On petitions to retract articles: II

By: | Post date: October 12, 2017 | Comments: 2 Comments
Posted in categories: Culture

L’affaire Tuvel continues to haunt me.

To get you up to speed: here’s the dime summary from Wikipedia.

The feminist philosophy journal Hypatia became involved in a dispute in April 2017 that led to the online shaming of one of its authors, Rebecca Tuvel, an untenured assistant professor of philosophy at Rhodes College in Memphis. The journal had published a peer-reviewed article by Tuvel in which she compared the situation of Caitlyn Jenner, a trans woman, to that of Rachel Dolezal, a white woman who identifies as black. When the article was criticized on social media as a source of “epistemic violence”, scholars associated with Hypatia joined in the criticism and urged the journal to retract it. The controversy exposed a rift within the journal’s editorial team, and more broadly within feminism and academic philosophy.

In the article—”In Defense of Transracialism”, published in Hypatia‘s spring 2017 edition on 25 April—Tuvel argued that “[s]ince we should accept transgender individuals’ decisions to change sexes, we should also accept transracial individuals’ decisions to change races.” Three days later, a small group on Facebook and Twitter began criticizing the article and attacking Tuvel. From 29 April an open letter, naming Alexis Shotwell of Hypatia‘s editorial board as its point of contact, urged that the article be retracted. Its publication had sent a message, the letter said, that “white cis scholars may engage in speculative discussion of these themes” without engaging “theorists whose lives are most directly affected by transphobia and racism”.

On 30 April on the journal’s Facebook page, Cressida Heyes, one of Hypatia‘s associate editors, posted an apology for the article’s publication on behalf of “a majority” of the associate editors. By 2 May the open letter had 830 signatories, including scholars associated with Hypatia and two members of Tuvel’s dissertation committee. Referring the matter to the Committee on Publication Ethics, the journal’s editor-in-chief, Sally Scholz, said that she stood by the article and that, in having apologized, the associate editors had acted independently. Hypatia Inc.’s board of directors confirmed on 18 May that the article would not be retracted. The associate editors’ apology remained on Hypatia‘s Facebook page, updated to say that it did not represent the views of the editor or directors. In July 2017 Scholz resigned and the directors suspended the associate editors, thereby removing the authority of the latter to appoint the next editor.

And here’s the supporting literature:

Three reflections.

First: You don’t outsource your editorial processes to Facebook

To retract an article is as close as academe comes to blackmarking your record. That’s something you don’t walk back from in your resume. To muse that it would be a “amazingly revolutionary gesture in philosophy”, which would highlight the marginalisation of black philosophers, is astonishingly cavalier about the fact that this would also destroy a junior academic’s career. Just as Tuvel has been accused of being cavalier, by not citing enough black or trans theorists, or reflecting enough on black or trans pain.

This is the kind of dangerous precedent that, if you’re going to do it, requires consideration. It requires weighing up of consequences. It requires thinking through what it says not just about your cause, but about the academic enterprise in general: what you do in a journal in feminist philosophy, and the critique of academic discourse that you further with it, very much affects what happens in journals in linguistics, or veterinary science, or jurisprudence.

And it’s something you should make damn sure you have a persuasive argument for. If it’s not hurt feelings but poor scholarship, then don’t keep bringing up hurt feelings. The vacillation between the two ends up addressing neither. (It also shows your awareness that scholarship is not designed to accommodate hurt feelings or hegemonies, making it expedient to recast your outrage in terms of scholarly norms; are you subverting the scholarly paradigm, then, or aren’t you?)

If it is poor scholarship, offer more specifics of where the scholarship was poor, than merely “did not cite enough black or trans people”. (And for that matter, do not assume that either black or trans people are going to be monolithic in their scholarship or opinions. That is a tokenism so rank, only a white cis ally could come up with it. And the fact that the people shouting down Tuvel were neither black nor trans has been remarked on by not a few commenters.) And think long and hard about whether an argument as essentialist as “did not cite enough black or trans people” is tenable in a scholarly context, and that it doesn’t degenerate into checkboxing.

This is the kind of dangerous precedent that you don’t kick off with an online petition. That’s not how scholarship in done, now any more than in a Leonidio town hall in 1906.

This is the kind of dangerous precedent that you don’t respond to in your capacity as an associate editor, without consulting with your editor-in-chief, let alone your board.

This is the kind of dangerous precedent that you don’t respond to on fucking Facebook. “Oh my God. They’re baying at the gates. We have to say something Right Now.” No. No you don’t. For the selfsame reason you don’t formulate US foreign policy on Twitter.

There was something of an admission of this in Guenther’s comment on her post, though not an abject enough one:

The speed with which this situation escalated was astonishing, and I, like many people, felt that it was important to take a collective stand ASAP, esp given the failure of the journal’s editor-in-chief to make a statement that acknowledged the substantive objections to the paper’s publication (something along the lines of: I hear you, let’s create a forum to work through these issues structurally and substantively, rather than: Join the dialogue! # Hypatia). So at this point in world history, I would not sign an open letter calling for retraction. 36 hours ago (or whatever), it seemed like the right thing to do. I say this not to justify or excuse my decision, but just as a recognition of the point that Alison makes above about the speed of social media and the difficulty of working both with and against this speed.

You joined an online shaming mob in 2017, not in 2005 when Facebook was new and there was no Twitter. In joining an online shaming mob, that’s someone’s professional reputation you’ve been party to trashing. Someone whose dissertation committee you were on. “Woopsies, seemed like the right thing to do at the time” really doesn’t cut it. And “let’s create a forum to work through these issues structurally and substantively” doesn’t sound all that different, or more substantial, from “Join the dialogue! # Hypatia”. It does sound way different, though, from “Retract this article now, because she’s racist and transphobic and a kook for not citing the right people”.

And finally, if the associate editors are going to ignore their editor-in-chief and their board, apologise for the article, and assent to calls for its retraction, it’s still a bad idea for the apology and offer of retraction on fucking Facebook to be made by an associate editor (Cressida Heyes) whom the paper had expressed disagreement with.

Conflict of interest. It’s not just for the patriarchy.

(That looks like a throwaway jab. It actually isn’t just a throwaway jab, and I’ll come back to it at the end.)

As it stands, Hypatia is immolated. The editor-in-chief has defended the peer review the paper went through, and resigned anyway. The board has booted the associate editors, so that they can’t pick the next editor-in-chief. And for a discipline that has struggled to be taken seriously, as Winnubst writes, feminist philosophy now has a flagship journal whose name is mud.

Talleyrand again: It’s worse than a crime. It’s a mistake.

Second: Snark is not a “critique”

I’ve read the Guenther and Winnubst ripostes, and…

… and I can’t even, as the young kids say.

I alluded to the disconnect between the liberal and the radical view of censorship in my previous post on journal retractions. And the Guenther riposte in particular is from a different dominion from that which I call home. A dominion I don’t care to call home.

(The Winnubst riposte merely dismisses the reaction as patriarchal and pursues grievance; and I’ve found less to engage with there. “I signed the open letter as part of a continuing effort to make feminist philosophy something other than a damaged, dutiful daughter to the deeply troubled discipline of philosophy.” Thereby burning the village in order to save it. Lots of truly righteous gold in the comments to her piece, including lots of criticism of the paternalism of white cis senior academics presuming to speak for trans and black people.)

There are some bits Guenther said in her main post that I can reluctantly agree with:

But ideal theory is not the only alternative to irrational “baser instincts.” What ideal theory abstracts from–and this is the reason why Mills argues that ideal theory is ideology– is the network of power relations that shape particular historical contexts and meanings.

Just as I reluctantly agree with Wyckoff:

All I can say, right here and now, is that to reach a settled position I would have to ground the question in the concrete realities of blackness and its history—realities reported by the very people who experience them. And I’m certain that I don’t know nearly enough to write a paper on any of this.

Sure, arguments are not made in a social vacuum; and sure, social context needs to be considered, especially when you’re discussing social constructs; and sure, freedom of speech is not carte blanche to advocate genocide or beating people up. (As if that’s what Tuvel did.)

And still, that does not make a case for retraction; and contrary to the pious wording of Wyckoff, of course the impression this leaves is that some theses are verboten to articulate, and philosophers must not say anything that gives offence to any group, even when that was the furthest thing from what they intended.

(As I said above, the comments to Wyckoff are more enlightening. The welcome class critique of the critics by HeavyHeart is a particular delight—so long as we accept that a Canadian untenured lecturer in Tennessee is “immigrant labour”, which honestly is not far off the mark. But the comments by Steven Levine, Anon, and Eric Odgaard are all cogent criticisms from within the framework of what this all means for academic discourse.)

Pretty much nothing Guenther said in comments, on the other hand, I can agree with.

Here’s the most dispiriting bit of Guenther’s riposte, and there are many:

Adam Thurschwell: Overly-dramatic I’m sure, but this whole event highlights what seems like to me, at least, to be the situation of “philosophy” today, including whether it’s even possible anymore, objectively, for there to be such a thing, to the extent that philosophy necessarily and essentially incorporates a moment of “ideal theory.” I’m actually not sure there’s anything left for philosophy to do at this point but think this very situation — something along the lines of the relation of historicity to history/politics/the actual, etc. (and I’m not sure even that can be “philosophical” in the proper sense). Everything else is praxis and maybe that’s what we should just call it, without pretending to the “philosophy” label.

Lisa Guenther: I don’t think that’s overly dramatic at all! I think it’s spot on. But I actually think that philosophy is, or can be, a form of praxis. A praxis of critical – and collective – sense-making.

… A nice piece of self-citation there, from Guenther’s own work with Death Row prisoners. But this praxis is to not to be run with the civility and presumption of good will that defines academic discourse; and it’s certainly not to be collegial sense-making, right? The struggle is too pressing for mere courtesy, after all. (Or perhaps only prisoners deserve courtesy, and white cis scholars like Tuvel—and Guenther—don’t.)

Here’s the most tone-deaf bit, and there are many:

Philibert Nguyen: I sent Ms Tuvel a message of support.

Lisa Guenther: It’s Dr Tuvel.

Prof. Guenther would know that it’s Dr Tuvel. She was on Tuvel’s dissertation committee.

Prof. Guenther would know that Dr Tuvel needs support. She subscribed to the open letter trashing Dr Tuvel’s reputation, and continued to defend it.

There was a response of disgust to that “Dr Tuvel” correction on Facebook, which I’m not repeating, but which I sympathise with. A friend characterised it as microaggression itself, and that I’m in sympathy with too.

Here’s the most incendiary bit, and there are many:

Lisa Guenther: It’s been interesting to see how closely liberal and alt-right discourses on free speech align when black (and) trans people’s lives, perspectives, and critical analyses are on the line. (And by “interesting” I mean predictable but enraging.)

Abe Roth: Goodness. Are you really making this comparison?

Lisa Guenther: It’s not a comparison, it’s a _structural critique_ of liberalism and its investment in current structures of domination through the deployment of rhetoric such as free speech, civility, or “diversity and inclusion” — which are not _the same_ as the rhetorics and tactics of the alt right, but remain utterly incapable of _fighting_ the alt right — rather than actively confronting domination and struggling for collective liberation.

Leaving aside the puzzling notion of a snarky one-liner on fucking Facebook constituting a structural critique: that’s the same school of thought that came up in my previous post: reason will not combat the alt right, therefore we need to do more. Somehow. And liberalism does not give us the tools to do it, so they’re no better than the alt-right; and any notion of free speech and civility are smokescreen constructs that preserve the comfortable status quo. As opposed to… Antifa punching fascists in the head, I guess.

(Just remember. Street thug fascists have had a better track record with violence than tenured academics.)

As a “critique”, it is, of course, not more compelling than the “critique” that started this all in the first place:

This is why it should not have been published in Hypatia, and why the demand for a retraction is not simply the irrational whim of an “angry” mob, but a critique of white feminist ideal theory as transphobic and anti-black ideology.

… Why can’t it be both? 😐 And more importantly: how effective a critique is it, if it comes across as the former?

Third: To the barricades with you!

So. Free speech and civility are the smokescreen of the entitled, then. You know what else is a “smokescreen”?

Academe. The notion of free enquiry. The notion of double blind peer review, and of having people’s argumentation be subject to evaluation, rather than their personhood, lived experience, or identity alignments. The notion that reasoned debate is preferable to combat. The notion that the pursuit of knowledge can be disinterested. The notion that conflicts of interest, such as Cressida Heyes’, should be avoided. (Told you I’d get back to that.) The notion that the accountability of associate editors counts for as much as the accountability of the editor-in-chief. Academe: the compromised, privileged sham that pays the salaries of everybody involved; and that requires the sham of double blind peer review in order to keep funding those journals.

A sham I’m going to retain confidence in. All human institutions are shams and compromised, especially including revolutions. The particular sham of academia and free enquiry, though, has had a decent track record. Again, a better track record than most revolutions.

Chomsky drew NATO funding in his early days too, when the military thought his research would help them with machine translation of what the Russkies were up to. So I guess undermining the model that you inhabit can be made to work for you.

But Thurschwell above was right. It is definitional to philosophy (or at least, to traditional analytic philosophy) that it asks abstract questions. If asking abstract questions is harmful or an indulgence, and there is nothing left for analytical philosophy to do (a malaise the Quillette article diagnosed)—then as my friend John Cowan anticipated me saying: the barricades await. Praxis is for the streets, not for the lectern.

But while you are behind the lectern, you remain complicit in the practice you call a sham, and in the aspiration to free discourse that you decry. And you are bound by its rules of collegiality and integrity and open inquiry, because all the other people complicit in that sham are going to make sure you are, and so are the agencies funding you. (Cressida Heyes, for instance: just finished ten years as Canada Research Chair in Philosophy, and I’m sure she’s welcoming being on sabbatical now.)

Where did Charles Mills critique “ideal theory”, after all? Oh, that’s right. In an academic journal. In Hypatia itself, as it turns out.

And frustrated though you might be that the alt-right don’t disappear in a puff of smoke, I will not accept that silencing the adversary and the inconvenient is the answer.

  • Because Jacobins don’t have a good record when it comes to the welfare of the collective.
  • Because a collective liberation worthy of the name does not arise from illiberality.
  • Because paternalistic cries of microaggression are themselves (as my friend Jennifer Edeburn has pointed out to me) “another method of silencing, when people end up making no comments because they must speak so carefully to say anything that it isn’t worth the effort.”
  • Because an idea that cannot be defended in the face of challenge, whether that challenge is in good faith or malicious, is not an idea that will recruit effectively—or for that matter an idea that can be upheld with intellectual integrity.
  • And because intellectual integrity does actually still matter to me.

If intellectual integrity doesn’t matter, if the struggle for collective liberation outweighs the niceties of academe, if the Jacobins have the answers that the mealy-mouthed liberals don’t—then come out from behind your lectern: the barricades await. But don’t call what you do scholarship then: it’s polemical journalism, and it’s journalism you should be aspiring for people outside of academe (you know, on the barricades) to comprehend. Which means you don’t get to say “praxis” as often. And you don’t get to snort, when adversaries misconstrue your use on fucking Facebook of the phrase “discursive transmisogynistic violence”, that your adversaries “did not have the conceptual competence to engage with the post”, as Nora Berenstain did. The underprivileged you purport to speak for don’t have a PhD either. Pull down thy vanity.

If intellectual integrity doesn’t matter, if the struggle for collective liberation outweighs the niceties of academe, then don’t beat Tuvel up for not meeting scholarly standards, when those standards are unabashedly ideological. And don’t bring into disrepute the scholarly venture which—despite its known corruption, and known shortcomings, and known biases, still works as a way of deliberating and of furthering knowledge. If that’s not your venture, stop pretending it is.

Leave it behind; the barricades await. Don’t live a lie to get a paycheck: that just makes you look suspect. Don’t keep angling to undermine the system from within: messes like these are what result when you try to hybridise revolutionary action with civil discourse. And try a bit more self-critique: The Long March Through The Institutions has succeeded; but the Long March Through The Institutions has failed. It did not prevent Trump from gaining power, after all. In too many ways, it enabled it.

God speed on your barricade. Not that the barricades have had a convincing track record, but god speed anyway. I guess. And I’ll keep my distance from you when you get there. “But when you talk about destruction / Don’t you know you can count me out.”

To the barricades with her

And I’ll give not John Lennon, but Rebecca Tuvel the last word. Just as Hubert Pernot lamented back in 1930, “that’s not how scholarship is done”:

Any words of wisdom for folks working on stuff where the conclusions are potentially incendiary, especially untenured folks such as ourselves?

I would like to shift the question away from advice to the people writing controversial conclusions to those engaging them. I would advise those engaging controversial ideas to do so charitably. We philosophers teach our students to engage their interlocutors charitably. It will be depressing if our internal discourse cannot instantiate that practice. I think part of charitable reading involves not jumping to the conclusion that the person who wrote the controversial argument could only have had nefarious motives, which various people accused me of.

Or even, she adds, how work on the barricades is done:

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.


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