Monday, May 8, 2017

Burn The Witch

This Is What A Modern-Day Witch Hunt Looks Like:

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.

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 — (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.”)
That's because the 800+ idiots from academe who signed this online manifesto of stupidity tucked tail and ran like cowards. The letter, one of the most demeaning, vacuous, and absurdly-written things I've ever seen, is a veritable clarion cry to the Call-Out culture which exists online, in the academy, and (gasp) even among so-called "enlightened" scholars. 

It's a perfect reflection of the political times we live in as well: i.e. it's not just enough to disagree with someone; instead you must demonize your "opponent," and then tear them limb from limb, leaving no chance of survival (or rebuttal).

I know it's hard to believe for those outside academe, but it's true: no matter how many degrees you have, or how many books you've written, you can certainly say and do things that still qualify you as being a dumb ass. And virtually all of these 500+ "deadnamers" who signed the petition (not all, of course, there's a chance I might actually know or work with one of them...ha ha), in the name of "accountability," should be identified and held accountable for the "violence" that's been generated towards the author of the original article, Dr. Rebecca Tuvel.

Here's a gem from the Salem crowd's demands:
Many published articles include some minor defects of scholarship; however, together the problems with this article are glaring. More importantly, these failures of scholarship do harm to the communities who might expect better from Hypatia. It is difficult to imagine that this article could have been endorsed by referees working in critical race theory and trans theory, which are the two areas of specialization that should have been most relevant to the review process. A message has been sent, to authors and readers alike, that white cis scholars may engage in speculative discussion of these themes without broad and sustained engagement with those theorists whose lives are most directly affected by transphobia and racism.
This sounds like a first year graduate student wrote it. Or maybe even a clueless undergraduate. It certainly offers nothing in terms of rebuttal or point for point arguments, and does nothing to address Tuvel's actual construct, because it's quite clear they didn't read it.

By way of comparison, I did read Tuvel's argument and agree with virtually 100% of what she wrote. The points she is making regarding similarities between transgender and transracial are striking, and for all the racism and name calling that has been heaped her way, a simple search of the academic literature on "passing" would tell you everything you need to know about it. 

Passing, as it relates to race, has controversially been applied to both sexuality, gender and religion for decades now. There's nothing new here, except for the pile-on, groupthink, herd mentality of certain segments of the academy, and fueled by online anonymity. Yes, the academy has its trolls too.

It's also interesting that the author is attacked for being a "cis white female," her self-identification being assumed by the very torch and pitchfork crowd who supposedly hates such assumptions of self-identity. And why, because they see a profile picture of an attractive woman at Rhodes, they assume she's a straight, hetero, white, privileged, cis, female? Get the red paint out and put a cross on her office door because she might be (gasp) "kinda hot?"

I'd suggest they check their Lookism. And possibly look up the word "jealousy."
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.
The journal Hypatia really did Tuvel a disservice by throwing her under the bus when the gaggle of uglies showed up at the door demanding their pound of flesh. To vet the article and publish it, only to be cowed when the first sign of protest started, is the definition of spineless. If anyone should have come out swinging in her defense, especially to the obvious threat the uglies were posing to the 1st amendment, it was the editor, editorial board and anyone associated with the publication.

Instead, Tuvel is tossed into the den of wolves who seem intent on their career-ending beating. Frankly, it would be awesome if she took to the courts and tried to both out, and collect damages from, the deadenders who signed the petition and did direct, possible irreparable harm to her career. 

Hell, I'd sign a petition supporting that.

BTW, the title of this post comes from one of my favorite Radiohead songs "Burn the Witch," video below. Awesome. Think of Tuvel as the poor, British chap, encouraged to climb the wooden pyre at the end.



UPDATE: The controversy has now jumped into the mainstream media:
To Ms. Tuvel’s critics, the paper, despite her declarations of support for transgender rights, contained “egregious levels of liberal white ignorance and discursive transmisogynistic violence,” as one scholar put it on Facebook.

Ms. Tuvel’s paper is squarely in the tradition of analytic philosophy, an approach that focuses on clarifying concepts and that relies on blunt logical analysis and sometimes outlandish-seeming hypotheticals and analogies. (Do justifications for eating meat also support cannibalism? Are unwanted fetuses akin to rapists?) But it’s an approach, some of her detractors say, that is unsuited to the subject at hand.

“That’s fine when you are looking at abstract metaphysical questions,” like “whether trees exist, or things that exist in the past exist in the present,” said one of the signers of the open letter, Talia Mae Bettcher, a professor of philosophy at California State University, Los Angeles. “But when you start philosophizing about racial oppression or trans oppression or other contemporary social issues, different methodologies need to be employed.”
What a brain dead, anti-philosophical comment. By that measure, only trees should be allowed to question their existence.
Ms. Bettcher, who in 2009 was co-editor of a special issue of Hypatia dedicated to transgender issues, said Ms. Tuvel’s article was part of a long tradition of researchers’ treating transgender people as objects of inquiry without adequately taking into account what they say about themselves.
“This is basically an argument that thought, ‘I can just swashbuckle in and cite a few articles,’ but didn’t really reflect on these deeper issues,” she said. Ms. Tuvel’s conclusions, she added, “are false.”
No, they aren't. The fact that you don't agree with them has nothing to do with their validity or quantitative backing, all of which Dr. Tuvel lays out methodically in the paper.
Tina Fernandes Botts, an assistant professor at California State University, Fresno, and the editor of the book “Philosophy and the Mixed Race Experience,” also strongly criticized what she called the article’s insufficient engagement with work by transgender and nonwhite scholars.
“The content is objectionable, and the conclusions are objectionable, but that’s not the really offensive part,” said Ms. Botts, who delivered a critique of an earlier version of Ms. Tuvel’s paper at a conference last month. “The really offensive part is that the perspectives of scholars working in these areas were treated as nonexistent or irrelevant.”
Another profoundly ignorant comment as well. It's like saying, because she didn't cite ME or MY work, or the work of others I know, her conclusions must be invalid. Since when did being a member of the population you are studying/writing about become a prerequisite for validity?

This idea of "epistemological insiderism," where only trans scholars can write about transgender issues, only black scholars can write about the black experience, only feminist scholars can write about women, and so on, is, of course, the last bane of the intellectually vacuous. And it violates the value-free, value-relevant pursuit that social science should be done with (in the strictest Weberian sense, that is).

Put it this way: I'm not aware of many, if any, penological scholars who have actually done time in the joint, so does that mean they shouldn't be studying and writing about the prison experience? We can't comment on mass incarceration because, well, we've never been to prison?

Again, what it boils down to is simple: you don't like what Tuvel said, so instead of arguing the issue, let's shoot the messenger and burn the witch. 

I'll reiterate my advice to the 800+ mobbers who signed the petition and have tried to ruin the career of Dr. Tuvel: just because another scholar challenges your sacred cows, with ideas that you don't like, doesn't mean the scholar or her conclusions are invalid.

It means you are.

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