Hypatia throws critical thought out the window in the name of feminist philosophy

While numerous people — from feminists, to journalists, to academics, to teachers, to writers, to experts in the field of gender identity, and of course, your average social media user — have experienced the silencing and attacks that inevitably follow a failure to toe the party line on the issue of transgenderism with exacting precision, a recent controversy within the field of philosophy has demonstrated this trend with disturbing clarity.

The reaction to an article titled, “In Defense of Transracialism,” published in the Spring 2017 issue of Hypatia, a journal of feminist philosophy, has shone further light on just how totalitarian trans activism has become.

Considering the mass denunciations of the author, Rebecca Tuvel, accusing her of “transmisogyny,” you might think she takes at least a controversial position on transgenderism. In fact, Tuvel does not argue against the phenomenon, but rather asks why, if we are willing to accept an individual like Caitlyn Jenner’s “gender identity,” we shouldn’t accept someone like Rachel Dolezal’s “racial identity.” Tuvel’s aim was not, in other words, to challenge the existence of trans people or their right to transition, but to question the logic of those who say a white person cannot “feel black” whereas a male can “feel like a woman.”

“Generally, we treat people wrongly when we block them from assuming the personal identity they wish to assume,” she writes. Tuvel goes on to explain that, while in the past, the identities of trans individuals were often not respected by those around them, “Thankfully, [today] there is growing recognition that justice for trans individuals means respecting their self-identification by granting them membership in their felt sex category of belonging.”

Tuvel goes out of her way to say that society should accept both transgender people and the phenomenon of transgenderism regardless of whether or not we are able to prove a “biological or social basis of sex-gender identity.” She also questions the notion that there is such a thing as a shared experience of womanhood, connected to biology. It is strange, therefore, that her paper has been presented as somehow opposed to or harmful to trans people.

The dominant claim of trans activists is that they are seeking rights, respect, and safety for those who identify as transgender. What is clear to many of us who have questioned the validity and impact of the idea that a person born male is literally a woman, simply because they say so, is that this is not simply about rights and respect. The reaction to Tuvel’s article shows that, indeed, trans activism is primarily invested in controlling discourse. That a scholar would poke holes in the logic of those who vehemently oppose the concept of “transracialism” but who unequivocally support the concept of “transgenderism” is unacceptable because it challenges those who do this to ask questions and think critically — something not permitted within the church of gender identity. In order to “support trans rights,” avoid being labelled a “TERF” (i.e. a hateful bigot), and to generally be accepted as a progressive, “inclusive” person, you must repeat approved mantras, ask no questions, and denounce those who challenge popular discourse by asking uncomfortable questions. What the attack on Tuvel shows is that it is not stated opposition to trans rights that demands repudiation, but rather the application of critical thought to the idea of “gender identity.”

Not long after Tuvel’s paper was published in Hypatia, an open letter was circulated, demanding the article be retracted. The letter claimed Tuvel’s article caused “harm” and was only published due to unchecked “white and cisgender privilege.” Crimes listed include the use of the term “transgenderism,” which the authors of the letter claim is a word that is “not recognized, accepted, or adopted by the conventions of the relevant subfields” (there is no evidence to show this is true), and the “deadnaming” of a transwoman. These claims were repeated by many of Tuvel’s colleagues on social media. In a Facebook post, Nora Berenstain, an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Tennessee, said that Tuvel enacted “violence” by “deadnaming,” using the term “transgenderism,” discussing “biological sex,” and acknowledging “that trans women have (at some point had) male privilege.”

The reason trans activists oppose the use of the word “transgenderism” is, apparently, because it implies an idea rather than a fact. In other words, it allows the notion of gender identity to be discussed rather than accepted blindly as inarguably legitimate. Writer and trans activist Julia Serano, for example, explains that the term was a neutral one until feminists “misappropriated it in a way that confuses the state of being transgender with a potentially dangerous political ideology.” Of course, the truth is that gender itself is merely an idea (an idea applied with force, in a harmful way, of course, but still an idea, rather than an inherent fact), without which transgenderism would not exist. Without gender stereotypes (i.e. masculinity and femininity), there would be no point in claiming the identity of the “opposite gender” because it would be meaningless. The idea that one can even have an internal gender identity is unprovable and highly contested. So, as much as trans activists would prefer to pretend as though there are no questions surrounding the legitimacy of gender identity, to the extent that they demand the language used to discuss these ideas be banned, it is not true. Feminists have been challenging the idea of innate gender since the inception of the women’s liberation movement — indeed, we understand it to be at the root of patriarchy.

The accusation of “deadnaming” is, similarly, an overt attempt to control discourse. In the case of Tuvel’s article, she acknowledged that Caitlyn Jenner was once Bruce Jenner (for 65 years, in fact) — a crime of epic proportions, only because it acknowledges that transwomen are in fact male and lived with male privilege. That acknowledging this reality (that trans people indeed transition from one thing to another, and therefore were not always the thing they claim to be now) is said to be unacceptable speaks to the way in which trans activists are working to deny reality and limit discourse. Understanding that Jenner lived as a wealthy white male harms no one. It is a fact. To deny this reality, on the other hand, is harmful, as it forces us to deny the existence of systemic, class-based privilege. It asks us to deny that oppression under patriarchy is based on sex and that Jenner benefited from male privilege regardless of his internal feelings.

The remainder of the attacks on Tuvel, listed in the open letter, are similarly empty or unsubstantiable. Mylan Engel, a philosophy professor at the University of Northern Illinois, points out, for example, that “in fact [the article] was meticulously researched” and that Tuvel “cites a combined 27 books and articles in the course of presenting and defending her view.” Justin Weinberg, an associate professor of philosophy at the University of South Carolina, demonstrates that the claim that Tuvel misrepresented and mischaracterized various theories and accounts is also false.

Beyond all that, there is the fact that the paper was accepted by the editorial board after having undergone their standard reviewing procedure and made it through double-anonymous review with at least two referees. This means that Tuvel’s paper was, in fact, up to snuff, as per the standards of the journal and the field.

The open letter itself, while defamatory and irrational, would not necessarily have resulted in the (actual) harm that it has, had Hypatia’s editorial board not caved to pressure. But on Monday, a post on the journal’s Facebook page issued a “profound apology… for the harms that the publication of the article on transracialism has caused.” The board expressed regret for having published the article and agreed with the numerous accusations listed in the letter, including the charge of “deadnaming,” adding:

“Perhaps most fundamentally, to compare ethically the lived experience of trans people (from a distinctly external perspective) primarily to a single example of a white person claiming to have adopted a black identity creates an equivalency that fails to recognize the history of racial appropriation, while also associating trans people with racial appropriation.”

Though Tuvel differentiates between sex and race, she does point out that, while many claim  that men who identify as women lose their male privilege by doing so and deny that a shared experience of growing up female in a patriarchy has anything to do with womanhood, they don’t apply the same logic to someone like Dolezal:

“Granting for the sake of argument that the experience of racism is what binds all black people together, it remains unclear why one’s past experience with racism is required for one’s current status as black. Racialized as black in her current life, Dolezal is presumably treated similarly to any light-skinned black woman. Dolezal herself suggests as much when she describes the humiliating experience of having her hair searched by the TSA and of being subject to police harassment as a black woman (Nashrulla, Griffin, and Dalrymple 2015). So why say she can claim to be black only if she was racialized as black her entire life? If she has been subject to racism for over ten years (McGreal 2015), is this not sufficient to expose her to an important element of what it’s like to be black in a racist society? Moreover, if true, this objection would also apply to trans women who transitioned later in life but did not grow up knowing what it was like to experience sexism. Yet despite not having grown up with this experience, we do not rightly suggest that a trans person cannot, for this reason, now identify as a woman.”

In other words, the philosophy scholars who denounced her article and publicly accused her of causing “harm” refused to engage with the questions asked by Tuvel (a thing that, of all people, philosophy scholars should do, with rigour), choosing instead to throw a young, untenured, assistant professor to the wolves, potentially destroying her entire career, in order to placate a mass of dishonest, unthinking bullies. Tuvel herself has been subjected to death threats and hate mail as a result of the letter and statement from Hypatia, which the board did not speak out against, but instead called “predictable and justifiable.” This decision has not only seriously harmed a woman who dared only to think, but will undoubtedly silence countless more women who are insecure in academia. For a journal of feminist philosophy to silence critical thinking in this way is not only shocking, but incredibly dangerous.

Chloe Taylor, a professor of philosophy at the University of Alberta, explains the harm caused effectively, at Daily Nous:

“This is not an environment that is conducive to political change and learning — all that is being taught is to be afraid and silent, to not work on difficult or controversial topics because we could be subjected to this kind of attack. Already I am wondering if I should not write or teach on certain topics that make me vulnerable to attack, and I know of other feminist philosophers who are now thinking the same thing. This is fostering an academic culture of fear and censorship rather than thinking and engagement. We need to discuss these important issues carefully, but we need to do it in a way that does not do so at the expense of a junior social justice scholar working in a male dominated discipline, who may have made some mistakes, but mistakes that many of us could have made or have made without being subjected to the same aggression.”

The ethical concerns brought up by Hypatia’s response are numerous, including defamation, promoting anti-intellectualism, and effectively endorsing misogynist silencing and attacks on dissenting feminist voices. It is also worth noting that Cressida Heyes, a philosophy professor at the University of Alberta, who is the Canada Research Chair in Philosophy of Gender and Sexuality, and is the member of Hypatia’s editorial board who wrote the apology (and publicly denounced the article on her personal Facebook page), is referenced by Tuvel, who criticizes Heyes’ work on transracialism and transgenderism in her article.

Feminist philosophy exists to discuss feminist ideas and to apply a feminist framework to philosophical texts and questions. That those ideas and this analysis may be controversial is a given. If Hypatia’s editorial board is not equipped to navigate controversy in a fair, honest, and ethical way, they should step down, as this means they are not able or willing to fulfill their duties as board members. If anyone deserves an apology in this mess, it’s Tuvel herself, as well as women everywhere who have been silenced yet again, this time in the name of feminism.

Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist from Vancouver, BC. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including The Spectator, UnHerd, Quillette, the CBC, New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and is now exiled in Mexico with her very photogenic dog.