Monday, May 01, 2017

The Tuvel Controversy

Rebecca Tuvel recently published an article in Hypatia, "In Defense of Transracialism", arguing that arguments in favor of transitions of identity in transgender cases would by parity require one to be in favor transitions of identity in transracial cases (like the notorious case of Rachel Dolezal, who had spent years in black activism presenting herself as black before it was discovered that her parents were Midwestern whites). As one might expect, it has blown up into a big issue. An open letter has been started and is collecting signatures (the list of names literally nearly doubled in the time it took to write this post). The open letter is very poorly written -- it reads like it was done quite hastily -- and, rather noticeably, doesn't really address the argument (as noted at Daily Nous, its (2) and (3) are dubious characterizations, at best, of the argument as written, and its (4) would be better handled by an article in response). It claims that the defects of the scholarship in the article are glaring, but the only specific failures mentioned are not actually defects in the article but in the characterization. It then uses the occasion to launch a rather aggressive attack on Hypatia itself. The request for a change in style policy is reasonable, but there is literally nothing in this letter establishing that the signatories have the right to demand an editorial apology, much less opening its review policy to scrutiny (Hypatia's review standards are already known; papers are refereed anonymously and require the recommendation of two referees). A single article, where no evidence of abuse on the part of the editors is anywhere found, does not justify such unrestrained demands. Hypatia, as far as the evidence so far indicates, would be perfectly in its rights to stand its ground. (Academia being a reputational field, however, I doubt they will; raise the reputational stakes high enough and you can get most academic institutions to break on most things. What will be of significance, however, if they do give in, is whether they do so with or without throwing Tuvel under the bus. ADDED LATER: They have given in; it looks like they are trying to do the right thing and avoid shoving Tuvel in the path of the bullet. ADDED EVEN LATER: Brian Leiter interprets the apology much less generously than I do, and suggests that it may legally count as defamation of Tuvel)

What has actually happened, is that Tuvel has violated a political boundary; her argument actually doesn't matter to the people involved, which is why the complaint is about how she says things. Note that this is not the same as saying that she has the wrong politics, in the sense that she is not, say, an advocate of transgender rights; she is. Rather, she has insisted that a border that many of her colleagues think important is not really there, and that something that they think very wrong is in fact perfectly fine for the same reasons that gender transitioning is perfectly fine. We have seen this sort of dynamic before, in the Minerva and Giubilini paper five years ago that argued that there was no fundamental ethical difference between infanticide and abortion. The primary difference is that the uproar in that case was of a broader public, which saw immediately that this would, in practice, collapse the pro-choice movement, which had put years and years and years into arguing there was such a fundamental ethical difference in order to make and preserve its political gains. The claim that this was false was something that pro-life advocates had been saying for years, but Minerva and Giubilini were pro-choice, not pro-life; the reason for the uproar was that they were trying to sledgehammer what everyone else saw was a load-bearing wall. This is not a case of a broader public that is shocked by what ethicists say; it's a case of academics. But the political structure of the controversy is the same.

Ironically I'm actually sympathetic to the complaints to some degree, since modern ethics tends to be done in a bit of a bubble, rather than in the appropriate kind of interaction with the broader community. This is not really an acceptable norm; ethics is not about pandering to the public, but it is about something of public interest and concern, and to be such properly requires consideration of the actual lives and starting points of people at large. It is absurd, however, to suggest that this is a problem that suddenly sprang up with this paper, or that Tuvel is in any way an especially egregious offender on this point, given that she is doing nothing that is outside standard practice. And the way this controversy is done, it seems very difficult to distinguish it from an attempt by a group of academics to intimidate one of the premier philosophy journals for publishing content they disagreed with, and to destroy a young academic's career simply to make a point.

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