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In disagreement with Tuvel
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.