“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.



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