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Some Notes on the Transracialism Crisis

Updated: Apr 13

I must confess that I am not an avid reader of feminist philosophy journals, but my interest was piqued by this recent story in New York Magazine.

Rebecca Tuvel, a philosophy professor at Rhodes College, recently penned an article in Hypatia, a feminist philosophy journal, entitled “In Defense of Transracialism.” Transracialism, according to Tuvel, is the idea that you can change the race you were born with if there’s another race you voluntarily identify with. Think Rachel Dolezal.

Professor Tuvel’s article argues that it is intellectually inconsistent to accept the premises of trasgenderism while denying those same “considerations” when it comes to transracialism. Or, to put it another way: why was Caitlyn Jenner the subject of an adulatory cover story in Vanity Fair, while Rachel Dolezal was the target of that magazine’s scorn? Just to be clear: this is a sincere inquiry from Tuvel. She isn’t a MAGA-hat-wearing ne’er-do-well who is trolling in an attempt to undermine the notion of transgenderism (not that I would have any experience with this kind of behavior).

Unfortunately, Hypatia’s publication of the article ended up making Tuvel the victim of progressive-on-progressive crime. For instance, Nora Berenstain, an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, charged that Tuvel’s article contained “egregious levels of liberal white ignorance and discursive transmisogynistic violence.”

Roughly 800 academics signed an open letter which, among other things, demanded Hypatia retract its own article. A groveling apology followed on Facebook, authored by “A Majority of Hypatia’s Board of Associate Editors.” Here’s the open letter, which reads like a parody of left-wing academia written by conservatives — or, perhaps, The Onion.

According to the letter, some of the article’s alleged academic shortcomings are:

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.…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”.

One odd aspect of the demand for the retraction of Tuvel’s article is that academic retractions are not generally carried out because people subsequently disagree with an academic article’s method or its conclusions. Typically, an academic journal would only retract its own article because of clear error or because of academic fraud (for instance, plagiarism). A demand for retraction is especially odd in philosophy — because philosophers routinely disagree with the methods and the conclusions of other philosophers. It’s almost as if some of the signers are unfamiliar with how philosophy works. In other words, a more philosophical perspective on this controversy is that 800 academics criticized Tuvel for doing what philosophers do on a regular basis — and, therefore, the statement’s signers should really know better. (The editor of Hypatia, Sally Scholz, deserves some praise for understanding this, for issuing a statement to the effect that Tuvel’s article will not be retracted, and for refusing to accede to the political pressure that her associates have attempted to create.) After reading about this controversy, we were pretty curious about why anyone would sign the statement that kicked off the Tuvel controversy. And even here in Arkansas, we have a few philosophy teachers who are anti-Tuvel signatories: they include Dr. Jana McAuliffe and Dr. Michael Norton (she teaches philosophy at University of Arkansas-Little Rock, while he chairs the department there); Dr. Torsten Menge (of the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville); and Dr. Laura Guidry-Grimes (who will join the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences faculty this summer). Perhaps unsurprisingly, every single one of these philosophers is taxpayer-funded.

We tried to contact all four of them to ask why they demanded the retraction of Tuvel’s article. Oddly, not one of them would discuss it; three of them apparently declined to call us back, and when we reached Dr. Morton on the phone (and when we asked him about the Tuvel statement), he clammed up, saying “I stand by my support of the letter, but I really don’t want to say anything more than that.” Such behavior is especially odd given the last paragraph of the open letter, which says that it’s time “to begin a conversation about the larger problems with our discipline” that the publication of Tuvel’s article represents. This silence suggests some troubling things about the kind of conversation that the signatories want. Such a conversation apparently consists, in large part, of telling people who disagree with you to shut up — to officially stigmatize those people by means of a formal announcement that their work should never have been published — and to refuse to explain yourself to the rest of the world. It looks more and more like, for the signatories of this open letter, the practice of philosophy has been replaced by something much closer theology or orthodoxy.

P.S. The philosophy journal at issue is, of course, named after the great astronomer, mathematician, and philosopher Hypatia of Alexandria. In the year 415, Hypatia was murdered by a mob of religious zealots, who kidnapped her, ripped off her clothes, stripped the flesh from her body, and then set her corpse on fire.

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