They’ve Never Listened To Us

On the Hypatia controversy and the silencing of trans voices in philosophy

Prologue: A couple weeks ago, I was talking like a moderate.

I thought of myself as not all that invested in this.

When I first heard the new issue of Hypatia contained an article called “In Defense of Transracialism”, I felt hints of curiosity and unease, but I didn’t really pay much attention to the situation.

When I first noticed what people are calling the “Hypatia Controversy” or the “Tuvel Affair” blowing up, before the drafting of the open letter, I sat down to read the paper in question. I didn’t immediately see the big deal. It was a terrible paper, but it didn’t stand out among recent terrible philosophy papers on trans issues. It seemed like just one more bad paper published by people who should have known better. Hardly the first time for that. Not worth getting bent out of shape over, right?

When I saw the open letter circulated, I was filled with admiration for and gratitude towards the authors, but I quietly neglected to sign. I was sympathetic to the spirit of the statement, but misgivings about the details held me back.

Sure, I let off some steam by cracking jokes in more private spaces about what a train wreck the paper was. Yes, I tried to comfort and support my trans siblings who had stronger or more public reactions. But I didn’t feel wounded. I didn’t feel like I was in the fight. I was more bored and irritated than enraged.

But as this has gone on, more and more people unfamiliar with the issues have tried to make this about anything and everything except stopping to listen: to listen charitably and in good faith, to trans and gender-variant philosophers, and to black philosophers and other philosophers of color, to listen to our grievances, and to hear why so many of us feel this matters or find it hurtful.

Seeing this response has helped me to share my siblings’ rage.

Every time some commentator mischaracterizes and rewrites our complaints based on their own imaginings, or gets lost in the textual details of one (admittedly hastily drafted) open letter, instead of trying to understand why we are hurt and angry, they prove to me a little more that my siblings were right to be hurt and and angry from the outset.

Let me try to explain.

I don’t hate you. I don’t know you. This ain’t about you.

Professor Rebecca Tuvel and I have a lot in common.

We’re both junior philosophy faculty.

We’ve both at one time or another published papers that were in hindsight pretty embarrassing.

We’ve both at one time or another made hurtful, embarrassing mistakes while talking about trans issues.

We’re both interested in philosophizing about trans issues, even though we have conspicuous gaps in our knowledge of the relevant literature on gender.

We have both had moments when we handled criticisms or call-outs rather worse than we should have.

There are important differences too.

Professor Tuvel is, as far as I know, a cisgender woman.

I am a trans person who spent about the first three decades of their life being understood as a boy and a man by virtually everybody around them.

Professor Tuvel is pretty clearly not informed by much in the way of contact with or understanding of trans lives, trans perspectives, trans activism, or the folk-social-theory associated with trans and activist communities.

I currently inhabit social spaces that are full of trans people — mostly trans people of an analytical disposition — and my (spotty) personal education in on trans issues involved reading a lot of activist blogs.

Professor Tuvel’s hurtful, embarrassing mistakes appear in her embarrassing paper, which had a attention-grabbing topic and a relatively high-profile publication venue, and so got more attention than I’m guessing she was remotely prepared for.

My past mistakes in this area have occurred on a much smaller and more personal scale, in interactions with friends who were more inclined to be forgiving.

Given all this, it feels to me like the reason it’s her and not me in the uncomfortable situation she’s now in is mainly a matter of my unearned good luck.

I don’t wish Professor Tuvel ill. I see too much of myself in her to wish her ill.

Anyway, I don’t see the point of it. I don’t think any kind of direct measures of censure against her as an individual really make sense or are appropriate or are likely to accomplish anything good. I wish the paper could somehow have been retracted and buried fast enough to prevent this from blowing up, or, better yet, that she could have gotten a rejection accompanied by a thoughtful-but-negative referee report, and that this had helped her to do better work on these topics. If she can learn to do good work on this topic, or if she can be induced to direct her attention at another topic and do good work on it, I wish her all the luck in the world.

It also doesn’t strike me as obviously disqualifying that Professor Tuvel is cis and white — many writers on these topics whom I deeply admire, and who have profoundly influenced my own thinking, are cis and white. (Note, though, that her being cis and white is relevant to reading the situation. It is almost certainly an important part of the story of how this paper came to be the particular kind of banal, derivative paper that it is, and it is quite difficult to imagine a paper with these particular failings being written by a trans person or a person of color.)

It brings me no joy to think that Professor Tuvel has had a traumatic couple of weeks. This kind of unwanted, unexpected fame is something is something I would be reluctant to wish on anybody.

I also recognize that retraction norms in the humanities are in some respects under-explored, and that this means any specific call for a retraction is likely to be controversial.

Mainly, though, I can’t bring myself to care about the question of Professor Tuvel’s character or her intent, or about her actions in writing such a terrible paper, or about the specific terribleness of the paper. That’s all just one person screwing up. I don’t say that to excuse anything, but this is a common enough kind of screw-up that it’s hardly noteworthy. Philosophers writing bad papers — especially bad papers about trans issues — is a routine occurrence.

But, although it is, unfortunately, necessary to discuss Professor Tuvel and her work as an example, she is not really the point. To borrow Sally Haslanger’s metaphor, I think that the important thing to understand about this particular fire has more to do with the fuel than the spark.

The problem is not that the paper was written. The problem is with numerous institutions and systems of power within the discipline of philosophy. This paper being published in this form is one clear symptom of that problem, and a useful illustrative example.

The symptoms are not the malady.

The reason that this paper being published in its current form is so distressing cannot really be captured by looking at any one feature of the paper in isolation.

It’s about how this event — not the particular contents of the paper, but the fact of its publication — is the perfect illustrative example, and the perfect evidence, of a much larger systemic problem with how feminist philosophy and gender theory treat trans voices and trans lives.

It’s about how so very many cis feminist philosophers won’t listen to us . They won’t read us. They won’t cite us. They won’t hear what we’re actually saying, at least not if doing so would stop them from jumping to the uncharitable interpretations that leave intact their preconceptions about transness and their sense of themselves as not part of the problem.

When we look at this situation, the key thing we see is that this paper could only have been published in this form if nobody involved in the process was even remotely serious about listening to us.

This is a high-profile journal of feminist philosophy, and it apparently sees no problem with publishing a trans studies article that has clearly never been looked at in any substantial way by a trans person, or by anybody who has put real effort into listening to trans people. It has not been looked at by anybody with enough expertise on trans experience to notice the vast number of (completely unnecessary) hurtful and dated language and style choices, or to know that most of the arguments (such as they are) are entirely composed of what in trans circles is just what mathematics researchers would call “folklore” — just obvious arguments or concerns that every trans person has at some point raised, or has heard another trans person raise, or has seen an internet troll raise.

It’s bad that the paper is so derivative that, as far as the substance goes, it reads like it might as well have been plagiarized from the dark depths of reddit.

It’s worse that the state of the discipline is such that a paper can go to press in a major feminist philosophy journal without anybody involved realizing it was that derivative.

Reading the paper and reading the situation

Think about what it must feel like to read a paper about you — a paper in people-like-you studies — that was written, reviewed, and published without passing under the eyes of somebody who knew enough about people like you to notice that it was violating some of your best-known rules of etiquette.

Think about what it says about the field that it was possible for everybody involved in handling this article (an article that was not subtle about its focus on trans issues) to be somebody who lacked basic trans literacy.

Think about what it says that everybody involved either lacked the self-awareness to realize they lacked such literacy, or decided that such literacy was not needed to properly evaluate a trans studies paper for publication.

For a moment, don’t think just about the individual fallible people who made individual human mistakes. Think about what it being possible for this to happen says about the system.

Think about what this says about the representation and position of trans people in this scholarly community.

Think about what this says about what this intellectual community, collectively, must think we’re worth.

Think about what this says about what respect it must think we are or aren’t due.

Think about what this says about the recent history of professional prospects for trans scholars in this field, that none were in a position to be involved.

Think about what it must feel like, as a trans philosopher, to realize that these people, who know so little about the realities of trans life and the conversations around it, and who appear unwilling to see their ignorance as a problem, are the ones who review trans studies papers. Think about what it must feel like to think of them reviewing your trans studies papers. Think what it must feel like as it sinks in that when you try (often within a tight word limit) to make a research novel contribution that is relevant to the issues affecting your community, the fate of your work (and, by extension, your career) is being decided by people without even the most minimal literacy in those issues.

Goddess save me from friends like these.

Just as the cover-up is often worse than the crime, so the behavior of Hypatia’s and Professor Tuvel’s new-found fans has been much worse than anything in the paper that started this, to the point where I am tempted to say that they are worse than Professor Tuvel and her mediocre paper deserve.

Such defenses have quickly blossomed an active genre, and it is not practical to give a complete overview here, but a few key themes bear mentioning.

One common theme is that the defenders tend to be happy to reenact, often with much less nuance, the same hubris that the paper exemplifies.

They are happy to deem this work well-researched, but they clearly lack the familiarity with literature and the subject matter needed to know what relevant established work has been overlooked.

They praise the novelty of the argument, without entertaining the possibility that, even if this is all new to them, every piece of the argument is not just unoriginal, but painfully familiar from the perspective of most trans readers or readers embedded in trans politics.

They insist the piece is tightly argued, but they restate its core argument using generalizations that fail when confronted with trivial and obvious counterexamples that would immediately occur to anybody who has done even the most basic philosophical work on these topics.

Another theme is general refusal to take seriously the causes of our anger, or to even seriously attempt to understand what those causes are. Instead, the focus has been placed on the ways in which specific statements of anger (whether in the open letter or in personal statements on social media) have been articulated with imperfect clarity, civility, and restraint.

The problems with the paper that we have called attention to are real problems, but, much more than that, they are evidence of the failure of Hypatia’s editorial practices and review process. Instead of engaging with this issue, many commentators have chosen to read these specific problem complaints — typically meant only as non-exhaustive lists of examples — in thoroughly uncharitable ways, and to then focus on the question of their technical accuracy.

Worse than either of these, though, is the consistent, willful mischaracterization of our concerns. No matter how many times we say that the paper is under-researched, under-argued, derivative, or banal, and no matter how many times we say that the real problem is bigger than this paper, others have seized upon the idea that the paper is under attack for asking unaskable questions or for drawing an unpopular conclusion.

Some of us disagree with the paper’s stated conclusion, but, for the most part, objections to the question and the conclusion have not been at the center of the complaints presented. Others have chosen to read us this way on very little evidence. To understand why this is so insulting, you need to understand that we are, after all, philosophers. We know how to appreciate a good argument for a bad conclusion. We know how the examination of such arguments is essential to doing careful philosophical work. Like other philosophers, we got into this business to ask the big questions, and we understand that sometimes, when you do that, you get answers that challenge your comfortable, familiar beliefs.

The paper takes a controversial position, and many observers were quick to assume that our stated objections must be primarily objections to that position. This reading of our objections is at odds with the idea that we are real philosophers who are willing to confront the hard questions and the uncomfortable implications of appealing positions. Given this tension, many of our colleagues have chosen to stick with the unsubstantiated hunch that we must think no paper defending this conclusion should be published, and to discard the assumption that we are serious philosophers. This comes across as more than a little insulting.

The fire and the fuel

With all that background about this incident, please understand that this is not the first or the biggest transgression. It just happens to have been the last straw.

Know that we have again and again seen our research and the research of our trans siblings — research that, in many cases, the community of trans scholars recognizes as making needed, under-recognized, and politically urgent contributions— rejected by the same journals and conferences that regularly accept shallow, inept drivel that dismisses and defames us based on junk-science and stereotypes.

Know that in many cases it has been clear that these rejections are rooted in referees’ and editors’ total lack of awareness of the realities and problems of trans lives and trans politics, and that their failure to see the point — or to consult somebody who can — often looks more like stubborn refusal than honest ignorance.

Know that we have for decades been exploited across numerous disciplines by researchers who regard us as convenient symbols, examples, and curiosities, often at the expense of distorting and misrepresenting our lives and voices, without regard for the public damage that such distortions and misrepresentations may do.

Know that the same authors who are terribly interested in us as a source of publications or as a cool symbol, have typically been completely uninterested respecting us, in hearing us, or in grappling with the inconvenient complexity and diversity of our lives and perspectives.

Know that such research has, from its beginnings, been deeply entangled with political movements that have sought to marginalize us, demonize us, and deny us our most basic rights, and with a medical system that has routinely and arbitrarily denied us access to needed care.

Know that they’ve never listened to us.

Know that that failure to listen has often been lethal.

Given all that, think what it must feel like to see this kind of clear evidence that the leading feminist philosophy journal — a journal that many of us had looked to as a relatively hospitable place for research on trans issues — is still this thoroughly uninterested in having a process that is informed by listening to us.

Think about what it says to us when our systemic concerns are completely ignored in favor of telling us the most important thing about this story is that some alleged excess of the discussion of retraction in our hastily-assembled start-of-negotiations-style list of demands, or that we should be more careful not to point angrily at examples of those systemic concerns in a way that paints the fallible individuals whose errors furnished the examples in any kind of bad light.

It’s true, retractions are rare in philosophy, and any demand for retraction raises legitimate abstract questions about appropriate retraction norms.

It’s true, we ought to sympathize with the fallible individuals in these stories.

This stuff is always true. It’s always important.

But if you think any of that is what this story is about, maybe you still aren’t listening.

Appendix: But what about the Thought Police?

As I noted above, a lot of people are trying very, very hard to make this about the thesis announced in the paper’s title, and to fit this story into a familiar narrative of a “PC witch hunt” against advocates of controversial positions. In this context, the calls for retraction come across as targeted suppression of certain taboo positions.

If this were an accurate characterization, it would be an understandable source of concern.

As far as I can tell, though, this is not remotely accurate. The paper’s stated thesis is unpopular in general, and it is unpopular among trans philosophers and philosophers of color. But my impression, from conversations going back long before this article was published, is that we are, on average, not nearly as hostile to it as you might expect. There are, to be sure, some people whose views align with the standard line that dismisses the trans-race identification as offensive and absurd, but there are also many who have characterized their positions as to one degree or another agnostic, and, as it happens, the person I know who has expressed the greatest level of sympathy for claims of trans-race identification is a trans philosopher of color. All of these friends of mine, no matter how open they are to the possible merits of this paper’s conclusion, are united in their extreme disappointment with the paper as it exists and with its argument for that conclusion.

What, then, is the demand for retraction about? In large part, it’s about lack of originality, sloppy research practices, and conclusions that are not adequately supported by the evidence. These are not censorious, totalitarian grounds for retraction. They are problems very much in the spirit of established grounds for retraction across a variety of fields. I do not have a developed opinion about the precise proper retraction norms for philosophy research, nor do I have a worked-out view of how reasonable norms ought to apply to this case, but the case before us does not obviously require us to entertain an entirely new or uniquely politicized basis for retraction (although the political dimension certainly contributes to the sense of urgency that many of us feel in this case) — it requires us to work out how established general principles should be realized as concrete practices, and to assess the severity of the infractions associated with this particular paper.

(Acknowledgments and disclaimer: I am indebted to a number of trans and gender-variant philosophers, black philosophers and other philosophers of color, and allies whose suggestions have improved this piece. I have focused on trans issues above not because I think issues of race are less important here, but because I am less personally and professionally qualified to comment on those other issues. There are, of course, important differences in what problems one sees if one looks at this from a race studies perspective, or from the personal perspective of a black philosopher or another philosopher of color. That said, my impression has been that many — though by no means all — of the issues that arise in that setting are to some degree analogous to those presented above.

Note added 2017/05/14: This piece should do a better job of being clear when it’s talking about trans philosophers, when it’s talking about trans people in general, and when it’s talking about trans philosophers working in gender theory or trans studies. Many trans philosophers work in areas of philosophy that have little-to-nothing to do with issues of transness, and obviously if you’re a trans philosopher not working or planning to work in trans studies, you don’t “think of them reviewing your trans studies papers”, for example. Trans people, including trans academics, make lives and careers in all the areas that cis people do. We’re a quite diverse group, and we aren’t just obsessed with theorizing ourselves all the time, although, for obvious reasons, it seems likely that proportionately more trans folks than cis men are drawn to gender studies topics. To read this piece in the spirit I’d prefer, you may have to silently adjust exactly which trans folks you take me to be talking about at a few points. To trans people who don’t do trans studies and who don’t agree with everything above: I see you. You are real. I can only speak for myself, and I don’t want to speak for you and speak over you.)

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