“People were absolutely vicious toward me”
The latest interview at What Is It Like To Be A Philosopher? is with Rebecca Tuvel, assistant professor of philosophy at Rhodes College. Clifford Sosis (Coastal Carolina) asks Professor Tuvel a range of questions, including several about her article in Hypatia, “In Defense of Transracialism,” and the controversy surrounding it.
Here’s an excerpt from that part of the interview:
Sosis: Did you have any idea it was going to be so controversial?
Tuvel: I did not expect my article would be so controversial. I did worry that people might find some of my claims difficult or even offensive, but often arguments cause offense, especially if they challenge our deeply held views. Some people found my comparison of transrace to transgender offensive. However, moral arguments and social movements are sometimes built this way. For instance, the same-sex marriage movement drew comparison to society’s opposition to interracial marriage. I should add that other folks in trans theory have invoked comparisons between gender transitions and other types of transitions, such as changes in nationality or religion, that could also potentially be perceived as offensive...
Sosis: Which criticisms of the article have been unfair you think?
I think the criticisms that focused on my use of particular terms were not framed in helpful ways. Some of that criticism felt like a policing of behavior. I also experienced some of the critique as gendered. As a feminist philosopher, I was particularly disappointed when some critics spoke down to me with a condescending tone with which many women will be familiar. The number of respected feminist colleagues who called me a “Becky” also disturbed me, since Becky is a highly gendered insult.
Sosis: In general, did you think the letter was appropriate response to your article?
Tuvel: I don’t think an open letter in response to a published article is an appropriate way to deal with anyone making a good faith effort to do anti-oppression work. An appropriate response, in my view, might have been to acknowledge that people were upset but to suggest that we slow down and revisit appropriate responses later when we are less heated. The open letter and apology were issued with remarkable speed.Many people who signed the letter and commented on the paper admitted to not having even read it. Moreover, I think a call for retraction is strategically unwise since it feeds into the increasingly prevalent media stereotype of the political left as censorial and intolerant of dissent.
I also think the obligation to voice worries in advance falls particularly on those signatories and critics who had opportunities to hear, read, or comment on the paper, yet said not one word about any of the concerns raised in the open letter. This includes colleagues who attended my talk at the APA, where I presented an earlier version of this paper, one of the scholars who was invited to respond to my work at the APA but could not attend, and those colleagues who read my paper earlier this year—these individuals had plenty of time to register concerns before the controversy broke out. These critics in particular could – and should – have expressed their concerns to me when they had the opportunity; otherwise we set a very bad precedent for how to treat each other in this discipline and the academy more broadly. This obligation also falls especially on those senior colleagues who should take a mentoring role toward junior scholars, as well as model collegiality and respectful engagement.
Sosis: Right. How did all of this affect you emotionally?
Tuvel: People were absolutely vicious toward me online. I won’t describe in detail the emotional and psychological distress this experience caused me. Suffice it to say that a social media pile-on is an awful thing to experience. Jon Ronson’s book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed is worth a read. The philosopher Kate Norlock has important things to say on this topic. Her excellent paper “Online Shaming” talks about how people engaged in online shaming grossly underestimate the amount of harm they do to victims, which shows we need to think much more carefully about what online responsibility looks like in the Internet age. For instance, many people probably imagined that I didn’t see their posts. Responsible online behavior demands, minimally, that we act as if the actual people we are talking about are reading our words. We have ways of modeling thoughtful discursive engagement that need to inform our online interactions.
The full interview is here.
It is, I think, important not to forget the behavior of those who were so vicious and unhinged. They owe Tuvel an apology.Report
Great interview. It’s incredibly disturbing that individuals on the progressive side of things that push for civil rights and greater inclusion and “equality” can act in a manner that’s so morally repulsive. Especially when two of the central tenets that many of those same people subscribe to are 1) dehumanization and its destructive effects on both the individual and societal levels, and 2) the importance of words and language when it comes to avoiding offense and/or abuse.
I’ve thought about this a lot over the last few years (thanks in large part to the undergrad philosophy degree, some wonderful professors that really made the subject come alive, and my desire to think large and hard about my own secular moral framework). I’ve really tried to avoid (and this can be brutally hard) saying things like “this guy/girl is trash/garbage/a piece of s–t” once I learn they maintain morally repugnant (in my eyes) views. It just seems like I’d be a hypocrite if I allowed myself to refer to people I disagree with not as human beings but instead as pieces of waste. I’d be committing the same infraction against them. And I honestly feel like many on the left are so adamant in their beliefs and sick and tired of the elements of racism/sexism/etc. within society that they fail to understand the way in which they dehumanize their “enemies” (for example, see the controversy about Zoe Samudzi referring to people as “cockroaches” and the frightening historical record of language like that).
It’s incredibly sad frankly, as discourse like this within the realm of philosophy and its academic practitioners looks to be an indication of an inability to critically think and evaluate what kinds of effects this sort of talk can have, never mind the inconsistency in their own web of belief if they are seriously against dehumanization in all of its forms.
This isn’t a call for respectability politics, not making people uncomfortable, or not protesting the hell out of injustice. All of that is important. Yell and scream and vote and educate until the society around you changes. But that can all be done (and in my opinion, more effectively) without referring to your intellectual opponents as steaming piles of human excrement.
This isn’t hard…Report
I agree with everything here but “this isn’t hard.” It doesn’t seem like it should be, but in practice it is, actually, very difficult to protest the hell out of the things you think are wrong with the world without demonizing those who fight against you. Humans have a standing temptation to regard those who oppose them as obstacles, especially if they see their own goals in universal terms (as the will of the people, justice for all, etc.). And it is simply not that big a leap from seeing someone as an obstacle to seeing them as an object, as not a person in the usual sense, as a monster, a cockroach, etc. I agree entirely that we ought not to look at ANYONE in this way. But we can hardly stop thinking of our ethical/political projects as broadly as possible, and we can hardly stop being frustrated when those projects are opposed. At least, we can’t without diminishing significantly our commitment to those projects. We should avoid at all costs objectifying people, but we shouldn’t pretend that avoiding this is easy.Report
Outstanding point, and one I agree with. A much more apt finishing thought would be “this shouldn’t be hard…”
But it is, and for the reasons you alluded to. I’ve had my own struggles with those angry thoughts that bubble up when arguments arise, and my own thinking lead me to a relatively decent (for me at least) starting point: Focus frustration on the thoughts or actions more than the individual that embodies them.
It could be as simple as “Your thinking along those lines is fucked up…why are you acting like an asshole…etc.” which subtly shifts the rage towards propositional attitudes of the speaker, or the ignorance that could lead to those beliefs, or an individual action. There’s also the tacit implication that those thoughts/attitudes aren’t “essential” to the individual that has them, and could potentially change (though some, like current President Numbskull, are likely beyond drastic shifts in outlook). It also jibes with my own predilection to focus on the fact that this immoral or “bad” person used to be an innocent kid without any bigoted thoughts. Some might argue that when they are mature adults, if they hold on to (in our view) morally repugnant views, they somehow become less than human and/or forfeit any goodwill or common decency others might afford them. I just can’t bring myself to that position and, in all honesty, as time goes on I find it more and more perverse (even as I think more and more about the current social issues that need addressing)Report
The vicious way Tuval was treated is unconscionable, but it is even more disturbing that so many philosophers thought that she did something wrong in publishing her article. Philosophers are supposed to question things that we think are true, even in morality and politics. The Tuval case makes me worry not just about how brutally philosophers can be treated if they dissent, but also the tendency not to consider objections if they clash with our moral or political beliefs. At that point, philosophy is rationalization.Report
Based upon the articles I read, my impression was that most of the people attacking Tuval were not philosophers, but came instead from disciplines that do not tend to require authors to consider potential objections to their claims. I noticed that the articles in the popular media, e.g. one in the New York Times, portrayed what happened as a crisis within philosophy, whereas it was in fact a clash between disciplines whose methodologies are fundamentally at odds with one another.Report
She is handling this unfortunate situation with grace and dignity. Kudos to her!
If this is how they behave towards young, female, progressive feminists like Tuvel, then imagine how they behave towards philosophers belonging to certain other categories…Report
“The number of respected feminist colleagues who called me a “Becky” also disturbed me, since Becky is a highly gendered insult.”
I saw a well-known philosopher doing that. I won’t name names, but I’d like them to know I lost a lot of respect for them and have come away feeling they must be a rather unpleasant person who is best avoided. The idea that gendered slurs or insults are justified because someone is racially privileged strikes me as having entirely missed the point of intersectionalism. An anti-racism that is tinged with misogyny is as bad as a feminism that is tinged with racism.Report
I agree that the gendered insult was inappropriate, but I don’t think that has anything to do with intersectionalism. It would also have been inappropriate if it had been a racial insult, or if it had been a gendered insult directed at a male.Report
Also, I would encourage everyone to click through to read the whole interview, especially the part where Tuvel reflects on where she went wrong with the article. There is a lot to be learned from it, not just in terms of scholarship (we can learn from her mistakes) but also in terms of humility and grace.Report
I think one of the most important concepts I’ve come across in recent years is ‘mimetic rivalry’, taken from Rene Girard. There are lots of things I might not agree with in the details of his account, but the basic idea is this, at least as applied to modern politics. ‘Rivals’ become more similar to one another the longer the rivalry lasts and the more hostile toward each other they become. The more they hate and demonize one another, the less they are capable of seeing how alike they are to the hated group.
There are powerful and conspicuous groups on the modern Right and Left that in my view epitomize this tendency (and many, many other rivalries as well, especially in the Middle East). Many on the Left see the past and present vicious dehumanization, contempt, will-to-superiority and ruthless lack of self-examination on which all this rests, and unwittingly mimic it. Then the new (alt) Right sees this, has of course no idea that it is largely a mimetic response, and then proceed to mimic it, perceiving its (short-term, myopic) success and power. Then the cycle continues until perhaps some self-awareness is somehow forced on a critical mass. But the longer the cycle continues, the harder it will be to come to any such awareness. Both groups help perpetuate the dynamic, stabilizing and driving it further down this path. The vicious self-ignorance achieved by both groups helps each group rightfully tell itself that the other group is obnoxious, evil, stupid, etc. To ask whether one’s own group is relevantly similar is to incur sacred violence or expulsion. Thus the socio-moral groups build up ideological walls that will feel like, and indeed will be, a kind of death to tear down.
In this spirit, let me echo Nietzsche’s admonition: “Above all, perish!”Report