In disagreement with Tuvel

By: | Post date: October 13, 2017 | Comments: 5 Comments
Posted in categories: Culture

Following on from my defence of Tuvel:

I’ve read Tuvel’s article, which a lot more than can be said of many who have criticised it.

  • “My friends have been harassed by TERFs because of this specific essay,” for example. Then those TERFs didn’t read the article either: the article takes the right of trans people to determine their own gender identity as axiomatic. And people were using Dolezal as a cudgel to deny trans people their identity a long, long time before Tuvel pondered, based on that cudgeling, whether race and gender are different. The notion that harm is done because people don’t bother to read an article, and therefore the article should never have been written, is no argument. Like Grrrrrobert said: “Yes, our work can be misused by people who want to do evil with it. That’s true. There’s no way to stop that except to stop doing the work.”
  • As a couple of commenters online have mused: it’s not like there’s any shortage of established academics in feminism who dismiss trans identity, and couch womanhood in essentialist terms—something Tuvel has simply not done. To demand Tuvel’s article be retracted, and to say that it inflicts pain on trans people, yet not to venture the same action against anything by Sheila Jeffreys—to use one of the more egregious Australian examples—looks opportunistic. Is it only submissions to Hypatia by junior academics that are to be held to a higher standard, then?

I don’t want to say the article is superficial, because I don’t want to give aid and comfort to censors, who have not advanced any academic argument against the paper other than “did not cite enough trans scholars and scholars of colour”. I think the article is interesting, and well-reasoned, but I also think it is ultimately too simple a view of identity.

I don’t think so because it doesn’t cite enough critical race theory. In fact (and this argument has been raised too) privileging the testimony of those whose identity is contested over any other voice is problematic, because those voices are biased by self-interest, like any interested party’s is.

Yes, so are their opponents’ voices. And that’s where judgement and reasoning is supposed to come in, to make sense of it. Unless you conclude that judgement and reasoning are bankrupt, which in fact the scholars calling for retraction do. That, I’ve spoken about already.

My concern is that this is a paper about identity construction, and it doesn’t seem to be aware of social identity theory, or all the thinking that has come since, on how social identity is constructed. It’s sociology without the sociology.

  • Then again, it is also race theory without the race theory, as its critics said; and Trysh Travis is right: I can’t fault a philosopher for not writing a sociology paper. Winnubst’s response delegitimises analytical philosophy as unrighteous, even when it is is politically informed, as Tuvel’s flavour is; I’m not interested in doing the same.
  • And at least analytical philosophy, with its “ideal theory”, is capable of asking challenging questions, that can help advance understanding. L’affaire Tuvel leaves me skeptical that Continental philosophy is set up to do the same, and to be self-critical as well as other-critical.

In particular, by taking the right of people to define their own identity as an axiom, Tuval makes of identity a primarily individual expression, when it clearly isn’t. Adherence to a group identity is a contract between the individual, the in-group who would recognise the individual as their own, and the out-group they would define themselves against. It’s hard to see how a social identity can ever be constructed divorced from society.

That’s the real problem with Tuvel bringing up the example of conversion to Judaism, as being a matter for the individual and, at most, the rabbi establishing the convert’s bona fides. The question of Who Is A Jew is a much more involved question than that (as Tuvel will know from her own upbringing), and it has a lot more stakeholders. The tribe gets to say a lot about tribal identity; to make one’s creed purely a matter of individual confession with a single religious gatekeeper is… well, it’s very Protestant. It certainly doesn’t sound like any credal identity I’m familiar with from the Balkans. And if you replace Judaism with, say, being Japanese (or any number of other notoriously insular identities), an individual’s desires are not going to count for much with anyone involved in the identity.

Tuvel is aware that it takes two to tango when an individual aligns with an identity—the individual and the collective; but she minimises the role of the collective thoroughly, and asserts the primacy of the individual. That perspective does underpin how trans people arrive at their identity; and to question it is repugnant to our sense of individual rights. (Mine and her’s, at any rate.) Yet when time comes for Tuvel to ask, not how Dolezal is different, but how “otherkin”/furries or the transabled are different—why people can’t also just declare allegiance to a different species, or act as if they are disabled when they’re not—it’s only then that she appeals to the collective as necessary to ratify that identity choice.

She also posits the proviso that society can only ratify that choice, when it is feasible for the person to actually experience life as what they identify as. A person can’t really experience life as an amputee unless they amputate; they can’t really experience life as a dog unless they walk on all fours and pee on your leg.

Tuvel thinks that argument draws a clear line between transracialism and furries. I think the clear line is still on the other side of Dolezal, given how overwhelming the social rejection of Dolezal’s construction has been. If the collective gets a say on an individual’s self-definition, you don’t get to put provisos on that say: the collective has made its own decisions. This has the uncomfortable corollary that how race is constructed is contingent on current social consensus and history, rather than true for all time. But social identities are contingent: they are societal constructs. How can they not depend on current social consensus and history?

And there’s the further discomfort, which looks to have animated Tuvel’s questioning to begin with. Do we therefore invalidate trans people’s identity, by saying it too is contingent on current social consensus and history?

There’s the whiff of philosophical pragmatism around that argument: only that is true which is useful; that hundreds of thousands of people who experience gender dysphoria outweigh one person experiencing racial dysphoria. It’s a messy, time-bound, compromised notion, but it is one I accept, precisely because identity is formed in societal contexts. (And I concede the point to Tuvel’s critics that that is indeed how race is constructed, and that how race is constructed is different to how gender is constructed.)

That pragmatic argument leads in turn to an even more scary conclusion, which I’m not as eager to accept: that in societies where people didn’t and don’t have access to permeable constructs of gender, they couldn’t really claim for themselves transition to the other gender, as far as their society understood that gender (or even as they themselves understood it). Tuvel anticipates those arguments, and she does not welcome them. But again, the claim that someone aligns with a gender is culture-specific and only makes sense within that culture. When Native Americans made social sense of gender dysphoria through the notion of two-spirit, and other cultures devised notions of third genders—proposing their own gender constructs—were they being oppressive by denying the possibility of permeability of gender? And how is it useful to say that?

I come back to an exchange I reported on a few months ago.

Gender dysphoria–or at the very least, awareness of gender/sex mismatch—seems to be very old, given the number of attestations of gender-diverse instances in human societies, and of androgynous cultural artefacts.

What is new is the way that society—and individuals within that society—deal with gender dysphoria. That’s not just about veneration vs punishment from the social norm. That’s also about how individuals express a gender identity under dysphoria; what options their culture afforded them. […] The construals and options of gender, as social phenomena, have changed, even if the psychological and biological drivers behind dysphoria are the same.

I made the argument above to my friend Janna, that the dysphoria is old, but the social construals are new. And she made a very insightful point: the social construals have to be new. Because society is dynamic, in a way that biology is not.


  • John Cowan says:

    Note that WordPress has very intelligently linked this post to “Those Who Have Bowed Down”.

  • John Cowan says:

    To clarify for the benefit of your other readers: the question “Who is a Jew?” is divided into “Who is a Jew by birth?” and “Who is a Jew by conversion?” The first of these has a prototypical answer: “A Jew by birth is anyone whose mother is a Jew.” There are at least three edge cases here, none of which are accepted by all of the relevant groups: if you are a sincere convert from Judaism (as opposed to someone who converts to save their life) you are no longer a Jew; if you are in a class that have been persecuted as Jews (such as those with Jewish fathers only, like my wife, and the spouses of Jews or half-Jews, like me) you are a Jew; the recursive definition lacks a base case, so eventually it must fall back on “A Jew is someone known to both Jews and Gentiles as a Jew.” The second case is the one that Tuvel describes, and it leads to another edge case: “Is your rabbi really a rabbi?” For millet status in Israel as a Jew, the (Orthodox) Israeli rabbinate must agree that your rabbi is a rabbi, which generally means he must be Orthodox.

    In Islam, though, matters are quire different: whoever says the shahada three times with intention to become a Muslim is a Muslim. (Maimonides said it in order to prevent a mob from sacking his house. but a court decided that he remained a Jew by both Jewish and Islamic law.) Again, for millet purposes the story may be different: everyone in Turkey whose parents are not both Jewish or both Christian belongs to the Muslim millet.

    • opoudjis says:

      I said that identity is a negotiation with the both outgroup and the ingroup. Being in a class that have been persecuted as Jews is in fact engaging with the outgroup’s definition of who is a Jew—and for some members of the ingroup, it sounds like, conceding it. Hence indeed the fallback of “known to both Jews and Gentiles as a Jew”—which is, I guess, how most group identities are run.

      • John Cowan says:

        That particular version underlies the Law of Return, which is about who the Israeli government will grant instant citizenship to. So you can be admitted to Israel and as a citizen too, and still not be a Jew for millet purposes, which affects inter alia who you can marry in Israel, a modern country which still has no civil marriage and no intermarriage (though it recognizes civil marriages solemnized abroad). So I have Irish/EU citizenship by birth (my grandfather was born there) and Israeli citizenship by marriage. Good things to have, potentially.

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