A Journal Article Provoked a Schism in Philosophy. Now the Rifts Are Deepening.

May 06, 2017

Rhodes College
Rebecca Tuvel, a philosopher at Rhodes College, wrote the article that has divided the discipline.

The associate editors of Hypatia, a journal of feminist philosophy, apologized on Facebook this week for the publication of "In Defense of Transracialism," an article by Rebecca Tuvel, that had quickly drawn opprobrium. "Clearly," they wrote, "the article should not have been published."

One problem with that statement: Hypatia’s editor now says she disagrees with it.

The essay by Ms. Tuvel, an assistant professor of philosophy at Rhodes College, had incited considerable controversy online. It drew parallels between the experiences of Rachel Dolezal, a white woman and former leader of an NAACP chapter who for years has identified as black, and the celebrity Caitlyn Jenner, who transitioned to being a woman. Critics blasted the article as a product of white and cisgender privilege, said it discounted important scholarly work by transgender and black academics, and accused its author of using harmful language.

Hundreds of scholars signed their names to an open letter calling on the journal to retract the article.

The journal didn’t go that far, but the apology, which came with a pledge to reconsider Hypatia’s review process, still seemed like an extraordinary step. Some academics applauded the swift response to widespread criticism; others criticized the unorthodox action of a journal in condemning its own publication of an article.

Meanwhile a divide in opinion has emerged not just among academics in the field, but also within Hypatia itself. Despite the public stance taken by the majority of the journal’s associate editors, Hypatia’s editor, Sally Scholz, stands behind the article’s publication and the integrity of the journal’s review process.

In a statement sent to The Chronicle, Ms. Scholz said she believes it is "utterly inappropriate for editors to repudiate an article they have accepted for publication (barring issues of plagiarism or falsification of data)."

"Editors must stand behind the authors of accepted papers," said Ms. Scholz in the statement. "This is where I stand. Professor Tuvel’s paper went through the peer review process and was accepted by the reviewers and me."

She added that the associate board of editors had "acted independently in drafting and posting their statement" on Facebook.

Miriam Solomon, president of the board of directors of Hypatia Inc. — the nonprofit corporation that oversees the journal and other activities, such as conferences — echoed Ms. Scholz’s disavowal. The apology did not represent the views of Hypatia’s editor, its local editorial advisers, or its editorial board, she said. "The associate editors are speaking for themselves."

How could one publication’s leaders take such different positions? Ms. Solomon said Hypatia has a "complex" editorial structure. In addition to Ms. Scholz and the 10-member associate editorial board, the journal has 12 local editorial advisers and an editorial board of 25 people. The associate editors are "not involved in editorial decisions" but do advise on matters of editorial policy and play a key role in appointing the editor, said Ms. Solomon.

She cited several concerns about how the statement arose. She was worried that it had not been clear to readers that the statement did not represent the views of the entire Hypatia editorial system. (Indeed, many observers either congratulated or condemned the journal after the Facebook statement appeared.) She also said she was aware that the post "was produced in a rush, in response to outcry on social media," which she described as a "new challenge for the community."

"Everything seems terribly urgent, and people feel like they have to make a response right away," she said. She also noted that she did not know "how seriously an attempt was made to mediate the issues with the editor. I think the editor was blindsided by it."

‘Careers Are at Stake’

Like Ms. Scholz, Ms. Solomon defended Hypatia’s review processes, which she said are in line with the standards of the American Philosophical Association. Submissions to Hypatia are received by a managing editor, who forwards them to the editor. Once each article has been anonymized, the editor then selects two reviewers to assess it. The final decision to accept, revise and resubmit, or reject a piece lies with the editor. To her knowledge, Ms. Solomon said, there was "nothing unusual" about the process for the review of the article by Ms. Tuvel

Ms. Tuvel declined to comment on her article.

One charge levied against the journal was that Ms. Tuvel’s article might not have been approved if Hypatia had asked a black or transgender scholar to review it. The associate editors’ apology appeared to entertain that view, pledging "to develop additional advisory guidelines to ensure that feminist theorists from groups underrepresented in our profession, including trans people and people of color, are integrated in the various editorial stages."

Ms. Solomon did not comment on the diversity of Hypatia’s reviewers. At this point, she said, the only person who knows their identity is Ms. Scholz. The journal has not typically had difficulty recruiting reviewers, Ms. Solomon said, "because a lot of the feminist philosophy community are very passionate about the work."

She said that she did not know if an investigation of the review processes was yet warranted, but that Ms. Scholz had indicated "a willingness to go through such a process if requested." The journal would work with its publisher, John Wiley & Sons, to respond to readers’ concerns, Ms. Solomon said. The publisher declined to comment on the article.

"I imagine that we’ll settle this very collaboratively, but a lot of careers are at stake," said Ms. Solomon. "I’m very concerned about doing the right thing."

She said she was concerned not only about the careers of those embroiled in the controversy but also about the reputation of Hypatia, which is widely regarded as the pre-eminent publication in its field. "I’d like to minimize the damage, and I would not like the message to go out there that only certain kinds of feminist work are welcome," she said.

"Hypatia has always been as pluralist as possible," she said. "It’s an astonishing journal."

Asked what message she would like to send to academics upset at the publication of Ms. Tuvel’s article, Ms. Solomon said she wanted to assure people that the issue "would not be swept under the carpet."

"I hope we can learn a lot from it," she said. "I see a lot of passion in the people who found the article offensive, and I want to take the time to understand it and see what might help."

Although Hypatia has not retracted the article, it issued a small but significant "correction" on Thursday. At Ms. Tuvel’s request, the journal removed a parenthetical reference to Ms. Jenner’s birth name. The "deadnaming" of Ms. Jenner, as the practice of identifying transgender people by their birth names is known, was among the objections raised in the open letter.

"I regret the deadnaming of Caitlyn Jenner in the article," Ms. Tuvel said in a statement issued before the correction’s appearance. "Even though she does this herself in her book, I understand that it is not for outsiders to do and that such a practice can perpetuate harm against transgender individuals, and I apologize."

‘Philosophy Doing What It Always Does’

Many scholars who have kept a close eye on the affair continue to believe that the associate editors’ apology was warranted. In fact, some say the statement didn’t go far enough.

Claire M. Colebrook, a professor of English, philosophy, and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at Pennsylvania State University, said that if she had read the article outside the context of the controversy, she would have thought it was simply "overly abstract."

Now, though, she agreed with her colleagues’ arguments that the article implied that black philosophers’ work does not matter.

That’s because Ms. Tuvel’s article paid little attention to African-American women philosophers’ work on race, Ms. Colebrook said. During the peer-review process, she argued, Hypatia should have sent Ms. Tuvel’s piece back, asking her to cite more relevant literature. "I’ve published on several topics, and when you write on a white, male philosopher, you’ll get that sent back to you, telling you to cite all the relevant literature," she said.

“I see a lot of passion in the people who found the article offensive, and I want to take the time to understand it and see what might help.”
It’s not solely the peer-review process that failed Ms. Tuvel, but philosophy as an institution, Ms. Colebrook said. While the article might have sought to relate issues like sexuality and race in the abstract, she said, it missed the mark by insufficiently reckoning with other, clearly related branches of philosophy, like critical race theory.

"I took it to be institutional, that here’s philosophy doing what it always does: talking abstractly about race, gender, sexuality, without any attention paid to what’s concretely going along," Ms. Colebrook said.

At humanities journals, retractions are rare occurrences — and typically only after accusations of plagiarism or abuses or scholarship have been proven true. A retraction in this case could have signaled a serious change in the field and highlighted that black philosophers’ voices do have a place in scholarship, Ms. Colebrook said.

"A retraction would be heavy-duty, but it would be an amazingly revolutionary gesture in philosophy," Ms. Colebrook said. "Times are different. Things do change. It would be remarkable. It would be unheard of. But maybe that’s OK."

Tina Fernandes Botts, an assistant professor of philosophy at California State University at Fresno, first read Ms. Tuvel’s paper before the January meeting of the American Philosophical Association’s Eastern Division, where Ms. Tuvel presented her work. Ms. Botts found the work to be "out of step" with research in critical philosophy of race and the black experience. She was scheduled to be a commenter on the paper but was unable to attend.

In a paper presented to the Res Philosophica conference at Saint Louis University last weekend, however, Ms. Botts presented her refutation in full.

She said Ms. Tuvel was correct in her assertion that both race and gender are socially constructed but had failed to understand how they are constructed in different ways. Ms. Botts argued, contra Ms. Tuvel, that race is a function of ancestry, while gender is not — which makes gender more of an individual experience. Put plainly, because race is tied to ancestry in the world, a person cannot declare being a black person trapped in a white person’s body, as Rachel Dolezal has described herself. Only someone with black ancestors can count as black.

Ms. Tuvel’s fundamental misunderstanding of that point, alongside several other baseline conventions in philosophy of race, raise a question, Ms. Botts said: How was the article was able to make it through peer review?

"Women-of-color philosophers have, for a long time, felt that Hypatia did not take their scholarship seriously," she said. "And so there’s an ongoing tension between women-of-color philosophers and Hypatia."

"It’s not that we don’t like what she said — that’s not the issue," Ms. Botts said. "The issue" is that the journal "didn’t use the same level of scholarly review" that it might have for another paper. "What you do when someone submits the paper is you find people who are experts in that area to review it, to make sure that it is situated within contemporary scholarly discussions. Obviously they didn’t do that."

Ms. Botts viewed the decision to issue an apology as a step in the right direction. As some editors at the journal have moved to acknowledge an error in their process, it may open the door for a deeper rethinking in the discipline, she said: "There is a problem in philosophy more broadly of the delegitimization of scholarship by persons of color and about topics like race and gender."

A Backlash to the Backlash

In the days after the article first attracted attention, a backlash to the backlash coalesced. Scholars and other critics argued that Ms. Tuvel had been the victim of a "witch hunt" and was punished for her work’s perceived political incorrectness, not its actual content. "The idea that any article in a specialized feminist journal causes harm, and even violence, as the signatories to an open letter to the journal claim, is a grave misuse of the term ‘harm,’ wrote Suzanna Danuta Walters, editor of Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, in The Chronicle Review.

Brian Leiter, director of the Center for Law, Philosophy, and Human Values at the University of Chicago, argued that Ms. Tuvel could weigh a defamation suit against the Hypatia editors who publicly dressed down her scholarship. "I wonder," he wrote on his influential philosophy blog, "did any of those professing solidarity with those who specialize in taking offense consider the very tangible harm they are doing to the author of this article?"

Nora Berenstain, an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, took issue with many of those criticisms. "It’s disingenuous to claim that this is an issue of free speech," she said. "The criticisms of the original paper were calls for accountability."

Ms. Berenstain wrote a critique of Ms. Tuvel’s article on Facebook before the publication of the open letter calling for the article’s retraction. The post, which she has since made private, described the article as having "egregious levels of liberal white ignorance and discursive transmisogynistic violence."

Her comments were quickly picked up by conservative media and labeled as contributing to the "witch hunt" of Ms. Tuvel. One article, by the conservative commentator Rod Dreher, described scholars including Ms. Berenstain as "madwomen."

In response, she said, "I think that people who have no real stake in this issue and no relevant expertise have been using this issue as clickbait."

Ms. Berenstain said her post "was a call to feminist philosophers — particularly cisgender white women — to hold ourselves to higher standards. It wasn’t aimed at anyone outside of the discipline."

"Most of the people who responded did not have the conceptual competence to engage with the post," she said, "as is evidenced by the reaction to my use of the word ‘violence.’ " She said her use of the term was a reference to the scholarly concept of structural violence, which describes "a range of systemic harms that go beyond direct interpersonal physical contact."

"Conceptual analyses," she said, "do not begin and end with the dictionary."

Clarification (5/8/2017, 10:32 a.m.): This article has been updated to clarify Hypatia's double-blind review process.