Tuesday, May 9, 2017

regarding that transracial/transgender Hypatia article & accusations of "witch hunts"

As some of you may know by now, about a month or so ago, the feminist philosophy journal Hypatia published an article by Rachel Tuvel called "In Defense of Transracialism." I have not read the article (it is behind a paywall), but by all accounts it draws parallels between "transracial" and transgender, and makes the case that, if we accept the latter, then we should accept the former.

Tuvel's article was widely critiqued by academics (and to a lesser degree, activists) with knowledge of the fields of critical race theory and transgender studies for reasons explained here by Shannon Winnubst (who is one of the co-authors/signers of an open letter to Hypatia asking the journal to retract the paper). In response to the letter, Hypatia apologized for publishing it (although, as of the time I write this, they have not retracted it). Hypatia apologized (whereas other journals likely would not have) because of its dedication to "pluralist feminist inquiry" and because the journal views itself as "an important site for the publication of scholarship long-considered marginal in philosophy." As Trans Lady Academic points out, the response stemmed from "commitments that several editors at Hypatia itself had laid out to avoiding the exploitative and anthropological gaze."

People can have differing views on whether or not this particular paper should be retracted. I will tell you that, in my many years as a biologist (not to mention my familiarity with other academic disciplines), it is not uncommon for highly controversial papers to result in open letters to the journal editors, sometimes requesting apologies or retractions. Sometimes journals will respond to these requests and/or publish counterarguments and rebuttals to the paper in question in a subsequent issue. [note: I discuss this more in this Twitter thread.]

Regardless of what you think about the specifics of this case, what happened next is unconscionable: Jesse Singal of NY Mag (who has a penchant for writing high profile articles that depict transgender activists as out-of-control and anti-science, and with whom I've had previous run-ins) decided to write an alarmist article decrying the open letter to Hypatia as a "witch hunt." This helped to inspire a "pile on," as pundits far and wide who couldn't give two-shits about feminist philosophy weighed in on the matter, and attempted to portray this as yet another liberal-attack-on-free-speech (a position that I've previously critiqued as disingenuous and hypocritical).

Historically, "witch hunts" refer to when the masses, consumed by moral panic, attack people on the margins based on the assumption that these marginalized groups will infect or contaminate greater society with their wayward or evil beliefs and practices. So it seems extremely farcical (not to mention scaremongering) for people in the dominant majority to complain that one of their own kind is the victim of a "witch hunt" solely because a few people in the marginalized minority have challenged or critiqued their views.

Anyway, Noah Berlatsky has written a piece (in which I am interviewed) explaining the many problems with Singal's (and other's) rendition of this story. Also, in the last few days, I've written several twitter essays/threads about the backlash to the open letter to Hypatia - if you're interested in reading them, here they are (click the tweet to see the entire thread).

Here is the first thread, which I wrote upon learning that Jesse Singal cited me in his "witch hunt" piece:

Next (within one of Berlatsky's threads), I discuss how/why mainstream outlets don't care about trans perspectives on these matters:

Final thread discussing asymmetry in who is accused of attacking free speech/academic freedom in these cases:
Note added 5-10-17: After publishing this piece, I wrote another Twitter essay about how it's not all that unusual for controversial papers to receive open letters to editors asking for explanations, apologies, and/or retractions. Given this reality, pundits outside of feminist philosophy seem to be drawn to the Tuvel/Hypatia case, not because it represents an "unprecedented scandal" (because it's not), but rather due to the identities of the scholars making these complaints (i.e., people of color & transgender folks):