We are in the midst of the Trumpian apocalypse. Actual bigoted provocateurs like Charles Murray and Ann Coulter throw flames in the academy. Hate crimes against trans people and people of color and Muslims are on the rise; women’s reproductive rights are on the line, as are just about every other aspect of bodily autonomy and gender justice. So what’s making scholars hyperventilate in outrage? A feminist academic whose body of work is clearly on the side of progressive social justice.
A young philosopher, Rebecca Tuvel, writes an article in which she considers claims to transracial and transgender identities. The result is a firestorm of condemnation — nasty emails, a petition to retract the article, and, worse, a journal that will not stand up for its own peer-reviewed articles. (That last point is complicated by an internal rift within the journal, Hypatia. The editor, Sally J. Scholz, does stand by the article. It was, she writes in a statement, the associate editorial board that disavowed Tuvel’s paper.)
There are scholars whose work needs to be not only critically engaged with but rendered moot, who, through fabricated data or improper vetting or suspicious funding, have produced work of demonstrable falsehood, with clear intent to mislead and to provide ammunition for retrogressive policy. The poster child here might be Mark Regnerus, a sociologist who argued the innate inferiority of gay and lesbian families, data be damned.
Tuvel’s paper — which I actually read — does not even remotely reach that bar. It uses the case of Rachel Dolezal as an entry point to explore questions of identity, the body, biological determinism, social constructionism, and analogies between racial and gender classification. It is a wholly legitimate, if provocative, philosophical endeavor. One can agree or disagree, or wish the author had done more of this or less of that. But the assertion that broaching the very subject produces inevitable harm is specious, to say the least. Indeed, 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."
Consider the intent and background here. By any measure, Tuvel is a committed feminist philosopher who repeatedly and clearly states her absolute support of trans rights. She is not Coulter or Murray or even the predictably contrarian Camille Paglia. Surely, Tuvel should not be immune to critique — none of us are. But to organize a petition and demand retraction should be an action reserved for work that is willfully erroneous, improperly vetted, and riven with demonstrable falsehoods. If those of us on the left are unable to make distinctions between legitimate intellectual disagreements and damaging lies, we will be hoist with our own petard. Our eyes aren’t on the prize but on mutual evisceration in the name of holier-than-thou rectitude. This isn’t substantive intellectual debate. It’s schoolyard name-calling.
It’s hard to know what aspect of the affaire Tuvel is most upsetting. Is it that there is a controversy to begin with, in the midst of both real-world peril and plenty of actual right-wing scholarship available for critique? Is it that an untenured feminist philosopher has become demonized and subject to hate-filled emails and trolling? Is it that the journal that published her — and put her article through standard peer review — almost immediately threw her under the bus? Or is it that we’ve handed the right an opportunity to inveigh yet again against an elitist left that squashes free speech with its mindless groupthink?
As a feminist journal editor, I am not only shocked by the policing move of the signatories and their weak, vague, and easily refutable argument. I am astonished by the immediate and hyperbolic "apology" by the associate editorial board of the journal, an apology that the editor herself did not sign and has in fact rebutted. Indeed, the apology doubles down on the notion of the "harms" caused by the publication of the article. Nowhere does this apology challenge the inaccuracies and empty accusations made by Tuvel’s critics. It simply reiterates them as if they were fact. And nowhere, but nowhere, does this "majority" of the associate editorial board defend the right of a junior feminist philosophy professor to make an argument.
Not only do the board members insult Tuvel; they undermine the whole process of peer review and the principles of scholarly debate and engagement. Hypatia presumably followed its rigorous and standard review process here. No one is claiming that they didn’t. To state, as the apology does, that "clearly, the article should not have been published" indicts the good-faith labor of peer reviewers and the editorial decision-making of the journal itself. I can’t recall a similar capitulation. Do the signatories really believe that this article shouldn’t have been published because some readers contest it? I thought edgy, challenging, thoughtful work that elicits debate was exactly what feminist journals should be publishing.
I cannot help thinking that something has gone seriously wrong when a scholar who is not transphobic or working against the interests of trans people, but, in fact, considering an important question, is labeled as "doing harm." I read manuscripts submitted to Signs every day. I read hundreds a year. So let me state categorically that this attack is way out of line; that nothing in the article merits it, and that both the attack and the apology feed into the right-wing discourse of lefty thought police, at a moment when we can ill afford it.
So what should happen now? The letter’s signatories should actually read the article and rethink their accusations and their call for retraction. The associate editorial board should find its integrity and back away from its dangerous and irresponsible apology. I’m not holding my breath, though.
More broadly, academics should take a long, hard look at ourselves and ask whether we are truly committed to a culture that is generous of spirit, open to debate, and deliberative in its judgments. Must one be "of" an identity to examine it, and who decides that? What intellectual questions are simply off the table for argumentation, and who determines that?
Let’s focus our animus on the real enemies of feminist, queer, marginalized lives. They are hiding in plain sight but are harder to see through the bluster of our own misdirection.
Suzanna Danuta Walters is the editor of Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society and the author, most recently, of The Tolerance Trap: How God, Genes, and Good Intentions Are Sabotaging Gay Equality (New York University Press, 2014).