Before We Go Forward (guest post by Alison Suen)


“…the conversation should have been about the issues, rather than the individual. Unfortunately, it did not begin that way.”

The following is a guest post* by Allison Suen, assistant professor of philosophy at Iona College.


[Robert Rauschenberg, “Erased De Kooning Drawing”]

Before We Go Forward
by Alison Suen

Recently, amid the controversy over Hypatia’s publication of Rebecca Tuvel’s “In Defense of Transracialism,” there has been a lot of talk in the philosophical community about the importance of lived experience. I have been reflecting on my lived experience over the past week, as one of Rebecca’s friends. Speaking from the perspective of someone who has been on the sidelines watching this whole affair unfold, I am not sure if I am ready to, as Sally Haslanger says, “go forward,” and “not focus on Rebecca Tuvel, the individual and the philosopher, and to shift the conversation to broader issues.”

I agree completely that the conversation should have been about the issues, rather than the individual. Unfortunately, it did not begin that way. Instead it began with Rebecca receiving hate mail; it began with people trashing her paper without having read it.

Instead of a discussion of the larger issues, there was an open letter calling for the retraction of her paper. And instead of objecting to the numerous inaccurate characterizations of Rebecca’s argument made by her critics, the journal’s associate editors issued an apology disowning her paper.

Instead of reasoned dialogue, people called her names. Instead of mentorship, Rebecca received enormous pressure from senior feminists to apologize and retract her paper.

It would be terrible for this to happen to anyone, and it was extremely painful to watch it happen to someone I care about deeply. So I hope you’d understand why I struggle to “go forward” and examine the larger issues as if Rebecca had never been targeted, shamed, or threatened.

Before we “go forward” to focus on the issues, we need to address the harm that has been done to Rebecca. I believe individual members of the “majority of the associate editors” who signed the apology statement should come forward and own up to what they’ve done— to the journal, to the profession, and especially to Rebecca. They should acknowledge their unjust treatment of her when they repudiated and disowned the publication of her paper.

Moving forward without adequately addressing the harm Rebecca has experienced is tantamount to erasing her lived experience.

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Amy Olberding
Amy Olberding
4 years ago

I hope the last week has altered some of the professional dynamics, but let me just say here that I am greatly worried that here enters a second untenured woman, identified by name, to say something that may well open floodgates of hostile response. Please, I enjoin everyone to take care if you are going to comment here or elsewhere. And, particularly to my feminist colleagues, if you disagree with what Alison Suen has said, let her not be subject to the sorts of heated, personalized, degrading reproach that Rebecca Tuvel has been. If you see this begin with others, please have mercy on all involved and intervene for better.Report

Hasana Sharp
Hasana Sharp
4 years ago

I am one of the feminist colleagues who encouraged Rebecca to consider a voluntary retraction initially. I hoped she could revise and re-publish her paper in recognition of the deeper attention called for by critics, and in recognition of the need of feminist philosophy to be more inclusive of a broader range of scholarship. I now regret giving Rebecca such advice. She was pushed into an impossible position and, at first, I didn’t recognize the double-bind I was reinforcing. Rebecca was under extreme duress, which I made worse. The calls for retraction were scapegoating and were wrong. It was not fair for me to ask Rebecca to make such a gesture in the service of feminist and critical race theory, a gesture for which she would surely also suffer severe criticism (ergo: double-bind). I apologize to Rebecca for making an incredibly difficult situation harder.Report

assistant prof
assistant prof
Reply to  Hasana Sharp
4 years ago

Thank you for this honest, gracious, and considerate response.Report

James Goetsch
James Goetsch
4 years ago

I totally agree with what Dr. Suen has said here. In another thread I pointed out that calls to move on from the particulars to the broader issues are wrong, because the particular issue here is an injustice that has been done to a particular human being, Dr. Tuval. I do not know her, but she is a fellow philosophy professor who has done nothing to deserve such treatment. I always tell my students in logic class that an argument in philosophy is not a debate, not a political power struggle, but a joint attempt with my interlocutor to find the truth–even if the truth shows that I am wrong. In reading her paper, I see someone trying to argue for a position in the way we have open to us–peer-review in a journal! And if someone wants to argue with her, answer with a paper in response (submitting it to peer-review). Or write her a letter that contains an argument that she can respond to. But the calling of names, the insistence that certain dogmatic principles be adhered to, and even hate mail is shameful (especially in respect to an untenured colleague). It’s a sad thing, and there’s no real moving on till people apologize like the poster above did–or stand up against those who continue to defend the indefensible.Report

DraggingThroughtheMud
DraggingThroughtheMud
4 years ago

I guess NY mag was right about this being a ‘witch hunt’, except now the hunt is for the associate editors.Report

Cahoone
Cahoone
4 years ago

I agree that before we “go forward” we should understand what has been done here, both to an individual (a travesty I have already commented on) what it means for our profession. I have seen a certain attitude among some who agree with Hypatia’s associate editors, or who lament the criticism of them. I want to know if I understand the view driving some of them (they name themselves online, I won’t). Let me try to state it (sorry for the length).

1. A central historical human process is the systematic disadvantaging of some groups of persons by others, hence a history of injustice. The purpose and value of social inquiry in our time must be to recognize, combat, and repair injustice. We must therefore regard all inquiry into social or human matters as political, meaning not only that inquirers must recognize the political effects of their inquiry but that we rightly ought to employ political criteria in some significant way to decide which concepts, methods, and views are valid.

2. Inquiry as more traditionally understood has often served injustice, cloaking itself in a pretense of ahistorical, apolitical objectivity. Failure to situate one’s discussion in historical terms is a myopic pretense of the alleged neutrality which historically served injustice. Any attempt to discuss and decide general ethical or political issues must engage the history of how its terms have been used both in academic disciplines and society at large, how they functioned in historical injustice, as well as the approved bibliography of recent work by our community of researchers. To fail to make such references is in principle wrong, whether or not it can be shown how the author’s particular claims actually lead to the justification of injustice (indeed, the call for the latter would be yet another oppressive failure to recognize the historico-political nature of inquiry).

3. In particular, any discussion of issues relating to groups we recognize as historically oppressed must be performed from what claims to be their perspective. Two sets of authors qualify: the members of the group itself, and our research community. The author of any such work must situate him or herself historically and socially, indicating what social group he or she belongs to in the history of political economy, race, ethnicity, gender, etc. – and/or supply sufficient textual evidence (e.g. citing the right literature) that they are, by our research community’s judgment, a legitimate representative thereof. The validity of content cannot be decided independent of an evaluation of its author’s social position.

4. Given this, theoretical contributions to the issues we examine ought to adopt a single research language and set of referenced texts universally accepted among the relevant community of inquirers. In practice, that means they must be performed by members of our research community. The content rightly belongs to us. Un-vetted contributions, arguments which have not been properly historicized and politicized – that is, inquiries which do not accept the above terms – are not only irresponsible and false but fresh cases of historical injustice. To think otherwise is to deny the historic function of legitimate reflection at this time.

Is that it? I just want to know.
Report

Maria
Maria
Reply to  Cahoone
4 years ago

Hi Cahoon,
I think the priority is that when a scholar chooses to write on x, the person should research x, by covering the literature published on x. Depending on the topic, that literature is more or less likely to be authored by thinkers from certain backgrounds – although never exclusively, of course. Based on the research the scholar develops a position, situating that position within a scholarly dialogue on the issue. That implies a level of engagement and it’s respective citation.

Sometimes the chosen topic is particularly socially significant, to the degree that it has been addressed by non-academic mediums. In this case, like in this case. So the choice of particular of arguments are highly significant – because it was shown to be of concern to the public, manifested unique difficulties in thinking through an aspect of it. Concrete references to these non-academic writings or discourses and in this way positioning the relevance and again dialogue within a larger community is also of epistemic value.

Whatever the final position an author advances in an article, it will be clear that it was the product of reflective considerations on what others have said and what has been shown to be important to the larger community – at the social level.

That’s the starting point of the critique. All particulars are then judged as the result of whether or not that was carried out.

Now, because of this article’s question and subject matter, we can deduce that an important number of the authors in the literature will have been written by members of traditionally underrepresented communities, who in such a position undergo multiple forms of marginalization in the academy and our field. Hence the relevance of ignoring that literature that is presumed to be part of the research process and dialogical situating of one’s position vis a vis colleagues who are also thinking about the topic. Ignoring the epistemically relevant literature this leads to poor, isolated contributions and reinforces the marginalized conditions of traditionally underrepresented communities in our field.

Now, why was the research and positioning one the argument in the field not done? That we can try to find explanations that might lead us to issues couched in terms of standpoint, critical self-awareness, etc. This gets us to the more macro-level patterns of practices, norms, and investments in the field.

I think the position is rather simple, if there are no or very few signs of background knowledge, then reviewers should reject the manuscript. In this case, the review process seems to have failed.

I highly recommend that if you are still having difficulties understanding you read Kyle Whyte’s blog contribution on this site. I take the issue in this entry to be about Rebecca’s experience in all of this. Report

Cahoone
Cahoone
Reply to  Maria
4 years ago

You mean the part about (Whyte) “non-indigenous” scholars who submit “scholastically irresponsible provocation”? In relation to the present case, that is what used to be called “blaming the victim.” I fear my difficulties in understanding remain.Report

DC
DC
Reply to  Maria
4 years ago

Maria, your argument is antithetical to scholarship. No practitioner, or set of practitioners, whatever their epistemic standpoint, has proprietorship over a subject of inquiry, and it is arrogant to demand the right to rewrite someone else’s work.Report

Maria
Maria
Reply to  Cahoone
4 years ago

Apologies for the typos. I’m on my phone and on a plane.
Cheers. Report

arden
arden
Reply to  Cahoone
4 years ago

Hi Cahoone,

Can I quote your comment? I found it really helpful. Report

Larry Cahoone
Larry Cahoone
Reply to  arden
4 years ago

SureReport

James Kendra
James Kendra
4 years ago

I am not in this field but, like perhaps many in academia, I have watched these events over the past few days. The online letter, the mobbing, and the actions of the editors were shocking–far outside of accepted norms. There are established procedures for dealing with disagreements, including rebuttals and replies in the journal. It is good to see that friends and colleagues of Dr. Tuvel have rallied to her support. They should be celebrated, and we should be grateful for Dr. Suen’s very candid letter. Report

C
C
4 years ago

I don’t see why we should move on before the mob retracts their call for retraction and helps to make things right by Tuvel. If people want to discuss the issues then, that’s a good idea. Report

James Uccello
James Uccello
4 years ago

Thank you, Prof. Suen. From various comments and posts I have learned more about how members of certain marginalized groups feel about various matters raised by this affair, and why. That has been a useful education. But at the beginning and at the heart of it, Professor Tuvel has been harmed in a manner the like of which I have not hitherto witnessed in philosophy. I feel surprise and indeed a little scepticism about those who speak passionately of the harm done to those marginalized groups yet seem not to show any concern about the harm done to an individual. Prof. Tuvel was owed a duty of care that, sadly, she did not receive form many. I am glad, however, to see that the editor of Hypatia, has responded in an honourable way. Which I hope is some consolation to Prof. Tuvel. And which, I also hope, will repair some of the damage done to the reputation of that journal and what it stands for.Report

Justin E. H. Smith
Justin E. H. Smith
4 years ago

Thank you to Alison Suen for this statement, which is as lucid as it is brave. I was almost as alarmed by Sally Haslanger’s attempted evasion as I was by the original campaign against Rebecca Tuvel. A scholarly community cannot throw a person under the bus and then, as she still lies wounded, call for reforms to the transit system.

Thank you also to Hasana Sharp, whose courage and honesty has impressed me many times over the years, but never more so than now, as she struggles with the real complexity of an issue, publicly admits uncertainty, and never loses sight of the humanity of everyone involved. Report

Jimmy Lenman
Jimmy Lenman
4 years ago

I don’t know Alison Suen. But I know she is someone who is disposed to stand up for a friend who has been wronged at the hands of an intimidating crowd. That makes her one of my very favourite kinds of human. Far from wanting to send her any kind of hostile response, I’d like to send her a large dose of esteem and respect.

I don’t know Hassana Sharp either. But I know she is someone who, like everyone, certainly like me, sometimes makes flawed moral judgements and acts wrongly. But unlike all too many people, including at least sometimes, me, is big enough to admit it and apologise. Esteem and respect to her too.

Awful things happen. But there are a lot of good people in our profession.0Report

Jimmy Lenman
Jimmy Lenman
Reply to  Jimmy Lenman
4 years ago

This ain’t like Facebook where one can copy edit one’s own posts. Apologies to Hasana for misspelling her given name.Report

Kelly Oliver
4 years ago

My response to attacks on social media in the midst of the Hypatia blow up.
http://thephilosophicalsalon.com/if-this-is-feminism-its-been-hijacked-by-the-thought-police/
Report

Grad Student
Grad Student
Reply to  Kelly Oliver
4 years ago

Thank you so much for this. I learned that at least one of Rebecca’s former dissertation committee members and one of her former fellow graduate students signed the Open Letter and it broke my heart. That makes it all the more meaningful that you are supporting her.Report

Eric Campbell
Eric Campbell
Reply to  Kelly Oliver
4 years ago

Magnificent. It broke my heart to see that too, and it is an inspiration to see this response not mince words. This sort of intellectual and ethical cowardice and fraudulence (i.e., bullying, showy outrage and insults and refusals to engage philosophically) needs to be called by its right name.

This comment is quite consistent with, indeed is actively supportive of, taking the lived experience of oppressed groups seriously, both in and outside of academia. Taking people seriously is not the same as, and is in fact inconsistent with, accepting whatever they say uncritically, or treating them as sacralized victims who as such are immune to the myriad biases, failings and vices that beset us all. It is also inconsistent with treating these groups respectfully to assume that all of them feel basically the same way about issues like this, as many of their pretend champions seem to do.Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  Eric Campbell
4 years ago

That is very well put, Eric. Report

Cahoone
Cahoone
Reply to  Kelly Oliver
4 years ago

Beautiful, necessary comments from Kelly Oliver. Thank you so much. A vote for humanity and philosophy both.Report

Kelly Oliver
4 years ago

Thank you, Alison!Report

Aaron Garrett
Aaron Garrett
4 years ago

All philosophers should quit Facebook.Report

Emily Vicendese
Emily Vicendese
4 years ago

I am just beginning a PhD in philosophy. I am commenting with my real name not because I feel confident in my opinion, but out of solidarity for Rebecca Tuvel who has had her name dragged through the mud.

I am speaking up because I want the people who signed the open letter and participated in the social media pile on to know that their actions made me seriously consider quitting my PhD. I doubt I am the only woman at my level who thought of quitting after observing the treatment meted out to Professor Tuvel. Given the already low numbers of women in philosophy, I am saddened that it is feminists who would engage in this behaviour toward other women, especially to women who are a few rungs further down the ladder than them.

I decided to keep going because my supervisors, the people in my department, my cohort and my friends have been very supportive. I was also heartened by the many reasonable comments here at Daily Nous. However, I am going forward with a sense of extreme caution, perhaps even fear. I still hope that over time philosophy will become a more welcoming place for heterodox women, especially as they seem to be reviled pretty much everywhere else. Report

Eddy Nahmias
Eddy Nahmias
Reply to  Emily Vicendese
4 years ago

It would be awful if this event drove any woman or minorities out of philosophy. I hope you will stay. Report

Jimmy Lenman
Jimmy Lenman
Reply to  Emily Vicendese
4 years ago

What Eddy said. We need you!Report

Emily Vicendese
Emily Vicendese
Reply to  Jimmy Lenman
4 years ago

Thank you for the votes of confidence, but perhaps you should hold off until you have had the opportunity to assess the quality of my work. 😉 Report

harry b
4 years ago

Thanks Alison. I’m glad Rebecca has a friend like you. For what it is worth this shambles has earned her the good will of a vast number of people in the profession; I hope that in the coming months she sees plenty of direct evidence of that,Report

harry b
4 years ago

Sorry — Allison!Report

Comicallyjunior
Comicallyjunior
4 years ago

Dear Alison and Hasana,

Alison: kudos to you for speaking up for your friend in very difficult and heated circumstances. Hasana: kudos to you too for your honesty and decency: many of us recognise how easy it is to make mistakes under pressure and how difficult it can also be to admit this, especially publicly. Massive respect.

Very best wishes to you both.Report

Garrett Bredeson
Garrett Bredeson
4 years ago

Thanks, Alison. Well said.Report

Shelley Tremain
Shelley Tremain
4 years ago

Some of you might be interested in a post that I wrote about this matter at Discrimination and Disadvantage:

http://philosophycommons.typepad.com/disability_and_disadvanta/2017/05/notes-on-the-tuval-controversy-and-the-depoliticization-of-disability.htmlReport

Comically Junior
Comically Junior
4 years ago

Hello everyone,

I just came across this:

https://medium.com/@i_rohl/theyve-never-listened-to-us-8e645ce8378f

It’s beautifully written and there’s lots of food for thought — it’s definitely worth a read.

Best wishes.
Report

D.C.
D.C.
4 years ago

Brave and well-stated, neither of which can be said for some of Rebecca’s persecutors. Many seem to be hoping that the affair will blow over without being called to account, the gracious reply by Hosana above an exception. I hope Justin follows up on this more (and leaves comments open when he does so).

And it is of little surprise that some of the most public persecutors are tenured white professors co-opting the oppression of others to score public brownie points and exert power over their victim.Report

DC
DC
Reply to  D.C.
4 years ago

And sorry for spelling your name incorrectly, Hasana.Report