committing the speaker to identifying a specific source and explaining why it should have been cited (by certain people and certain specific values of x, obviously). We should just “trust” them that there is such a source. As if assessments of philosophical arguments should be treated as a kind of reliable testimony! I will certainly not entertain such “objections” if they’re ever raised against my own work.

  4. I agree with Steven–finally some real arguments in support of your position, which i don’t agree with.

    To me, the key phrase here is ‘intellectual humility.” To my eyes, Tuvel has it, and wrote her paper to ask questions. (And you have it.)

    Her critics seem to have no intellectual humility. They have God’s answers to those questions, seemingly without even needing to read the article.

    Tuvel’s piece was poorly written, but her critics’ letter was worse…they seemed nasty and pompous people who have been swayed by our social media culture of hatred to the point that they can’t make reasonable arguments any more. It was Trump-like and signals great trouble for the academy.

    I am a professional activist, and i left the academy because of the frequent clulessness and pompousness. The sad irony is that incidents like this hurt the LGBT and other social justice movements. Nobody wants to hang with the mean folks. You say it is not thought-policing, but it is tone-policing on steroids–her critics even accused her of ‘violence’!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Oh, the other irony is that many of Tuvel’s critics seem like well-off professional white women personally attacking an economically-vulnerable immigrant worker, without even making good arguments against her. Who, for all her lack of articulation, is a committed LGBT and POC ally!

  5. Jason,

    I too thank you for your observations; I’ve followed this issue with growing trepidation for the last 10 days, and I’ve seen precious little actual thought on the substance of either the open letter or the astounding behavior of some of the journal’s associate editors on FB. I have no pretensions of being woke, or an expert on any of the subjects of the Tuvel piece itself – despite one pub in a philosophy journal, I’m not one, and I SO hear you about the humility learned from writing outside one’s area of expertise!

    However, I don’t think one NEEDS to be woke, or a Feminist, or a Philosopher, to have some serious concerns with the events that have unfolded since April 30.
    1. In every instance in every discipline I’ve ever seen or read of, the act of retracting a paper is a career killer. So even if Tuvel’s article has caused harm to other people (and I’ll address that in a moment), the open letter carries a demand to destroy the career of someone who does not have tenure. I’m sure there are technical issues of which I’m unaware in terms of which marginalized groups are more vulnerable and more harmed, but Tuvel is both woman in a man’s field and untenured. The open letter – especially with the public post by “a majority of” the associate editors of the journal, is explicit harm.
    2. No matter who any of us is, a portion of the editorial hierarchy of an academic journal has publicly damned an article published therein, before any formal response to the rising criticism had been crafted or released. That should terrify every junior scholar, and make even those of us who have tenure take pause.
    3. Speaking of deeply troubling things one needs no special knowledge to be bothered by, I continue to be amazed by the assumption of Tuvel’s critics that the article was published as a failure of peer review. At least one prominent trans scholar has publicly stated that the Tuvel article was NOT an egregious mistake unworthy of publication. To put that differently, what if the ad hoc editors of the Tuvel paper actually WERE experts in transrights and identity theory? And why do Tuvel’s critics not so much as mention this very real possibility?

    That aside, there are two other issues that I MIGHT be misunderstanding, because perhaps there IS some specialized knowledge I lack that would change my views on those issues.
    1. Perhaps feminism is not, and should not be, a part of the wider Academy. Even if there were feminist reviewers of the Tuvel paper, there is no doubt that feminists who have chimed in are running heavily against the Tuvel paper. What amazes us in other disciplines is that, when one gets right down to it, the objections raised by the various Tuvel critics really do amount to “the literature review was inadequate.” I’ve worked with people in a dozen different disciplines, and none of them would ever suggest that a retraction was warranted because of an inadequate literature review. If this is a common reaction to all other disciplines in the Academy, Feminism is unique – and uniquely different – from the rest of that larger group.
    2. One thing I AM annoyed by based on my knowledge is the idea that professionals in other areas don’t understand the harm Tuvel’s paper does to the groups in question. That one offends all of us who are psychologists – every paper on Alzheimer’s, on bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, on the psychology of someone suddenly paralyzed in a spinal cord injury accident – all have the chance to bring up deeply unpleasant memories, to cause emotional harm, in people negatively affected by those conditions. Yet we do our research, because academia is supposed to ask tough questions; because while some are hurt, others are empowered by our work; and because our work might lead to improved treatment in the future. It is annoying in the extreme when the open letter writers talk about the rest of us being unable to comprehend the potential harm of our work.

  6. “…trans-exclusionary radical feminists: that trans women are not women but instead self-loathing or mentally ill gay men in a world where gender is determined at birth.”

    I presume you mean to refer gender critical radical feminists who don’t mind prioritizing advocacy of equality for females over other types of human beings. This is a sound and paragmatic position. Gender critical feminists do not believe that gender is determined at birth, they are skeptical of the entire notion of gender which has clearly been used to oppress people on the basis of sex. Show me a “TERF” that believes that gender is determined at birth. Some reading on the term “TERF”:

    I am puzzled that you are so willing to discard the “—realities reported by the very people who experience them” when those people are females.

  7. > many, many people who know the literature on trans theory and critical race theory much better than I do say that the paper fails to engage with that literature

    Who in particular? And is there a writeup on what was missed?

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