Academic Facebook has melted down again: this week, it is philosophy’s turn.[1] At the center of the controversy is Rhodes College assistant professor Rebecca Tuvel’s article, “In Defense of Transracialism,”[2] published in the most recent issue of the feminist philosophy journal Hypatia. Analyzing Rachel Dolezal’s disputed assertion that, having been born to white parents, she believes herself to be African-American, Tuvel addresses the “widespread social perception that it is neither possible nor acceptable to change one’s race in the way it might be to change one’s sex.” However, she continues, “Considerations that support transgenderism seem to apply equally to transracialism.” The comparative case study that Tuvel chose was the former Olympic athlete and reality television star Caitlyn Jenner.

In response, over 500 feminists — a mix of senior, untenured and independent scholars, as well as graduate and a few undergraduate students, signed a letter demanding that Hypatia retract Tuvel’s article. They argue that it “falls short of scholarly standards in various areas,” uses incorrect vocabulary, “deadnames” Jenner (refers to a birth, rather than a chosen, name),[3] “mischaracteriz[es] various theories and practices relating to religious identity and conversion,” and fails to engage with relevant scholarship in race and transgender studies. Worse, these “failures” had caused “harm to the communities who might expect better from Hypatia,” the letter continues. “It is difficult to imagine that this article could have been endorsed by referees working in critical race theory and trans theory, which are the two areas of specialization that should have been most relevant to the review process. A message has been sent, to authors and readers alike, that white cis scholars may engage in speculative discussion of these themes without broad and sustained engagement with those theorists whose lives are most directly affected by transphobia and racism.” You can read the whole letter, with a list of the original signers, here.[4]

On May 1, on Facebook, Hypatia’s editorial board issued a “profound apology to our friends and colleagues in feminist philosophy, especially transfeminists, queer feminists, and feminists of color, for the harms that the publication of the article on transracialism has caused.”

What follows is a conversation about some of the issues raised in this debate between Timothy Burke, Professor of African History and Chair of the History Department at Swarthmore; Meryl Altman, Professor of English and Women’s Studies at DePauw University; and myself, Claire Potter,  a Professor of History at The New School and the Executive Editor of Public Seminar. Our exchange began on Facebook several days ago; in the interests of engaging more deeply without escalating the conflict on social media, we shifted to Messenger in order to produce a first draft of our conversation that could be edited for publication.

We choose to address, not the specific merits or critiques of Tuvel’s article (which we think can be the subject of healthy disagreement) or Hypatia’s specific actions in relation to the essay and its critics, but the scholarly issues that have arisen during the controversy. We were particularly interested in: the ethics of peer review; the ethics of academic kinship; and the wisdom of using social media to coordinate scholarly statements, especially letters that are open to all signatories.


Claire Potter: I think we should begin by noting that although none of us knows Rebecca Tuvel, we all have friends, as well as colleagues we value and admire, who have signed the Hypatia letter. We want to make it clear that the signers’ participation in this one event does not negate our positive connections with them. Conversations about intellectual disagreements have to begin from a place of mutual respect, right?

Meryl Altman: I certainly don’t want to do anything that gives aid and comfort to the serious male piggery that continues to have surprisingly strong influence on the discipline of philosophy, which is why I started doing my thinking about this four levels down on your Facebook thread.

Timothy Burke: Yes, and it’s why I’ve kept my views mostly inside FB rather than blogging about it — not out of any fear for myself, but partly because I agree with Claire that it’s best to let it die down some. I would love someone to say something smart about harm, definitely. If I were going to move to the public space of my blog that would be one of the things I would take up. The other might be the ethics of peer review and of patron-client networks; I’m still shocked that more than one of Tuvel’s own dissertation advisors signed the letter.

Potter: Putting aside for the moment that Tuvel is also being critiqued by her peers, what senior philosophers are saying is that she was given advice about what she needed to do, she didn’t do it, and Hypatia did not choose referees who would have insisted that she make those changes. Tuvel is saying something that is clearly quite unpopular, something that is not supported by the work of scholars critiquing her. My question is: does it make her wrong?

Altman: Well, the fact that her view is unpopular doesn’t make it wrong; but it doesn’t make it right, either. Philosophers, including those who call themselves ethical philosophers, often make a virtue of disregarding the political and social effects of their views. Peter Singer is a case that comes to mind: the outrageousness of his views on disability are thought to certify his radicalism as a thinker… The question for feminist philosophy is whether it wants to claim the right to speak and act in that way, or whether the project of feminist philosophy was… going to be different from that.

Talking about harm… I don’t know. What has happened here is kind of a classic “race to the bottom,” where one party asserts there has been a harm and is met by the counterclaim, “no, it is I who have been equally, or more, harmed by your assertion of harm…” There’s no way out of the circle, and nothing good can come of prolonging it.

Part of what is feeding this controversy is that the community of feminist philosophers is so small, and so beleaguered, which is a recipe for everything feeling like an emergency. It is also a recipe for forgetting that things that mean one thing internally will be understood differently by the wider world.

Burke: All small subfields can have that issue.

Potter: Yet there is a real reluctance among those defending the letter to engage with the perception that this is an attack on Tuvel’s reputation, not merely a critical engagement with Hypatia that was prompted by the publication of the article. Shannon Winnubst takes this position in The Chronicle of Higher Education (May 8, 2017) where she asserts that criticisms of Tuvel’s work made publicly at conferences should have shaped the reviewing process at Hypatia; and that she and the other signers are not attacking Tuvel per se, but rather a peer reviewing process that failed Tuvel “by allowing subpar scholarship to be published in a flagship journal.” I’m not sure what is more peculiar: articulating Tuvel as an agent of harm or claiming that she has no intellectual agency outside the reviewing process and was, in fact, harmed by Hypatia.

But I also find Winnubst’s subsequent assertion — “None of us ever expected it to circulate so widely, to garner so many signatures, or to become the object of news stories” — however sincerely she believes it — to be quite naive about the implications of using the Internet as a platform for these debates. Anyone who did not foresee what would happen if the organizers posted an open letter on Google docs knows nothing about how the contemporary Internet functions, and how quickly and unexpectedly a story like this is going to go viral, particularly when supporters of the letter were recruiting signatures on Facebook.

Burke: Claire’s point is key: don’t do politics online if you don’t understand online culture and digital tools. Period. A lot of our colleagues in a lot of fields need that counsel.

Altman: On the other hand, what happened to Tuvel isn’t all about speed. I’ve had occasion to look into French intellectual and philosophical politics in the first half of the 20th century, and a lot of the same dynamic is already there. Just slower.

Burke: It was a smaller world, too, but yes: there were a lot of attempts by silverback intellectuals to control who could and could not speak, to discipline younger intellectuals who broke ranks, etc. It was all done in the name of a kind of “coordination” of intellectual politics — the notion that if it were not directed with precision at the targets named by the generals, it would have no effect.

Potter: And feminism hasn’t necessarily changed some of these assumptions about how conversations are shaped, nor have the innovative stances that have been articulated by queer and critical race studies in the last several decades.

Altman: It’s interesting that while Timothy is shocked that the dissertation adviser “abandoned” Tuvel, I am less shocked by that (why shouldn’t the advisor be able to say what she or he thinks?) than by the fact that people signed the letter even though they didn’t agree with what the entire letter said. Some people may have signed a letter against an article they had not even read closely. That can’t be good.

Burke: Let me clarify — I’m shocked at signing a letter of this kind about a former advisee, unless it’s a person whose graduation I tried to prevent in the first place. That seems a really serious violation of a kind of kinship obligation. I would not be shocked at an advisor writing an essay or book that critiqued the work of an advisee. That happens all the time, and is a basically healthy sign of scholarly community. It’s an extension of what one does for a student in the first place.

Potter: Kelly Oliver is an interesting player, because she writes specifically about sexual violence and harm conveyed through pornography and sexualized mass media, and you might think this would lead her to support the position that Tuvel had done epistemic harm to trans and critical race scholars with her words. Instead, Oliver is unconvinced that an article in a philosophy causes harm, but that the treatment of writer herself has. She blows the whistle on what seems to be a lot of really bad behavior on philosophy’s backstage towards Tuvel, and anyone who speaks in her defense. Oliver claims that she tried to persuade the editors to redirect this conflict into a scholarly forum but that the “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.”

Burke: But I also worry that there’s a potential infantilizing of harmed people — in other words, those for whom the senior letter writers are speaking — in that claim. It seems to propose that their agency is not their own, but is instead transformed into the agency of their oppressors, who then speak through them and their interests. In the end, no one is responsible for the consequences.

Potter: To return to Meryl’s point: I am disappointed, but not surprised, that people signed the letter without reading the article. We live in a social media culture that depends, in part, on people taking the word of their friends that a particular item is worth re-posting, liking or retweeting. Think of all the online petitions everyone on the left has signed in the months since Donald Trump was elected president, without any real sense of who wrote them and where they are going. What I am disturbed by, however, is that the signers seem to want to use social media and Internet tools without taking responsibility for their consequences. Regardless of their intent, what they have now succeeded in doing is creating an arena for a public shaming of Tuvel that is very difficult to scrub away. I recommend Jon Ronson’s work on this topic for those unfamiliar with Internet shaming: it’s the kind of thing that has left people permanently unemployed.

Burke: I am also not shocked by people not reading what they are signing, if that’s what happened. Claire knows I spend a certain amount of time telling people that the link they just posted in Facebook is to fake news or to something woefully misleading or troubling and that they’re only reacting to because of the headline and/or summary. That annoys me much more when it’s an academic, because it fucks with our value proposition, to put it crudely. But damn, scholars have really got to be careful with this inside their core expertise. Don’t just sign because you see Judith Butler’s name there.

Potter: Yes, and Butler may have good reasons for having signed, reasons that we respect. But what are your reasons — and do you need to know more, which ideally would include reading Tuvel’s article and actually discussing it, to decide what you think? In addition, for all we know, like another prominent signer I know, Butler and any number of people may have rethought their support for the letter and withdrawn their endorsement, but who would know after the fact? Because there are copies cut and pasted into people’s blogs, and the organizers couldn’t pull back a signature if they wanted to at that point.

But I want to get back to what the speed of the Internet has contributed to this calamity. Scholars have always discussed, and argued vigorously about, books and articles they haven’t read. Remember that old joke when we were in graduate school? “Have you actually read X?” “No, but I read the review!” Well now, instead of even reading the review, they are reading someone’s opinion on Facebook or Twitter. It really isn’t uncommon for a scholar to support a perspective in one of these academic fights as an act of Facebook or Twitter solidarity — it’s a performance, really — or to trust in the views of others who they respect. And the need to have an opinion, to take a side and defend it, is the overriding impulse on social media. Having an informed opinion would take longer.

Altman: On an unrelated thread, someone was complaining about articles in literature that get such basic stuff wrong that, my friend complains, it’s like they haven’t even read the book they’re writing about. Well, I work on Beauvoir. Everybody has an opinion, right? And then when you try to discuss some of these opinions, most people go, oh, I’ve only read the introduction, oh, I haven’t read it since college, oh, I didn’t read it because Elizabeth Spelman said…

Potter: Karla Jay once said that exact same thing to me about Andrea Dworkin’s critics.

Altman: Right. But there is loads and loads of good scholarship on Beauvoir now. Which does not deter people from writing articles (in Hypatia, in Signs, everywhere) that pretty much ignore it. Instead they cite Spelman, and a few other critiques, over and over again. So much for peer review. As someone, maybe Timothy, said yesterday in another thread, if peer review means, “cite everyone in the subfield,” and the subfield gets defined more and more narrowly, then maybe peer review is not the solution, it’s the problem.

Burke: “Cite everything” is a terrible commandment. Because it is something that you can always use to throttle an article or book that you disagree with (or that has not bowed the knee sufficiently to the peer reviewer). There is no act of scholarship that “cites everything.”

Potter: And “cite everything” becomes a way for people to control the conversation, whether they are powerful senior people or genuinely marginalized intellectuals. It can also lead to terrible writing, but that’s another conversation.

Altman: Yes. Basically, the question is, who are the “peers”? One way to look at both the problems with the article itself, and the institutional controversy, is to see a failure of interdisciplinarity. This is often an issue with feminist work, but it’s a particular problem for philosophy because of the odd relationship it has to, well, the world. There’s a customary level of abstraction, a value placed on abstraction, that can make people tone deaf to the connections between the concepts they’re manipulating and the lived experience of actually existing human beings. Correctives to this need to come from outside the methodological comfort zone. But at the same time, because mainstream philosophy is still so hostile to feminist work (and to women, period) there’s sometimes a circling of the wagons about This Is Real Professional Philosophy, which can block more heterogeneous approaches.

Nobody can cite everything. Nobody can read everything. But if we are formulating some “toward a better practice of peer review” advice to journal editors… well, one thing might be, if all your reviewers seem to be reviewing each other and each other’s students, that’s not healthy, reach out. (For reviewers, one really obvious thing is, don’t be “reviewer #2” whose comment boils down to: “Did not cite My Very Important Work.”) But the important thing to retain from the critique of Hypatia is: if the article deals with a minority community, one of your reviewers should be a member of that community.

Potter: Agreed, wholeheartedly, although I would also say that what is mysterious about all of this is that I don’t think we know who the reviewers were for the Tuvel article. And can you imagine coming out, in this atmosphere, and admitting that you were one of them?

Burke: I also think Meryl’s last point is correct. It’s a fair thing for people to have requested of Hypatia, and the associate editors might well have had a furious private conversation about this point for all we know. But then it’s a point for the future — about reforming an institution. You accept an outcome that you don’t like if it’s already an outcome, and then maybe you let Tuvel take her lumps in a second article (or as Kelly Oliver pointed out, a forum) that critiques her.

I think one thing that’s worth reviewing for the future is the ethics of peer review itself. Early in my career, I let my own methodological preferences stray into a peer review of a manuscript and I really regretted it on later reflection, It was a valid point, but it’s not the place to make that point. We need a good public conversation about what peer review in the humanities is for and what it is not for. Nobody ever really talks about it; we all just fall into it.

Potter: I have come to accept over time that I am always going to get one good and one bad review. Initially, I found it quite puzzling and upsetting, but over time I have come to understand there is something about my work, or how I think, that provokes sharply divided views. And the older I get, the more I find that I learn a great deal from reviews that are really very unpleasant to read.

Altman: There was a feminist conversation at one point about doing peer review differently. We used to talk about this when I was on the NWSA journal board (briefly, over a decade ago). The idea was to think of it developmentally, as an extension of teaching, in a way. So, I often review in the spirit of “here’s some other stuff you might find interesting,” or “here’s something your article made me think about, although it doesn’t bear directly on your argument right now.” Or, “can you clarify this, because people might think you mean X, and ….”

Potter: Totally agree with you here Meryl: what good does it do to crush someone, anyway? I would also say that the faith the signers (many of whom are graduate students and junior scholars themselves) display in peer review “done properly” is surprisingly conservative. The skepticism the two of you are voicing is pretty widespread out in the world where scholars similar to those who are criticizing Tuvel and Hypatia often view peer review as an insidious form of gatekeeping. I am thinking in particular about the recent blowup about a book on racial segregation, mistakenly assigned for review by the American Historical Review to Raymond Wolters. Wolters has well documented white supremacist views (although I confess, I never knew about him or his views prior to the revelations about the book review.) But it’s important to emphasize that many young scholars I have encountered in the blogosphere have a very dim view of peer review, and perceive it as a barrier to innovation and advancement.

Altman: There might also be room here for a plug for the “slow scholarship” movement (you can learn more about it here and here.) Doing any of this properly — reviewing, responding to reviews — takes more time and ability to concentrate than most people have.

On the issue of whether peer review is the solution or the problem: peer review practices in the humanities are patterned on peer review in the sciences. The latter is based on an idea of progress in scholarly inquiry, and on a certain kind of gatekeeping that might be necessary, i.e. vaccine deniers are not scientists. But to what extent does it make sense for the humanities to copy the sciences in this respect, and to what extent does it not make sense? Philosophy is also in an odd place with respect to gatekeeping. Socrates thought even a slave could know. Stanley Cavell says the insistence of philosophers about certain things being “not philosophy” is matched only by their disagreement about what philosophy is and is not.

Potter: The struggles over Tuvel’s article are clearly embedded in some issues particular to philosophy and its relationship to communities of marginalized scholars. But understanding what these issues were then fell victim to a failure of translation once people not just outside philosophy, but outside the fields of trans and critical race studies, started weighing in on journalism web platforms and on social media. This is something else that I am not sure those who wrote the Hypatia letter anticipated would happen after their views zipped out over the Internet.

Personally, I think the identity politics in the Hypatia letter should be a tough sell for a 21st century feminism. I don’t think our disciplines, history and literature, are gentler or more reasonable on identity issues than philosophy in many respects, but we have very few disagreements left about what constitutes a proper object of study and what identity position the scholar needs to occupy in order to study it. And although it may not be wise to read anything into it, I don’t recall that the two lead editors of Transgender Studies Quarterly, a journal that is disciplinarily quite open and inclusive, signed the letter.

Altman: You know, in an earlier part of this conversation, another of your Facebook friends suggested that the relevant principle was one many of us emphasize to our undergraduates: “challenge the idea, not the person.” The people I know who signed the thing probably have that on their syllabi, and so do I. And in one discussion in one classroom on one day, this can work and is right. If you’re lucky, it can work for the whole semester, and if you’re really lucky, it can work for a whole campus at least for a while. But in an academic field as a whole, in the academic community more broadly (whatever we mean by that), in the institutions that define what we do professionally, it’s an unrealizable goal, a standard none of us can meet (and one should try not to hold other people to a standard one can’t possibly meet). Ideas do attach to people. And actually, they should. The traditional version of why that is, is simply: “you are responsible for what you write.” So, be as clear, as thoughtful, as well informed as you can. Be responsible to your sources, cite properly, don’t misrepresent someone’s argument — boring everyday stuff like that.

The progressive version of this principle might include some sense of being responsible for speaking from one’s social location, as opposed to giving a “view from nowhere.” Not everyone is comfortable with that, especially not with some of its stronger versions. But ideas do attach to people, is my point… pretending they don’t, or hoping there’s a way they could not, is kind of bad faith.

But is there something different about what’s happening in the Hypatia affair because it’s Facebook — different, say, from the way things used to go in the letters column of the NYRB? Or its Parisian equivalent? I’m not sure. Let’s be careful not to blame the Internet for everything. Especially in philosophy, the roots of this kind of conflict go deep. And there have always been plenty of ways to start out strong and well-meaning and end up looking like an idiot, different schools of thought about whether responding publicly to a bad review makes you look like an idiot, and so on.

Potter: Remember the conflict over German historian David Abraham’s book, and the charges two senior people in the field that he had misrepresented his sources to support a Marxist argument? One had actually been a referee for the press, and then recanted his support after it was published. That was in the pre-Internet 1980’s, and all the information was circulating on paper. There was a whole issue of the Radical History Review devoted to Abraham’s defense. He eventually admitted to poor note taking and translation and made changes in the book to reflect that, but it still cost him his career as a historian. My guess is that, thirty years later, people would still disagree about whether forcing him – or someone similar — out of the profession was a just outcome.

Burke: Yet the online thing is also different: it’s about the rapidity of uptake, the uncontrollability of the outcomes, the risk of an “open letter” where you’re not building a careful network of signatories, etc. But you’re right, Meryl and Claire: networks of intellectuals have argued over related ethical failings a good ways back.

Altman: You raised this earlier Timothy, but it still troubles me that so many younger scholars are being spoken for in this scenario. If what happened to Tuvel happened to me (or when it does), I would want to respond myself, and not wait for my doktormutter to respond in my place. I think a lot of what went wrong here had to do with people wanting to support graduate students and early career scholars. We all want to support graduate students, and most of us want to support junior faculty. This applies particularly, but not exclusively, to grad students and junior faculty from underrepresented groups. So an issue to focus on is: What is the best way to do that? Again, hindsight is 20/20. But I was part of the generation that, as one of my grad school friends put it, was “put out on the side of the mountain to die” by the people who were being paid to teach us. And guess what, we didn’t die. I don’t have graduate students and never will, but I hope that if I did I would cultivate their intellectual independence, though in a less brutal way than mine was cultivated. I wrote a piece on this a decade ago.[5] I think the whole “kinship” approach to mentoring is part of what makes the academy so unhealthy.

Potter: I agree.

Burke: I’m all for cultivating independence up to the point of signing a letter that’s trying to bully a former student. 🙂

Altman: Well, I wouldn’t have signed it, myself. But I feel myself about to get into a discussion of what “bullying” is, and also of the danger of assuming one can read intentions back from effects. Both those issues are black holes, and I suddenly remember that I actually have a job, and need to turn my attention to doing it.

Potter: So do we all. Thank you both: this was great.



[1] University of Chicago philosopher and law professor Brian Leiter began his coverage of the struggle over Rebecca Tuvel’s article on May 1 2017. Lisa Duggan has compiled some of the responses to the controversy at Bully Bloggers: readers might also be interested in responses by Suzanna Danuta Walters, editor of the feminist journal Signs and feminist philosopher Kelly Oliver. Readers may also be interested in accounts that have appeared in Gendertrender, New York Magazine, The National Review, The Chronicle of Higher Education (May 8), Inside Higher Education, and Daily Nous.

[2] The article was reproduced by the blog Gendertrender: The authors want to thank the anonymous author of Gendertrender, since Tuvel’s article is pay walled and none of the participants in this conversation could access it in our electronic data bases.

[3] Tuvel removed her reference to Jenner’s birth name in the electronic edition of the article. As a point of fact, Jenner has used her own former name repeatedly on two seasons of reality television, and has said publicly that she considers her past to be constitutive of her present self. Arguably, this does not entitle anyone else to do so, but it is unclear what harm Tuvel’s article caused in this regard.

[4] Again, we thank Gendertrender for reproducing this document, in the form that it was conveyed to Hypatia. While the original letter is available as currently available as a Google doc, once the authors stopped accepting signatures, the signers were no longer visible. We would also like to note that at least one senior scholar told us that he reconsidered and withdrew his signature an hour after signing, but his name is still visible at Gendertrender; therefore, it seems plausible to us that other signers may have done so as well.

[5] Meryl Altman, “Mentors and Tormentors,” NWSA Journal, Vol. 19, No. 3,  (Fall, 2007), pp. 182-189.