The dust-up on social media over Rebecca Tuvel’s article, “In Defense of Transracialism” published in Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy, has given a new meaning to the public/private split central to the history of feminism. For decades, feminists have argued the personal is political, and explored the politics of our private lives. The split between what people wrote to both Rebecca Tuvel and to me in private, and what they felt compelled to say in public is one indication that the explosion of personal insults and vicious attacks on social media is symptomatic of something much bigger than the actual issues discussed in Tuvel’s article. In private messages, some people commiserated, expressed support, and apologized for what was happening and for not going public with their support. As one academic wrote to me in a private message, “sorry I’m not saying this publicly (I have no interest in battling the mean girls on Facebook) but fwiw it’s totally obvious to me that you haven’t been committing acts of violence against marginalized scholars.” Later, this same scholar wrote, again in private, saying Tuvel’s article is “a tight piece of philosophy” that makes clear that the position that “transgender is totally legit, [and] transracial is not—can only be justified using convoluted essentialist metaphysics. I will write to her privately and tell her so.” Others went further and supported Tuvel in private while actually attacking her in public. In private messages, these people apologized for what she must be going through, while in public they fanned the flames of hatred and bile on social media. The question is, why did so many scholars, especially feminists, express one sentiment behind closed doors and another out in the open? Why were so many others afraid to say anything in public?
For those lucky readers who didn’t follow the nasty attacks on social media, a bit of background is in order. To put it all too simply, in her Hypatia article, Tuvel claimed that the very public cases of Rachel Dolezal’s transracial transition and Caitlyn Jenner’s transgender transition operate according to a similar logic when it comes to thinking about identity and identity politics. Tuvel argued in favor of both transgender and transracial identities, as well as for a more fluid conception of identity more generally. In subsequent responses to her critics, Tuvel has said her article was a response to the media sentiment that transgender identity is socially acceptable (Jenner was featured on the cover of Vanity Fair, was a runner-up for Time magazine’s “Person of the Year”, and was named woman of the year by Glamour magazine), while transracial identity is taboo (Dolezal was fired from her job at the NAACP and scorned in the media).
Last week, a flurry of outrage stormed through social media calling the article “wack shit,” “crap,” “offensive,” “violent,” and more. And its author was called “transphobic,” “racist,” “crazy,” “stupid,” and worse. Many were (and still are) calling for a retraction of the article and an apology from Tuvel. Some scholars associated with the journal posted condemnations of the article and issued apologies for it. Eventually, a group of associate editors, spearheaded by Cressida Heyes, whose work is criticized in the article, published an official condemnation of the piece indicating that the journal had made a mistake in publishing it, which of course, just makes the journal look bad. The article was vetted by reviewers and editors, and published, after all.
The feeding frenzy in response to Tuvel’s article couldn’t have happened without social media. The viciousness of the attacks was fueled by the mob mentality of Facebook. Dissenters, even those who just wanted a civil discussion of the issue, were shut down immediately or afraid to voice their opinions in public. Some who in private were sympathetic to Tuvel, felt compelled to join in the attacking mob. The thought police were in full force. Both Tuvel and the journal were under pressure to retract the article and apologize. In a private message to me, one of my academic friends said one editor’s Facebook apology for publishing such an “offensive” article, “sounded like something ISIS makes its captors read in a hostage video before beheading them.” Joking aside, there was (and still is) tremendous pressure to condemn Tuvel and her article. Some who joined in the protests later admitted in private that they hadn’t even read the article. And at least one person who signed a petition demanding that Hypatia retract the text in question, later, when the media tides were turning, wanted to remove her signature from the damning letter. I wonder how many of those who signed that letter had actually read the article. Just this morning, I received a text from someone I respect, lamenting the cruelty on social media, but telling me she was sure she would disagree with the article and find it offensive, even though she hadn’t yet read it.
I have to admit, I didn’t want to enter the Facebook shit-storm and face the wrath of the “mean girls” either. I felt the need to defend Rebecca Tuvel not only because she is a friend and former Ph.D. student of mine, but also because I respect her work, which is always well argued—whether or not you agree with it—and I found her arguments compelling. I summoned up the courage and entered the fray suggesting only that Hypatia invite critical responses to the article. This suggestion was met with ridicule and derision. I then asked critics to respond with philosophical arguments rather than lobbing insults, which was met with claims that I was doing “violence” to marginalized scholars.
The most vocal figures on social media claimed they were harmed, even traumatized, by Tuvel’s article, and by my defense of its right to exist. Some said that Tuvel’s article harmed them, and I was doing violence to them, even triggering PTSD, just by calling for an open discussion of, and debate over, the arguments in the article. While I readily agree that words can do harm and that hate speech exists, my call for philosophical engagement with Tuvel’s article does not constitute harmful speech. In fact, if an essay that openly supports trans identity does violence, and defense of open debate causes PTSD, then by which name should we call the physical violence inflicted on trans people and others daily? What of the PTSD caused by domestic violence, rape, and hate crimes? If an essay written by a young feminist scholar in support of trans rights is violent and harmful, then haven’t we leveled all violence such that everything has become swept up by it, and the very notion of violence has lost its meaning? Certainly, at the very least, we need to distinguish between levels of violence. One Facebook critic called my remarks “unforgivable,” seemingly putting them on par with crimes against humanity. At this point in the social media blowout, (until the Daily Nous published a defense of the article, which elicited support from all sides) I seemed to be the only one publicly defending Tuvel, in spite of the private support she received from folks too afraid to go public.
Through every medium imaginable, senior feminist scholars were pressuring, even threatening, Tuvel that she wouldn’t get tenure and her career would be ruined if she didn’t retract her article. When I called out the worst insulters for threatening an untenured junior feminist, they claimed they were the victims here not her. I wonder. Tuvel’s article in support of transgender and transracial identities didn’t threaten anyone, and didn’t jeopardize anyone’s career. Whereas those calling for a retraction were doing just that to a junior woman in a field, philosophy, nearly 80% of which is still populated by men and which is still resistant to feminism. A senior feminist philosopher called to warn Tuvel that she should be appealing to the “right people” if she wanted to get tenure and warned her not to publish her book on this topic or it would ruin her career and mark her as “all that is wrong with white feminism.”
Part of the problem with the response to Tuvel’s article is that some seem to feel that they are the only ones who have the legitimate right to talk about certain topics. At best, this is identity politics run amok; at worst it is a turf war. Indeed, it leads to a kind of academic Selfie culture where all we can do is take pictures of ourselves and never consider the lives of others. Another criticism of Tuvel’s article is that it didn’t cite enough trans scholarship or philosophy of race. While this may be true, it doesn’t defeat her argument. Apparently, Tuvel’s worst offense was the “deadnaming” of Caitlyn Jenner. Deadnaming is using a trans person’s birth name instead of their chosen name, which can do harm when outing a person as trans, or when that person considers their old self or old name “dead.” I was fiercely attacked on Facebook for pointing out that Jenner is a public figure, a Reality TV star, who doesn’t reject deadnaming herself in her book: “Transgender guidelines suggest that I no longer be referred to as Bruce in any circumstance. Here are my guidelines: I will refer to the name Bruce when I think it appropriate. Bruce existed for sixty-five years, and Caitlyn is just going on her second birthday. That’s the reality.” The irony is that some of the same people publicly disparaging Tuvel for deadnaming Jenner, privately admitted that they’d never heard the word “deadnaming” before the Facebook frenzy. Call it a teachable moment.
In response to my comments on social media about philosophical engagement, some argued it was unnecessary because the issues raised in Tuvel’s article were discussed “decades ago.” That seems unlikely given that the main theme in Tuvel’s article was the 2015 media response to Jenner and Dolezal. Even so, it’s not harmful to ask to see those arguments applied specifically to Tuvel’s article. To the contrary, it should give scholars an opportunity to renew their positions with more vigor, especially given the current spotlight on Tuvel’s essay. Some suggest they don’t want to “dignify” the article with a response. They’d rather just express their outrage at its very existence. My point here isn’t to defend the arguments in Tuvel’s article, but rather to defend the possibility of an open dialogue and debate, and to try to diagnose the outraged response to that idea—the idea upon which the discipline of philosophy, and the academy more generally, if not also democracy itself, are based.
We live in an era of outrage—let’s call it the Trump era. That’s how Trump got elected, by voicing outrage. His most ardent disciples uncritically and unthinkingly believe everything he says because it is expressed with anger and zest. Civility is suspected of being “political,” which has become a dirty word. It’s hard to argue with outrage, and that’s precisely the problem. Outrage has become the new truth. At one extreme, we have Trump and his supporters proudly embracing political incorrectness, and at the other, we have the political correctness police calling for censorship of a scholarly article written by someone working for social justice. On both sides, we have virulent intolerance fueled by hatred. The feminist thought police are the flip side of the alternative facts machine. And both are threats to the open dialogue that is so vital for critical thought inside and outside the academy.
What I find most distressing about the hostile attacks against Tuvel, the article, and my defense of an open dialogue about it, is that there are people and institutions out there that are trying to deny rights to women, especially trans women and women of color. Dissent and debate allow feminism—and scholarship more generally—to flourish and advance, while insults and censorship are the tools of those who would shut us down. In this battle, feminists embracing inclusivity are not the enemy. Far from it. The real enemy is our culture of displaced outrage and its symptoms, namely the thought police and the alternative facts machine. Let’s have critical debate and philosophical arguments instead of cyber-shaming and personal insults.
Kelly Oliver is W. Alton Jones Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University. She is the author of over one hundred articles and twenty books, including, most recently, "Hunting Girls"; "Earth and World: Philosophy After the Apollo Missions"; and "Technologies of Life and Death: From Cloning to Capital Punishment".