This Is What a Modern-Day Witch Hunt Looks Like

Rebecca Tuvel, a philosophy professor and the target of a protracted online pile-on.

In late March, Hypatia, a feminist-philosophy journal, published an article titled “In Defense of Transracialism” by Rebecca Tuvel, an assistant professor of philosophy at Rhodes College in Memphis, as part of its spring 2017 issue. The point of the article, as the title suggests, is to toy around with the question of what it would mean if some people really were — as Rachel Dolezal claimed — “transracial,” meaning they identified as a race that didn’t line up with how society viewed them in light of their ancestry.

Tuvel structures her argument more or less as follows: (1) We accept the following premises about trans people and the rights and dignity to which they are entitled; (2) we also accept the following premises about identities and identity change in general; (3) therefore, the common arguments against transracialism fail, and we should accept that there’s little apparent logically coherent reason to deny the possibility of genuine transracialism.

Anyone who has read an academic philosophy paper will be familiar with this sort of argument. The goal, often, is to provoke a little — to probe what we think and why we think it, and to highlight logical inconsistencies that might help us better understand our values and thought processes. This sort of article is abstract and laden with hypotheticals — the idea is to pull up one level from the real world and force people to grapple with principles and claims on their own merits, rather than — in the case of Dolezal — baser instincts like disgust and outrage. This is what many philosophers do.

Tuvel’s article rebuts a number of the arguments against transracialism, and it’s clear, throughout, that Tuvel herself is firmly in support of trans people and trans rights. Her argument is not that being transracial is the same as being transgender — rather, it’s “that similar arguments that support transgenderism support transracialism,” as she puts it in an important endnote we’ll return to. It’s clear, from the way Tuvel sets things up, that she’s prodding us to more carefully examine why we feel the way we do about Dolezal, not to question trans rights or trans identities.

Usually, an article like this, abstract and argumentatively complex as it is, wouldn’t attract all that much attention outside of its own academic subculture. But that isn’t what happened here — instead, Tuvel is now bearing the brunt of a massive internet witch-hunt, abetted in part by Hypatia’s refusal to stand up for her. The journal has already apologized for the article, despite the fact that it was approved through its normal editorial process, and Tuvel’s peers are busily wrecking her reputation by sharing all sorts of false claims about the article that don’t bear the scrutiny of even a single close read.

The biggest vehicle of misinformation about Tuvel’s articles comes from the “open letter to Hypatia” that has done a great deal to help spark the controversy. That letter has racked up hundreds of signatories within the academic community — the top names listed are Elise Springer of Wesleyan University, Alexis Shotwell of Carleton University (who is listed as the point of contact), Dilek Huseyinzadegan of Emory University, Lori Gruen of Wesleyan, and Shannon Winnubst of Ohio State University. (Update: As of the morning of May 3, all the names had been removed from the letter. A note at the top of it reads “We have now closed signatories for this letter in order to send it to the Editor and Associate Editors of Hypatia.”)

In the letter, the authors ask that the article be retracted on the grounds that its “continued availability causes further harm” to marginalized people. The authors then list five main reasons they think the article is so dangerously flawed it should be unpublished:

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.

What’s remarkable about this letter is that, as Justin Weinberg noted in the Daily Nous, a philosophy website, each and every one of the falsifiable points it makes is, based on a plain reading of Tuvel’s article, simply false or misleading.

It’s important to understand exactly what’s going on here, and the extent to which the smoke:fire ratio is so bizarrely out of whack, so let’s go through those points one by one.

(1) Use of the term “transgenderism” is slightly tricky. Groups like GLAAD do caution against its use, but there’s literally no other single word in the English language that means the same thing, now that transexuality is widely viewed as outdated or offensive. The closest English has is the unwieldy “being transgender” suggested by GLAAD — it’s telling that the organization’s other alternate suggestions, the transgender community and the movement for transgender equality and acceptance, don’t even mean the same thing. Perhaps because of the lack of other options, there also isn’t unanimity on this front, even within the trans community — here’s Julia Serano, a leading trans advocate and writer, defending the term and arguing against the tendency in some activist communities to regularly “problematize” language and seek out new terms to describe important concepts.

As for the accusation that Tuvel “deadnam[ed] a trans woman,” meaning that she used a pre-transition name that was subsequently changed, the authors conveniently leave out the identity of the trans woman in question: Caitlyn Jenner. Now, deadnaming trans people is, as a default rule every cisgender person should know, rude and offensive, and in extreme cases it can actually be dangerous or deadly (if someone isn’t out as trans in their community). But Jenner herself has not been shy about using her old name or talking about her life as Bruce. It’s nonsensical to claim that once a very famous trans person has exhibited comfort using their old name and talking about their pre-transition life, any reference to that name or life is still verboten. It seriously misses the point of why deadnaming is frowned upon.

(2) Here’s Tuvel’s sole mention of conversion to Judaism:

Generally, we treat people wrongly when we block them from assuming the personal identity they wish to assume. For instance, if someone identifies so strongly with the Jewish community that she wishes to become a Jew, it is wrong to block her from taking conversion classes to do so. This example reveals there are at least two components to a successful identity transformation: (1) how a person self-identifies, and (2) whether a given society is willing to recognize an individual’s felt sense of identity by granting her membership in the desired group. For instance, if the rabbi thinks you are not seriously committed to Judaism, she can block you from attempted conversion. Still, the possibility of rejection reveals that, barring strong overriding considerations, transition to a different identity category is often accepted in our society.

Not a word of this “mischaracterizes” anything. She’s simply making a point about identity transformation by using the example of someone hoping to convert to Judaism.

(3) Tuvel also doesn’t come close to “incorrectly cit[ing] Charles Mills as a defender of voluntary racial identification.” The first time she mentions him, she writes that he “identifies at least five categories generally relevant to the determination of racial membership.” The only other time she references him, she quotes him as saying that in determining racial categories, ancestry is “crucial not because it necessarily manifests itself in biological racial traits but simply, tautologously, because it is taken to be crucial, because there is an intersubjective agreement … to classify individuals in a certain way on the basis of known ancestry.”

As for (4), whether or not Tuvel cited enough women of color is certainly a fair point to raise, but it simply isn’t the sort of thing that would rise to the level of asking for a paper to be unpublished, as the authors do. It’s also worth noting that philosophy has a really dire diversity problem, even by the standards of the humanities, which could explain the whiteness of a given paper’s citations.

All in all, it’s remarkable how many basic facts this letter gets wrong about Tuvel’s paper. Either the authors simply lied about the article’s contents, or they didn’t read it at all. Every single one of the hundreds of signatories on the open letter now has their name on a document that severely (and arguably maliciously) mischaracterizes the work of one of their colleagues. This is not the sort of thing that usually happens in academia — it’s a really strange, disturbing instance of mass groupthink, perhaps fueled by the dynamics of online shaming and piling-on.

Others within academia criticized Tuvel’s article in misleading ways as well. In his article, Weinberg highlights a popular public Facebook post by Nora Berenstain, a philosophy professor at the University of Tennessee, that has since been taken down but which read as follows (I’m introducing numbers to take the new points on one by one):

(1) Tuvel enacts violence and perpetuates harm in numerous ways throughout her essay. She deadnames a trans woman. She uses the term “transgenderism.” (2) She talks about “biological sex” and uses phrases like “male genitalia.” (3) She focuses enormously on surgery, which promotes the objectification of trans bodies. (4) 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.

Starting with (1), as fashionable as it is in some academic circles to refer to certain arguments as “violence,” it’s important to pause for a second and reflect on how misguided and counterproductive this sort of framing is. Trans people face the threat of real, physical violence every day in huge parts of this country and this world. A nerdy philosophy paper trying to suss out the specifics of identity and identity-change is not an act of violence, and it’s really unfortunate that this sort of “speech is violence” language has caught on given that it makes it much easier for opponents of trans rights (or the rights of other marginalized groups) to sweep away legitimate claims of violence as mere hysteria.

As for (2), here is Tuvel’s sole reference to “biological sex”: “Therefore, anyone who suggests that all women share some biologically based feature of experience that sheds light on a shared psychological experience will have to show not only that biological sex gives rise to a particular gendered psychology, but that there is something biological that all women share.” It is clear from context that Tuvel does not think that someone’s biology gives rise directly to their gender identity — that’s because, again, Tuvel completely accepts the legitimacy of trans men and women. So it’s unclear what’s problematic about her usage of “biological sex” here, unless one accepts the very far-fringe claim that it’s an inherently offensive phrase to use in any context.

(3), the claim that Tuvel focuses “enormously” on surgery, is false by any reasonable standard. The terms surgery or surgical appear a grand total of 4 times in a paper the body of which is 15 pages.

(4), the claim about privilege, is a severe misreading of the relevant passage. In that passage, Tuvel is offering a rebuttal to the idea “that it is a wrongful exercise of white privilege for a white-born person, such as Dolezal, to cross into the black racial category.” In response, Tuvel writes that “there are several problems with this argument as well” from the point of view of someone, like her, who supports trans rights and trans identities. “First, to the point that a white-born person could always exercise white privilege by returning to being white, I note that the same argument would problematically apply to a male-to-female (mtf) trans individual who could return to male privilege, perhaps especially if this individual has not undergone gender confirmation surgery. But the fact that a person could potentially return to male privilege does and should not preclude their transition.”

Tuvel is, again, going out of her way to affirm the identity of trans women. She’s drawing a hypothetical about what can and can’t be implied from the fact that a trans person could theoretically detransition. She is not endorsing the claim that trans women are likely to at any minute shed their trans identity, and even throws in a “problematically” as a signpost to say “I don’t really endorse this argument personally.” Unless one is of the position that trans women don’t enjoy any male privilege prior to transitioning — and if you are, it means you don’t believe that someone who simply looks male enjoys various forms of male privilege, a position which would earn you a great deal of opprobrium in most progressive feminist circles — it’s hard to understand what’s wrong with Tuvel’s claim, especially given her careful, hypothetical phrasing.

I could go on and on. This is a witch hunt. There has simply been an explosive amount of misinformation circulating online about what is and isn’t in Tuvel’s article, which few of her most vociferous critics appear to have even skimmed, based on their inability to accurately describe its contents. Because the right has seized on Rachel Dolezal as a target of gleeful ridicule, and as a means of making opportunistic arguments against the reality of the trans identity, a bunch of academics who really should know better are attributing to Tuvel arguments she never made, simply because she connected those two subjects in an academic article.

But it’s quite clear from her own words Tuvel doesn’t believe it’s an apt comparison to make Breitbart-y arguments about Dolezal and trans people. Here’s what she says in her very first endnote: “Importantly, I am not suggesting that race and sex are equivalent. Rather, I intend to show that similar arguments that support transgenderism support transracialism. My thesis relies in no way upon the claim that race and sex are equivalent, or historically constructed in exactly the same way.” She is making a very specific, narrow argument about identity in an academic philosophy setting, all while noting, every step of the way, that she believes trans people are who they say they are, and that they should be entitled to the full rights and recognition of their identity. This pile-on isn’t even close to warranted.

Unfortunately, Hypatia simply surrendered to this sustained misinformation campaign. On April 30, one of the journal’s editors, Cressida Hayes, posted a lengthy apology to Facebook, later posted to the journal’s Facebook page as well, from “the members of Hypatia’s Board of Associate Editors.” Among other things, the apology notes that “[i]t 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.” Like the critiques themselves, the apology deeply misreads and misinterprets the original article: “Perhaps most fundamentally,” write the editors, “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.” At no point in Tuvel’s article does she come close to doing anything like this. Rather, the entire premise of the article is to examine what genuine instances of deeply felt transracialism would tell us about identity and identity change in light of the progressive view of trans rights. Early on, she even effectively sets Dolezal aside, writing that she isn’t particularly interested in what Dolezal really feels, since that’s unknowable, but is rather interested in dissecting some of the underlying issues about identity in a more hypothetical way — “My concern in this article is less with the veracity of Dolezal’s claims,” she writes, “and more with the arguments for and against transracialism.”

It is pretty remarkable for an academic journal to, in the wake of an online uproar, apologize and suggest one of its articles caused “harm,” all while failing to push back against brazenly inaccurate misreadings of that article — especially in light of the fact that Tuvel said in a statement (readable at the bottom of the Daily Nous article) that she’s dealing with a wave of online abuse and hate mail.

Some other academics have already reacted angrily to the extent to which Hypatia rolled over in the wake of this outrage-storm. On his Leiter Reports philosophy blog, for example, Brian Leiter, a philosophy professor, writes:

I confess I’ve never seen anything like this in academic philosophy (admittedly most signatories to the “open letter” are not academic philosophers, but some are). A tenure-track assistant professor submits her article to a journal, it passes peer review, it is published, others take offense, and the Associate Editors of the journal declare that “Clearly, the article should not have been published” and that the abuse to which the author is being subjected is “both predictable and justifiable.”

On Twitter, Paul Bloom, a Yale psychologist who writes about some controversial issues himself, was similarly taken aback, as was Jay Van Bavel, a cognitive neuroscientist at NYU:

People have a right to be offended by academic articles and to express outrage at those articles, of course, and trans people obviously have a right to contest false or malicious representations of them and their lives made in any forum. Surely Tuvel’s article wasn’t perfect, and surely one could make legitimate critiques of it with regard to its treatment of trans people and their identities. The point here isn’t to suggest otherwise.

Rather, what’s disturbing here is how many hundreds of academics signed onto and helped spread utterly false claims about one of their colleagues, and the extent to which Hypatia, faced with such outrage, didn’t even bother trying to sift legitimate critiques from frankly made-up ones. A huge number of people who haven’t read Tuvel’s article now believe, on the basis of that trumped-up open letter and unfounded claims of “violence,” that it is so deeply transphobic it warranted an unusual apology from the journal that published it.

We should want academics to write about complicated, difficult, hot-button issues, including identity. Online pile-ons cannot, however righteous they feel, dictate journals’ publication policies and how they treat their authors and articles. It’s really disturbing to watch this sort of thing unfold in real time — there’s such a stark disconnect between what Tuvel wrote and what she is purported to have written. This whole episode should worry anybody who cares about academia’s ability to engage in difficult issues at a time when outrage can spread faster than ever before.

This Is What a Modern-Day Witch Hunt Looks Like