Reader Response to Hypatia Controversy

To the Editor:

Regardless of the philosophical merits of Rebecca Tuvel’s Hypatia article, the actions of the author of and signatories to the letter of objection constitute defamation of character (“A Journal Article Provoked a Schism in Philosophy. Now the Rifts Are Deepening,The Chronicle, May 6). At root, they impugn Professor Tuvel for deigning, as a cisgender white woman, to publish an academic journal article that argues for a position that does not pass their ideological litmus test for racial essentialism. To have signed this letter is to contribute to and be complicit in the likely destruction of the career (and therefore the life) of an untenured junior faculty member. This is a very obvious and very serious harm, as is the statement of apology for publication by members of Hypatia’s associate editorial board. The position that the value of preventing some possible harm to transgender people from an academic journal article that is explicitly committed to transgender rights somehow outweighs or is even equivalent to the value of protecting a highly vulnerable junior faculty member from wanton attacks on her professionalism and character stemming from the acceptance of a blind-reviewed article in a peer-reviewed journal is utterly untenable. And that doesn’t even begin to address the larger question of the value of free philosophical inquiry vis-a-vis possible harm to members of an oppressed group from the publication of an academic journal article that is in fact supportive of their rights and personhood.

I’m afraid this horrible debacle reminds me of nothing so much as Goya’s painting of Saturn devouring his children.

Felicia Kruse Alexander
Visiting Scholar and Adjunct Faculty, Department of Philosophy
Southern Illinois University
Carbondale, Ill.

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To the Editor:

In defending her critique of Ms. Tuvel’s article, Ms. Berenstain was quoted as saying most of her respondents did not have the “conceptual competence” to engage with her post. This perfectly sums up why academic philosophy has become completely irrelevant. Furthermore, this arrogance is too often associated with a liberal elitism that has generated enormous resentment among the unconceptual masses. Although it may be true that censorship from the Right is typically more overtly violent, the smug, self-righteous censorship from the Left is quite violent in its own way.

The bottom line is that many people reacted so violently to Ms. Tuvel because they did not like what she had to say, not because she didn’t use the most current lingo. Some academics seemed to suggest that Ms. Tuvel made claims that went against established truths, which is just not the case. Is it an established truth that one is allowed to choose identity between male and female, but not between white and black? Far from it. And although there may be good reasons for why certain marginalized perspectives need to be respected, this does not justify dismissing a position as intellectually inferior just because you don’t like it.

As Socrates demonstrated from the very beginning, philosophers are very good at making people feel stupid. So they are generally despised. President Obama sometimes spoke like a philosophy professor. Our current president never does. This shows the flip side of Plato’s depiction of Socrates: Although he was feared and despised by the many, he was beloved by the few. So Plato had to figure out how philosophers could gain power over a demagogue in a democracy. We’re still working on this. It doesn’t help to make people feel stupid because they are conceptually challenged. And to make yourself look stupid by exhibiting the same intolerance that you ostensibly abhor.

Joo Heung Lee
Adjunct Professor of Philosophy
McHenry County College
Crystal Lake, Ill.

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To the Editor:

Thank you for the continuing coverage of the Hypatia affair; I urge you to keep us informed. In reporting on the developing schism within philosophy, however, I believe you’ve made two related errors.

First, it is not just conservative media who have picked up on the affair: It is also liberal media. A (relatively) high-profile journal is embroiled in a social-media anger campaign that shares many similarities with many contemporary political protests and reputation lynchings (take your pick of political or business figures who have been virally shamed out of government or corporate positions for which they were nominated); this draws media of all kinds.

Second, the wider academy is drawn in by the concerning details of the affair, many of which seem not to have occurred to those involved in the various social-media “discussions.” What should any of us think when we are next asked to serve on an editorial board, or as an ad hoc reviewer; might we too be thrown under the bus if work we review causes an outcry? Can sufficient public outrage over a paper override a publisher’s policy on retraction (this affair seems to fall well short of the publisher’s explicit threshold)? Is it acceptable for even parts of an editorial board to anonymously attack the work of authors published in that journal (by virtue of their “majority of” signature on their “apology”)? What place in academe do Women’s Studies and Philosophy hold, given that there is as yet no consideration in these discussions of the obvious conflict of interest in that the associate editors’ apology was penned by one of the authors criticized in the Tuvel paper?

Yes, there is a disciplinary schism to address. Yes, there is irony in the affair, as actual harm has been done to an author accused of hypothetically harming. But the wider academy is watching — and worrying — as well.

Eric C. Odgaard
Associate Professor of Psychology
University of Tampa

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To the Editor:

I salute Dr. Tuvel’s courage in publishing “In Defense of Transracialism,” and in the hopes of furthering the possibility of a convergence of experiences — racial, gender, and class — point out an article from 1957 that — in some way — covers the same ground. Yes, Norman Mailer’s “The White Negro,” in Dissent. We are one, and we must fight for the point of reconciliation lest the truth of our mutual life be lost to artificial divisions used by tyrants to divide and conquer.

Mark Wagner
Director, Binienda Center for Civic Engagement
Worcester State University
Worcester, Mass.

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