The last time I wrote a piece of this sort, an exposé of academic philosophers embarrassing themselves, it caused me some problems. I try to learn from my mistakes, and what I learned from that occasion could be set down as a general rule: other things being equal, before evaluating someone based on what they’ve said on social media, first be sure to investigate their major statements (articles, books if available, etc.) rather than respond to something hastily-scribbled on Facebook or Twitter.
But that doesn’t apply in what I’m about to discuss, and I mention it only as background, for completeness’ sake. For at issue here isn’t an ill-considered Facebook post or, God help us, a 140-character tweet, but an article deemed to have passed muster for, and which appeared in, a refereed academic journal. The journal is Hypatia, one of the major mouthpieces of radical academic feminism for over 30 years now. It’s the sort of journal that would not have been conceived back in the happy and carefree days of, say, logical positivism, whatever that school’s drawbacks, but which fits perfectly into our unhappy era. After all, major spokespersons for what is now considered important scholarship in the latter would denounce logical positivism not for its drawbacks (logical, methodological, epistemological) but because nearly all its practitioners were too pale of flesh, too “cisgendered,” and because their methods didn’t take into account the anguish and horrific hurts to others’ feelings of correspondence rules or theoretical reduction or even just an insistence on clarity and exactitude. The previous might seem a caricature. I’m not sure it is!
The article in question was penned by one Rebecca Tuvel, an assistant professor, untenured in philosophy at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn. The article’s title was “In Defense of Transracialism.” I will admit up front: I haven’t read it and have no plans to do so. I did read the abstract, though (available most easily here in case the link to the original no longer works). I gather that the effort at a neologism represented by the word transracialism refers to someone such as Rachel Dolezal who, though born white, has attempted to portray herself as black and even perhaps transition to blackness, at least by implication. Her story gained some notoriety as it appeared roughly the same time as the now-infamous celebrity gender transition of Bruce Jenner to “Caitlyn” Jenner.
Tuvel’s article appears to have employed a familiar and fairly standard argument form, that of arguing from analogy. (If I am wrong about this and the article does something else, someone will have to comment and inform me.) Thus the considerations that belong to one category of transitioning person might apply to those of another and perhaps more hypothetical category of transitioning person, based on any identifiable relevant similarities. There is a review and analysis of the article here, and Tuvel’s article looks to be as well-reasoned as anything to be found in academic philosophy today despite the trendiness of its subject matter (and, if we’re honest, we must acknowledge: the happy and carefree days of logical positivism were hardly free of trendiness). Going off the abstract, the article seems cautious and conservative in the sense that Tuvel apparently never actually averred that Dolezal is a “transracial” person.
What she appears not to have considered, though, is the singular trait of our unhappy era: the degree to which those hurt feelings and sense of offense would trump even the best arguments and inspire an explosion of unbridled rage. The rage against the most likely innocent author would spill onto the journal that published her work. Let it never be said that politicized academic radicals will hesitate for a minute to savage one or even many their own at the slightest indication of independent thought stepping across a constantly-shifting boundary into heresy!
Sorting out the exact sequence of events by referring to the originals is problematic, as some of the links have gone dead (I would probably have removed them, too). But, assuming I can rely on this, some 150 “new scholars” and their tenured-class supporters (including a couple of people on her dissertation committee!) put together and signed an “Open Letter to Hypatia” to denounce the article (read it here). They demanded Tuvel’s article be retracted, that it “caused … harm” (whatever that means, as no evidence of “harm” is presented or cited) and even demanded — taking presumption and arrogance to never-before-seen heights — that Hypatia revise its editorial standards to ensure that no article of this sort ever again gets through its review process.
This comes in place of what would most likely have happened back in those happy and carefree days. An article with a novel and perhaps controversial idea would be refereed and published. Some ambitious person, probably young and untenured, would find elements of its argument problematic and craft a carefully nuanced discussion piece, possibly eliciting a response from the first author. Further discussion would be generated, possibly leading to a round table type debate during the next available time slot at the next APA convention. There would be no (or very little) hostility. People’s feelings would not be at issue; their motives would not be impugned; everyone would be assumed to be attempting to advance a common conversation to greater understanding of the original article’s area of reference.
Would this happen now, with today’s race-obsessed, gender-drenched, etc., academic culture?
You’re kidding, right?
In our unhappy, post-Enlightenment era, emotions have largely overwhelmed reason, especially among the noisy, politicized subdisciplinary “new scholars,” and the sort of procedure I just described would be, if anything, far too slow. Far easier instead — especially given the near-instant communications now available to everyone — to satiate the passions of the moment and dash off a nasty list of superficial criticisms and allegations. These boil down to the author’s failure to accommodate the latest fashions of, e.g., the “critical theory” that dominates these sub-disciplines. Suffice it to say, some of what you’ll read in the “Open Letter” (assuming the link continues to work) goes beyond standard academic criticism of an author’s work to the borderline defamatory — this is Professor Leiter’s judgment, not mine. He goes on to express “hope” that she consults a lawyer to discuss her options, even offering in one of his several posts to assist with her obtaining contacts and deal with legal expenses!
Whatever one’s negative judgment of logical positivism, its practitioners did not defame one another in print! Ah, those happy and carefree days …
The situation is worse the above makes things appear. ‘
Hypatia’s editorial board instantly caved!
Their statement stands as an exhibition of all that is wrong with American academia today, especially the humanities! I will reproduce the first paragraph of their “apology” (hardly an apologetic in the ancient Greek sense of Plato’s “Apology”!):
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.
Anyone so inclined can read the whole thing here where Professor Leiter reproduced it. His self-description as a New Yorker notwithstanding (referencing a low tolerance for self-evident bullshit), he clearly has a stronger stomach for this sort of thing than I do. Maybe that’s a necessary rite of passage for entrance to tenured-class status in our unhappy era. Suffice it to say, the remainder of Hypatia’s longwinded and neologism-laden “apology” caved to the demands on every point, even the one to revise editorial policy. We even get to learn from the above one of the newest neologisms: deadnaming: the speech crime of referring to the name a “trans” person used prior to their “transing” (or whatever the hell we’re supposed to call it). Critics of Tuvel’s article went further than what the above block quote implies, impugning her abilities as a writer and a scholar; it was this that Leiter, with his legal acuity, picked up on. Others have as well. Several other responses to the “Open Letter” and the Hypatia cave-in have appeared as the word has spread.
Leiter’s overall views are left-of-center on most issues of public policy as with the majority of the academics of his generation, but not batshit-insane radical leftist. He calls the entire affair a “fiasco.” It’s hard to disagree with that, but easy to enhance such a description. Leiter would not agree with my overall take on this, as I do not think it will suffice to limit it, as opposed to placing it alongside other numerous recent events such as the obvious suppression of conservative speech on campuses reflected in, e.g., the cancellation of Ann Coulter’s scheduled appearance at Berkeley in the face of threats of violence, but in the still-broader historical context of what’s happened to academia since the present unhappy era began: the 1970s.
What happened was the emergence of the “argument” (it was always far more an exercise in propagandizing and then bullying, at which the academic left has always excelled) that minorities, women, and now apparently “transgenders” (but — gasp! — not “transracials”) are “underrepresented” in academia, and that all departments should make efforts not just at outreach but to hire more such people — for after all, “diversity is our strength,” is it not?
We arguably started down this troubled road with the Supreme Court’s catastrophic Griggs v. Duke Power decision in 1971. This decision changed the fundamental meaning of discrimination from an action taken by individuals to a mere lack of politically acceptable outcomes and timetables for such. The meaning of affirmative action, ambiguous from the get-go, changed from that of well-intended outreach based on calls for an end to racial and sexual discrimination to an insistence on measurable results as a test of “nondiscrimination.” The gold standard become proportional representation. Hence the creation of the “underrepresented” group in all official policy recommendations relevant to hiring and promotions. Organizations with insufficient numbers of blacks and women in positions of responsibility could expect warnings if not actual EEOC lawsuits (Auburn University, a former affiliation of mine, received a warning regarding admissions of black students while I was teaching there).
A process was set in motion. I described this process in some detail, along with its effects on occupations ranging from the construction industry to academic, in my book Civil Wrongs: What Went Wrong With Affirmative Action (1994), a work not once discussed or argued with by academic philosophers but instead basically blacklisted in academia. I learned in 1996 from a sociology professor at Bowling Green State University with whom I’d begun corresponding that the book had been placed on an actual “index of banned books” there — an “index” of how medieval academia was becoming even then!
I’d committed one of the ultimate heresies, providing a political explanation of the rise of the “new scholarship”: so-called “critical theory” which borrowed freely from French philosophy (e.g., Foucault, Derrida, etc.), radical feminism, critical race theory, and rising homosexualism which at the time was barely on the public radar, were really forms of pseudo-scholarship. They were not advancing a common conversation but launching platforms for political activism. Their primary method of protecting themselves from criticism was political correctness, rooted in Frankfurt School educated Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse’s “Repressive Tolerance”: allowing the same free speech standards for “nonrepressed” as for “repressed” groups maintains systemic repression! By the end of the 1980s affirmative action had clearly evolved into race and gender preferences never called for back in the 1960s, and the idea became to protect these both from legitimate criticism (in many cases from scholars far better situated than I was), while cowardly Republican politicians such as the first George Bush caved and signed a Civil Rights Act of 1991. That law reversed lower court decisions such as Croson (1989) upheld by the Supreme Court which was threatening to drain the affirmative action swamp.
I opined further in my book that the particular attacks on such notions as rationality and objectivity coming from “new scholarship” quarters, though originating independently, had been incorporated into and even enhanced by this effort: a rational and objective approach to race and gender in American public policy did not yield the results activists wanted. There was no reason whatsoever why nondiscrimination should yield proportional representation of all ethnicities and both genders in all or most organizations (schools, workplaces, etc.). Nowhere in the world did such representation exist. Arguments based on experience seemed to show that efforts to bring it about were counterproductive and ought to be discontinued. (There was no automatic reason, moreover to equate discrimination with repression. Jews faced discrimination and even segregation for centuries in Europe, and still sometimes ended up wealthy from running businesses.)
Such approaches based on fact and logical argument had to go. The result was that any sort of genuinely enlightened discussion of such subjects as race and gender was clearly dead in the water by the time my book appeared. I just hadn’t realized it. As Hobbes says somewhere, “When reason goeth against a man, a man goeth against reason.” A woman, too. Or any other gender you like!
Feelings thus reign supreme in the subdisciplines of the “new scholarship”! And they are getting increasingly unpredictable: I am sure Rebecca Tuvel, a recent Ph.D., is as much a product as a victim of this academic culture, and probably never dreamed this kind of fracas would erupt over her attempt to add something new to the conversation, trendy and sordid though the conversation is. I rather hope she is polishing her CV in addition to whatever legal maneuvers she might be considering. Being female, after all, is doubtless an asset today, but isn’t a guarantee if one has become controversial. Ask any well-educated woman who rejects the assumptions and methods of radical academic feminism.
Summing up: it is small wonder appeals to “expertise” no longer cut much ice with significant and possibly growing segments of the public, those who voted for Donald Trump last year? Expertise, obviously, is keyed to academia, which once trained the experts. Politicians and commentators invariably turn to academics when they want to back up their claims with evidence — to the extent this still occurs. While different issues are different, academic “experts” increasingly, whether rightly or wrongly, are perceived by members of the voting public as existing in an elitist echo chamber, their motives often suspect, their forests long ago rendered invisible by the trees, and in which what doesn’t fit into their official narratives is often not seen at all.
While admittedly only a tiny segment of the public is likely to encounter the specifics of a case like this, the larger group almost automatically associates much of academia with this above elitist, insular, big-city, “blue” culture mentality. What antics they have seen, which include women marching wearing pink “hats,” displays obviously designed to represent their vaginas, are hardly encouraging. The “red” culture that had just put Trump in the White House saw vindication, in its own eyes at least, the very next day after Trump’s inauguration. This was the much-touted March for Women, and to be blunt about it, the “red” culture instinctively saw “pussy costumes” as sick and degenerate. They regard someone wearing one as having something wrong with her mentally. How do I know this? Because I know such people personally sometimes through years of correspondence, and they told me as much.
Nothing that has since come from media left-liberals or from academics is likely to change this.
The “red” culture, moreover, does not regard “trans”-whatevers as some kind of an intellectual and cultural avant garde but as symptoms of the worsening sexual confusion and depravity of a society in rapid decline.
Why does this matter? Because these people vote! They have, at least for the moment, thwarted the efforts of the multicultural and trans-whatever “blues” to dominate the country — or, at the very least, to dominate them. Even if violently attacked, as some were outside of Trump rallies last year, they will continue to vote. At least one columnist just voiced the suspicion that, given the disruption behavior the left has engaged in since the election, were it held today, Trump might actually win the popular vote!
The more obnoxious and violent the left gets, the more it loses. One has to wonder if and when radical leftists will set aside their feelings long enough to figure this out.
Or, to bring things back to academia — and to academic philosophy — will its saner members, even representatives of a left-of-center that wants to hang onto sanity, as Professor Leiter clearly wants, decide they have had enough of this radical nonsense? What can they do about it? First they have to ask, At what point will they realize the need to abandon as irrational and destructive the obsession, now over a quarter-century old, to “get more women into philosophy,” as a species of the further obsession with proportional representation? (When I checked his blog more recently, Leiter had posted a partial list of signees of the “Open Letter,” calling for What-were-you-thinking? type explanations. Seven looked to be men; 27 were women; one only gave initials; with the occasional first name like ‘Tempest,’ who knows? In fairness, not all the signees are academic philosophers. But some are. Too many are.)
Unless the presumption that academic philosophy needs more women is subjected to critical scrutiny (and silly allegations of the ‘cisnormativity’ of the critics are simply ignored), the sane will be able to do nothing. On the other hands, enough radical crazies will continue to obtain the tiny handful of available tenure-track jobs to cause problems like this to erupt. They will continue to corrupt obviously floundering humanities disciplines, now facing defunding in many places, until many departments are forced to close and there is next to nothing left.
What is bad is that whatever visibility such incidents as the Tuvel-Hypatia fiasco reach, their association not just with academic culture but with intellectualism generally, will continue to damage the latter, that it will be even harder to get serious ideas discussed in our unhappy age … an age in which “diversity,” far from being “our strength,” has accomplished little besides destroying careers and served up little besides division and hostility.
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UPDATE May 5, 2017: The philosophy department at Rhodes College stands fully behind Rebecca Tuval … for now, at least. Maybe she doesn’t need to polish up her CV after all. I would anyway, though, just to be on the safe side. (Here.)