Internet Swarming Is The New Scholarship In Identity Politics Studies

September 2017

If anyone is in doubt that the “---- Studies” departments in universities (fill in the blank with “Women’s”, “Queer”, “Trans”, “Gender”, etc.) are centres of politics—especially of the identity sort—rather than scholarship, the infighting that began last April over the publication of an article in Hypatia, one of the most respected feminist journals, settles the issue.

Social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook have been full of recriminations against the author of the paper, the journal that accepted it, its editor, and the reviewers who recommended its acceptance. According to posts on these sites, the very existence of the article constitutes violence toward transgender people (Weinberg, 2017), and defence of the article and calling for open debate about its claims is responsible for triggering PTSD (Oliver, 2017). An open letter to the journal that published the paper was signed by over 800 academics (mostly American, but several international academics including, by my count, forty-one Canadians, including Alexis Shotwell, of Carleton, one of the primary authors), calling for retraction of the paper (Shotwell, 2017).

The article in question, by Rebecca Tuvel (Tuvel 2017), a Canadian trained (BA, McGill) untenured assistant professor (at least for now) at Rhodes College, in Memphis, Tennessee, caused an uproar on social media after it appeared in Hypatia—one of the first feminist philosophy journals, and arguably the most prominent one in feminist philosophy and women’s studies.

The argument of the paper is in a style familiar to anyone in philosophy, especially those who do moral philosophy, called argument from analogy. It goes like this: Suppose you are wondering whether X is right or wrong. You compare it to Y, about which you have clear intuitions, or can appeal to principles about which you are confident, and which show Y to be right. If X is like Y in morally relevant respects, simple consistency would require you to say that X is right too. (Of course, the same would apply mutatis mutandis if you found Y to be wrong.) For the conclusion about X to follow, you need to show that Y really is right, and (more contentious) that X and Y are similar in the morally relevant respects – i.e., the respects that make Y right. Not just any old difference between the two is relevant; because of course there will be many dissimilarities between X and Y, unless the two are identical. In fact, the bulk of the argument centres around considering different features of X and Y and arguing why they are or are not morally relevant, because establishing a morally relevant difference weakens the conclusion.

Tuvel uses this argument strategy to argue that transracialism (a person widely recognised as being of one race identifying herself as a member of another race) should be acceptable, given that transgenderism (identifying as a member of a different gender) is acceptable.

The particular case considered by Tuvel is that of Rachel Dolezal, the President of the NAACP in Spokane, Washington from 2014 until her ouster in 2015, after it was revealed that she was not black, as she claimed, but white. Dolezal’s position is that although she was born of white parents, she identifies as black. It is important that Tuvel not only asserts that transgenderism is acceptable, but needs this as a premiss in advancing her argument about transracialism. So, the furore against Tuvel is directed at an upstart in a philosophy department drawing a politically incorrect conclusion, given that her seniors in “----- Studies” departments and righteous feminists in Philosophy departments have ruled that Dolezal has no right to call herself black, despite their firm conviction that race is a construct and there is no fact of the matter determining who is black and who is not.

No one in an academic institution wants to be accused of advancing political correctness over academic freedom and scholarship, thus much of the criticism of Tuvel’s paper, and Hypatia for publishing it and not retracting it, was couched in terms of claims that the paper did not meet the minimal standards of academic scholarship, in that Tuvel failed to cite relevant scholarship. But in order to accept this exceedingly charitable account of what is at the heart of the criticism, we would have to conclude that it is the result of the intellectual weakness of the interdisciplinary “---- Studies” programs. When members of such departments who were trained in widely divergent academic disciplines try to understand what their colleagues are up to, it is not surprising when they entirely miss the mark. None of the signatories of the petition or the trolls on social media cited a single author that Tuvel missed that had anything useful to say about a relevant difference between transgenderism and transracism. Thus, on this account, the criticism about citations was based on ignorance of how arguments from analogy work.

But even this exceedingly charitable interpretation does not fit the facts. The open letter calling for the retraction of the paper puts the point about insufficient references to the scholarly literature this way: “Our concerns reach beyond mere scholarly disagreement; we can only conclude that there has been a failure in the review process, and one that painfully reflects a lack of engagement beyond white and cisgender [i.e., not transgendered] privilege.” (Shotwell, 2017.) Mere scholarly disagreement?

And the reason given for why the references are inadequate is even more disturbing: “[I]t 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’.” (Shotwell, 2017.) The reason for the sneer quotes around “transracialism” points to one of the ways in which Truvel supposedly perpetrated violence: Such people are to be called “Trans” now. Such obsessiveness about words, rather than the things to which they refer, is a symptom of what Richard Feynman identified as “cargo cult science” (Feynman, 1999). But more disturbing is the view expressed here that the only views on a subject worth listening to are those of members of the oppressed identity group in question. These, after all, are the ones who have had the personal experiences, and only personal experience counts as evidence for anything. All others outside the oppressed group simply have to take the word of those inside, and preferably should not write on the subject at all.

One of the more serious harms perpetrated by Tuvel, according to her critics, was to “deadname” the person named as an example of a transgendered person, Caitlin Jenner. Deadnaming is the act of using the name of a transgendered person that they used before they transitioned to another gender. Tuvel is blamed for this despite the fact that Jenner herself isn’t concerned about it. As she has pointed out, she has lived 60/62 of her life with her deadname. And the only reason the media paid any attention to her identification as a female is that her celebrity came about because she (as she then wasn’t) was an Olympic athlete. Nevertheless, Hypatia has revised the online version of the paper to remove the deadname, with the approval of Tuvel.

The brightest part of the story is that the editor of Hypatia, Sally Scholz (Scholz, 2017), has stood by Tuvel and the paper: “I firmly believe, and this belief will not waver, that it is utterly inappropriate for editors to repudiate an article they have accepted for publication (barring issues of plagiarism or falsification of data). In this respect, editors must stand behind the authors of accepted papers. That is where I stand.” However, she will be resigning, along with the editor of online reviews, Shelley Wilcox, effective once the next issue has gone to press. The journal’s Board of Directors backed Scholz and have refused to retract the paper Also they have suspended the authority of the journal’s Associate Editorial Board. In Hypatia’s Byzantine governance structure, this body’s primary responsibility is to appoint the editor of the journal, not to oversee the editor and reviewers in their decisions about which articles to publish. This body had issued a statement when the social media storm first appeared, profusely apologising for the publication of the article, admitting to all the harms charged by the critics of the article, and stating “Clearly, the article should not have been published . . .” (A Majority, 2017). They did not make it clear that they were not speaking for the journal, but as individuals. The journal’s publishers, John Wiley & Sons, referred the Hypatia situation, with special emphasis on the behavior of the Associate Editorial Board, to the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), an international body of academic journal editors, for review. In their report they agreed with Miriam Solomon, President, and the other members of the Board of Directors of the journal, that the Associate Editorial Board’s apology to the social media critics was inappropriate (Zamudio-Suaréz, 2017).

Another bright spot in this saga is that there have been a few feminist voices speaking out from the wilderness, calling for those who are critical of Truvel’s conclusions to publish their objections in an academic journal, rather than to vent ad hominems on social media. Kelly Oliver, Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University and Tuvel’s PhD thesis supervisor, summed up the situation best: “Outrage has become the new truth. At one extreme, we have Trump and his supporters proudly embracing political incorrectness, and at the other, we have the political correctness police calling for censorship of a scholarly article written by someone working for social justice.” (Oliver 2017, emphasis in the original.)