“A couple of weeks later, I heard that OUP would not be publishing Trouble with Gender… for the sole reason that ‘the book does not treat the subject in a sufficiently serious and respectful way.’ No errors in the manuscript were identified and… no revisions were allowed.”
The (unsubstantiated) allegation of unseriousness was particularly galling, since the draft [totaling over 100,000 words] had 16,000 words of endnotes and a massive bibliography. To excuse the large number of citations, I had earlier written to OUP, “a persistent criticism of people not hewing to the party line is that we haven’t ‘read the literature,’ so it’s probably a good idea if I demonstrate that I have in fact read the literature.”
Regardless of one’s positions on various questions regarding gender, sex, and trans issues, those acquainted with book publishing in philosophy will recognize this as a very unusual way to handle a contracted manuscript.[See OUP editor’s reply in Update 1.]
Byrne did not contest OUP’s decision about his book manuscript, he says, because of a recent experience regarding his invited chapter on pronouns for the Oxford Handbook of Applied Philosophy of Language. The chapter’s eventual rejection (itself somewhat unusual, given the normal way these volumes are put together) was telegraphed publicly on Twitter by one of the editors of the volume.
Byrne takes his recent experiences to support the view that trans issues are a subject on which a reigning political orthodoxy within academic institutions is stifling legitimate inquiry.
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Here’s one way of characterizing all of this: a philosopher whose subpar work in an area he is relatively new to is bitterly and unjustifiably blaming the powerful forces of political correctness for his deserved rejections and ill treatment by editors and publishers.
I think leaping to that characterization would be a mistake.
I haven’t read Byrne’s handbook chapter or his book manuscript. Maybe they are quite terrible, and so the rejections were warranted. But how likely is it that they were so unsalvageably bad that the unusual deviations from standard publishing protocols, and even the lack of substantive explanations for the rejections, were warranted? Isn’t the answer much closer to the “not likely” end of the spectrum? (And if so, shouldn’t we be curious for more details?)
Let me state that while I don’t know Byrne personally, nor am I familiar with all of his views on the myriad questions that arise in regard to “trans issues,” I think he and I would disagree about them quite a bit.
Also, as I’ve said before, we should take seriously just how difficult existing discourse about transgender issues can be for our trans colleagues and students—in academia and also in the broader discriminatory culture. Recent legal developments in the United States have made things even worse for them.
Still, even if one thinks that Byrne is seriously mistaken, and perhaps insufficiently sensitive to the difficulties trans persons face, one can still think that his testimony about his experiences describes actions (and omissions) by editors and publishers that are concerning. Just think of yourself undergoing them. Think of an untenured professor with views you like undergoing them.
You may recall our discussion of “t philosopher,” the trans philosopher who found philosophy too transphobic to stay in it. Here’s a part of that post I’d like to share again:
The more I have learned about the philosophical and policy arguments regarding transgender issues, and in particular trans women, the closer I have come to a fairly strong trans-inclusive view. Like most philosophers, I’m not the kind of person who, on controversial matters, just takes others’ words for it. I want to hold the view of the matter that I believe is most justified, and to do that I need to understand the issues and to be moved by reasons and arguments, and to do that well, I need to make sure I’m getting a good accounting of the relevant considerations and opposing arguments. How can I do that? By engaging with the best work those with competing views have to offer.
If the institutions of philosophy prohibit the defense of trans-exclusionary views, what then? Do the views disappear? No. Rather, their best defenses go elsewhere, to less reliable, less seriously-vetted venues… where argumentative errors, rhetorical nudges, strategic omissions, and polemical sleights-of-hand are more likely.
Furthermore, the absence of trans-exclusionary views from academic venues under such conditions does not thereby signal their weakness to philosophers who’ve yet to form considered opinions on the matter. It signals instead a kind of dogmatism that threatens to alienate allies. The very love of philosophy that is central to t philosopher’s identity, and which contributes to the awfulness of what has happened to her, is also what makes so many in our community uneasy with prohibiting the expression of views on matters they think involve a lot of interesting and unresolved philosophical questions.
In short, if your interest is in more philosophers coming to reject trans-exclusionary views, then we have to talk about trans-exclusionary views, and to do that well, we have to let those with trans-exclusionary views talk to us through the institutions we’ve found valuable for pursuing the truth. This argument doesn’t depend on prioritizing philosophical questioning above all else, or on the idea that as philosophers we question everything. It is based on a confidence in the justifiability of a more trans-inclusive view, and a belief that Millian considerations regarding the expression of ideas are not unrealistic for the philosophical community.
Additionally, to say that we have to let those with trans-exclusionary views talk to us is not to say that everything goes.
(See also: disagreeing with Kathleen Stock but arguing against her disinvitation from a conference and criticizing Holly Lawford-Smith’s anti-trans website but defending her right to make it, for example.)
In Byrne’s case, we have just one side of the story, and most readers will not have read the relevant works by him (nor, some might add, know enough about the subject to assess them in a worthwhile way). I think this favors caution and tentativeness in any discussion of that case.
Especially welcome, though, would be constructive suggestions for how to best think about, promote, and protect academic freedom in ways that adequately acknowledge its potential for tension with other values worth promoting and protecting, too.
UPDATE 1 (4/19/23): In a comment below, David Wallace reproduces the text of a letter he sent Oxford University Press philosophy editor Peter Momtchiloff expressing his concern about Alex Byrne’s account of his treatment by OUP. Momtchiloff replied today. According to Momtchiloff, Byrne’s book manuscript “underwent peer review, and Alex was given comments on the manuscript from me and from four expert readers.”
Here is Momtchiloff’s reply to Wallace in its entirety:
Thank you for your message, and for your kind words about OUP.
You will understand that I can’t discuss the details of a specific review process, as this is a confidential matter. I can confirm, however, that the decision not to proceed with Alex’s book manuscript was editorial in nature. By way of clarification, let me assure you that the manuscript underwent peer review, and Alex was given comments on the manuscript from me and from four expert readers. On the basis of these assessments, my judgement was indeed that the work was not appropriate for publication by OUP. And Alex’s submission for the Handbook also went through a process of review by expert readers.
Feel free to share this reply if you wish. I just ask that, if so, you share all of it.
Byrne, in Quillette, had said:
A couple of weeks later, I heard that OUP would not be publishing Trouble with Gender either, for the sole reason that “the book does not treat the subject in a sufficiently serious and respectful way.” No errors in the manuscript were identified and, as with the pronouns chapter, no revisions were allowed.
Apparently, all that the four expert readers and Peter Momtchiloff told Byrne is that “the book does not treat the subject in a sufficiently serious and respectful way.” Is that logically possible? Sure. How likely is it? Isn’t the answer much closer to the “not likely” end of the spectrum?
Perhaps Professor Byrne will share the comments he received on his book manuscript in their entirety.
UPDATE 2 (4/20/23): Byrne replies in the comments below.
UPDATE 3 (4/20/23): David Wallace makes a Freedom of Information Request to Oxford University Press requesting correspondence pertaining to publication decisions regarding Byrne’s book and handbook chapter, a book and an edited collection by Holly Lawford-Smith, and a volume of essays on women philosophers proposed by Richard Marshall. (Edited to add: the request explicitly asks that any identifying information about the reviewers and OUP’s non-editorial staff be excluded from the produced materials.) See his comment here for details.
UPDATE 4 (4/21/23): Comments on this thread are now closed.