On the Hypatia/Tuvel fiasco

The editorial board of Hypatia, a journal specializing on feminist philosophy, recently apologized for the decision to publish a paper by Rebecca Tuvel, professor of philosophy at Rhodes College in Memphis, even though it went through their regular peer-review process. Here is the abstract of the paper in question:

Former NAACP chapter head Rachel Dolezal’s attempted transition from the white to the black race occasioned heated controversy. Her story gained notoriety at the same time that Caitlyn (formerly Bruce) Jenner graced the cover of Vanity Fair, signaling a growing acceptance of transgender identity. Yet criticisms of Dolezal for misrepresenting her birth race indicate a widespread social perception that it is neither possible nor acceptable to change one’s race in the way it might be to change one’s sex. Considerations that support transgenderism seem to apply equally to transracialism. Although Dolezal herself may or may not represent a genuine case of a transracial person, her story and the public reaction to it serve helpful illustrative purposes.

Had I read this abstract before the controversy started, I would never imagined that it could give rise to a controversy, but I guess it only proves that I need to be “educated” so I can recognize “problematic” language when I see it.

However, other people are more enlightened than me, which is why hundreds of them signed a petition asking for the retraction of this article. Here is the passage where they explain why this paper should never have been published and should be retracted:

While it is not the aim of this letter to provide an exhaustive list of problems that this article exhibits or to provide a critical response, we would like to note a few points that are indicative of the larger issues. We believe that this article falls short of scholarly standards in various areas:

 

1. It uses vocabulary and frameworks not recognized, accepted, or adopted by the conventions of the relevant subfields; for example, the author uses the language of “transgenderism” and engages in deadnaming a trans woman;

 

2. It mischaracterizes various theories and practices relating to religious identity and conversion; for example, the author gives an off-hand example about conversion to Judaism;

 

3. It misrepresents leading accounts of belonging to a racial group; for example, the author incorrectly cites Charles Mills as a defender of voluntary racial identification;

 

4. It fails to seek out and sufficiently engage with scholarly work by those who are most vulnerable to the intersection of racial and gender oppressions (women of color) in its discussion of “transracialism”. We endorse Hypatia’s stated commitment to “actively reflect and engage the diversity within feminism, the diverse experiences and situations of women, and the diverse forms that gender takes around the globe,” and we find that this submission was published without being held to that commitment.

 

Many published articles include some minor defects of scholarship; however, together the problems with this article are glaring. More importantly, these failures of scholarship do harm to the communities who might expect better from Hypatia. It is difficult to imagine that this article could have been endorsed by referees working in critical race theory and trans theory, which are the two areas of specialization that should have been most relevant to the review process. A message has been sent, to authors and readers alike, that white cis scholars may engage in speculative discussion of these themes without broad and sustained engagement with those theorists whose lives are most directly affected by transphobia and racism.

You know something went horribly wrong in academia when the fact that a paper doesn’t cite any philosopher of color — what a ridiculous expression — is regarded as a valid criticism of the paper in question… If you think these criticisms have any merit, Justin Weinberg did a good job of refuting most of them on Daily Nous, where several people finished the job in the comments. It’s reassuring that, judging from the comments, the vast majority of philosophers seem to be appalled by this nonsense, but that still leaves a lot of people — many of whom, to be fair, aren’t philosophers — who signed it and/or approve it.

As if this statement wasn’t ridiculous enough, the authors of that petition recently added this note to it, which prompted me to say on Daily Nous that life in some corners of academia had become increasingly indistinguishable from The Onion:

Note from statement writers (added 5/1, at approximately the 520th signatory): “We acknowledge that this statement should have named anti-Blackness directly. The statement is not an exhaustive summary of the many harms caused by this article. We hope it will at least serve as a way to register that harm and issue a demand for a retraction. This is one step in the direction of seeking accountability for the harms committed by its publishing– and to begin a conversation about the larger problems with our discipline it represents. And we thank Chanda Prescod-Weinstein (and others) for pointing out the dangerous erasure of anti-Blackness and the erasure of the Black labor on which the rhetoric of our own letter is built.”

Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m really glad that someone caught that unforgivable omission of anti-Blackness. Although upon reflexion, I wonder if we shouldn’t write another petition against the people who wrote the original petition, because that omission is a little bit suspicious if you ask me…

Anyway, though it may be hard to believe, this petition doesn’t even come close to the degree of stupidity of what some other “philosophers” have said about this. Nora Berenstain, professor of philosophy at the University of Tenessee, wrote this mind-blowing comment on Facebook, which is no longer accessible but was posted by Christina Sommers:

Tuvel enacts violence and perpetuates harm in numerous ways throughout her essay. She deadnames a trans woman. She uses the term “transgenderism.” She talks about “biological sex” and uses phrases like “male genitalia.” She focuses enormously on surgery, which promotes the objectification of trans bodies. She refers to “a male-to-female (mtf) trans individual who could return to male privilege,” promoting the harmful transmisogynistic ideology that trans women have (at some point had) male privilege. In her discussion of “transracialism,” Tuvel doesn’t cite a single woman of color philosopher, nor does she substantively engage with any work by Black women, nor does she cite or engage with the work of any Black trans women who have written on this topic. On her website, Tuvel describes her work as “at the intersection of critical race, feminist and animal ethics.” She describes her work on race as critical! Not once does the phrase “white supremacy” appear anywhere in her work. She says it is her “underlying concern to theorize justice for oppressed groups.” Yet she does not engage or even hear the voices of Black women as she “theorizes” about justice for Black women. This is not acceptable. This is violence.

It would be impossible not to mistake that for a parody, were it not for the fact that it’s recognizably beyond parody… (It’s also a pretty good example of the tendency among “social justice warriors”, which I already mentioned before, to distort the ordinary meaning of words in order to make preposterous claims.)

The apology from the journal, which has since then been taken down but was shared by Brian Leiter on his blog first, is also worth quoting:

We, the members of Hypatia’s Board of Associate Editors, extend our profound apology to our friends and colleagues in feminist philosophy, especially transfeminists, queer feminists, and feminists of color, for the harms that the publication of the article on transracialism has caused. The sources of those harms are multiple, and include: descriptions of trans lives that perpetuate harmful assumptions and (not coincidentally) ignore important scholarship by trans philosophers; the practice of deadnaming, in which a trans person’s name is accompanied by a reference to the name they were assigned at birth; the use of methodologies which take up important social and political phenomena in dehistoricized and decontextualized ways, thus neglecting to address and take seriously the ways in which those phenomena marginalize and commit acts of violence upon actual persons; and an insufficient engagement with the field of critical race theory. Perhaps most fundamentally, to compare ethically the lived experience of trans people (from a distinctly external perspective) primarily to a single example of a white person claiming to have adopted a black identity creates an equivalency that fails to recognize the history of racial appropriation, while also associating trans people with racial appropriation. We recognize and mourn that these harms will disproportionately fall upon those members of our community who continue to experience marginalization and discrimination due to racism and cisnormativity.

 

It is our position that the harms that have ensued from the publication of this article could and should have been prevented by a more effective review process. We are deeply troubled by this and are taking this opportunity to seriously reconsider our review policies and practices. While nothing can change the fact that the article was published, we are dedicated to doing what we can to make things right. Clearly, the article should not have been published, and we believe that the fault for this lies in the review process. In addition to the harms listed above imposed upon trans people and people of color, publishing the article risked exposing its author to heated critique that was both predictable and justifiable. A better review process would have both anticipated the criticisms that quickly followed the publication, and required that revisions be made to improve the argument in light of those criticisms.

 

We would also like to explain our review process. Manuscripts sent to Hypatia are sent out for peer review to two anonymous reviewers. The reviewers do not see the names of the author of the manuscript, and the identity of peer reviewers is not known to authors. The journal has had a long-standing policy of minimizing desk rejections due to its commitment to providing constructive feedback to feminist scholars. Revised manuscripts are also sent to the same readers for review. In the case where two peer readers disagree, a third anonymous reader may be found. Members of the Associate Editorial Board might be asked to provide another opinion and are expected to serve as readers on two articles each year. Some have wanted us to reveal the identities of the peer reviewers for this article. We cannot do this. We are a scholarly journal committed to an anonymous peer review process. We want readers to feel free to offer their honest feedback on manuscripts submitted to Hypatia. Anonymous peer review is important for the scholarly reputation of Hypatia; mistakes in particular instances should not compromise the commitment to anonymous peer review in scholarship.
In addition, to reconsidering our review policies, we are drafting a policy on name changes that will govern review of all work considered for publication in the journal from this point forward. We wish to express solidarity with our trans colleagues in our condemnation of deadnaming. It is unacceptable that this happened, and we are working to ensure that it never happens again. We also wish to express solidarity with our colleagues of color (understanding that gender and race are entangled categories) in our condemnation of scholarship about racial identity that fails to reflect substantive understanding of and engagement with critical philosophy of race. We are working to develop additional advisory guidelines to ensure that feminist theorists from groups underrepresented in our profession, including trans people and people of color, are integrated in the various editorial stages. This does not mean that we want to place future responsibility solely on transfeminists and feminists of color. We are committed to improving our review process and practice in order to make the best decision about publication and to prevent similar mistakes in the future.

 

Hypatia is a journal committed to pluralist feminist inquiry and has been an important site for the publication of scholarship long-considered marginal in philosophy. Too many of us are still characterized as “not real” philosophers by non- and anti-feminist colleagues. As a feminist journal, Hypatia is committed to providing mentorship to all who submit articles by encouraging substantive feedback on essays submitted for consideration. Clearly there was a mistake along the line in the review process, and we are doing our best to figure out a way forward.

 

Several further types of responses have been suggested to us, including issuing a retraction and setting up a blog or website for further conversation about how to move forward and improve our process. We continue to consider those responses and all of their potential ramifications thoughtfully. We welcome more feedback and suggestions, as we intend to learn from this mistake and do our best to be accountable and worthy of the trust of all feminist scholars.

 

Finally, we want to recognize that following the publication of the article, there was a Facebook post from the Hypatia account that also caused harm, primarily by characterizing the outrage that met the article’s publication as mere “dialogue” that the article was “sparking.” We want to state clearly that we regret that the post was made.

 

We sincerely thank all who have expressed criticism of the article’s publication and who have called on us to reply. Working through conflicts, owning mistakes, and finding a way forward is part of the crucial, difficult work that feminism does. As members of Hypatia’s editorial board we are taking this opportunity to make Hypatia more deeply committed to the highest quality of feminist scholarship, pluralism, and respect. The words expressed here cannot change the harm caused by the fact of the article’s publication, but we hope they convey the depth and sincerity of our commitment to make necessary changes to move forward and do better.

 

Sincerely,
A Majority of the Hypatia’s Board of Associate Editors

As many people have noted since the controversy has erupted, it’s pretty much unprecedented for a journal would apologize in such a way for published a paper that went through their regular peer-review process and clearly isn’t guilty of any of the usual legitimate cause for retraction.

This observation made by Leiter in the same post where he shared Hypatia’s apology is also very apt:

What is chilling about this is that instead of this campaign of vilification of a junior faculty member and demand for “retraction” of her article, someone could have written a response piece and sent it to the same journal.  But this is obviously not a scholarly community, but a political one.  Those familiar with the history of 20th-century Marxist movements will recognize what’s going on here, and it isn’t a happy sight.

Indeed, the mindless identity politics that is currently raging on American campuses is reminiscent of the anti-intellectual nonsense of Maoists in the 1960’s, as someone had already noted on his blog in 2014. Many people seem to be surprised by this controversy about Tuvel’s paper, but I have to say that I wasn’t surprised in the least. I read the kind of nonsense that her critics wrote against her on Facebook every day. I have also seen how incredibly more popular it has become among students since I arrived at Cornell, so despite the overwhelming rejection of these people and their tactics that we have seen among philosophers in this case, I’m not really optimistic about the future.

EDIT: This controversy has now attracted the attention of the generalist news media. For instance, Jesse Singal just published a long piece in New York Magazine, in which he excoriates Tuvel’s critics. The result is that not only will they look bad to a lot more people than they already did, but her article will be read by far more people than it would otherwise have been, which presumably is precisely the opposite of what the people who demanded its retraction wanted. This was entirely predictable and, if only for that kind of prudential reasons, they should not have done that even if they were right, which they are not.

5 thoughts

  1. It’s strange how the puritanical roots of American culture reappear even in those movements which ostensibly strive to liberate America from its puritanism, for example, the transgender liberation movement.

    The attack on Tuvel has all the self-righteous, holier than thou phariseeism, all the witch-hunting fervor of the Puritans.

      1. I’ve said for years that it’s hard to overestimate the amount of influence that the puritans had on subsequent American mores. There is a long strain of sanctimonious social engineering motivating the American experiment. The left is as guilty of it as the right, and at bottom I suspect there’s a common etiology in brain chemistry and American habits of social practice.

        Great to see philosophers delving into this mess. There are quarters of the academy that are due some philosophical housecleaning.

  2. That’s pretty hypocritical of Brian Leiter, whose career has been characterized by vituperative misuse of language and professional threats. Recall the time he accused a law student whose article he disagreed with of “fraud,” or the time he responded to a young lawyer with whom he disagreed by calling the lawyer’s employer to complain.

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