Every single time I think the academy has reached peak intolerance and peak insanity, it proves me wrong. There is no argument that is too stupid for academic radicals. There is no lie that these “scholars” aren’t willing to tell to advance their agenda.
Just ask liberal-feminist philosophy professor Rebecca Tuvel, the latest victim of the ritual “two minutes hate.” Her crime was serious: She had the audacity to write a paper exploring the arguments “for and against transracialism” and argued that “considerations that support transgenderism extend to transracialism.” In other words, she took the question that millions of Americans asked when Rachel Dolezal was exposed — if a man can “really” be a woman, why can’t a white person “really” be black? — and explored it through a liberal, feminist lens.
Judging from the reaction, you would have thought she burned a cross in the quad. A fully woke University of Tennessee professor named Nora Berenstain fired the first shots. Her (now-private) Facebook post reads like an Onion parody of political correctness. It’s worth quoting at length:
Tuvel enacts violence and perpetuates harm in numerous ways throughout her essay. She deadnames a trans woman. She uses the term “transgenderism.” She talks about “biological sex” and uses phrases like “male genitalia.” She focuses enormously on surgery, which promotes the objectification of trans bodies. She refers to “a male-to- female (mtf) trans individual who could return to male privilege,” promoting the harmful transmisogynistic ideology that trans women have (at some point had) male privilege. In her discussion of “transracialism,” Tuvel doesn’t cite a single woman of color philosopher, nor does she substantively engage with any work by Black women, nor does she cite or engage with the work of any Black trans women who have written on this topic.
For those who don’t know, “deadnaming” is the practice of using a transgender person’s “old” name. In this case, she had the audacity to type the name “Bruce Jenner.” This, friends, is deemed to constitute actual violence. As is the notion that Bruce — when he was an Olympic champion and featured on cereal boxes from coast to coast — could have ever enjoyed male privilege. That’s violence. All of it. Perhaps now you can see why radicals riot. They’re not committing crimes, they’re engaging in acts of collective self-defense.
Berenstain was hardly alone in her anger. Furious philosophers penned an open letter to Hypatia, the peer-reviewed journal that published Tuvel’s paper, accusing her, among other things, of using “vocabulary and frameworks not recognized, accepted, or adopted by the conventions of the relevant subfields,” mischaracterizing “various theories and practices related to religious identity and conversion,” and failing “to seek out and sufficiently engage with scholarly work by those who are most vulnerable to the intersection of racial and gender oppressions (women of color) in [her] discussion of ‘transracialism.’”
These critiques — in addition to their typically intolerant intersectional incoherence — were plainly false, as New York Magazine’s Jesse Singal pointed out: “All in all, it’s remarkable how many basic facts this letter gets wrong about Tuvel’s paper. Either the authors simply lied about the article’s contents, or they didn’t read it at all.” The only word I’d quibble with here is “remarkable.” It’s entirely normal for radicals to either refuse to read work they purport to hate or to lie about its contents. Just ask Charles Murray.
Rather than defend Tuvel, Hypatia’s board of associate editors responded with one of the most craven and cowardly statements in the history of craven academic cowardice. It begins:
We, the members of Hypatia’s Board of Associate Editors, extend our 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.
“Harms”? Are “transfeminists, queer feminists, and feminists of color” really so delicate that they can’t withstand the publication of a paper they don’t even have to read? Apparently. But back to the letter, which gets better (or worse, depending on how you look at it):
In addition to the harms listed above imposed upon trans people and people of color, publishing the article risked exposing its author to heated critique that was both predictable and justifiable.
“Predictable,” yes, but “justifiable”? At this point, “scholars” are threatening Tuvel’s future in the profession, and she’s been deluged with hate mail and denunciations. How is any of that “justifiable”?
Academic freedom cannot and will not flourish if its alleged defenders reserve their outrage only for when their ideological allies fall victim to the online mob.
In all of this madness, there are — perhaps — some seeds of hope. There has been a backlash to the backlash. Singal’s excellent piece in New York unequivocally condemned the attacks on Tuvel as a “witch hunt.” Vanderbilt philosophy professor Kelly Oliver wrote a thoughtful essay calling for “critical debate and philosophical arguments instead of cyber-shaming and personal insults.” Other academics have weighed in on Twitter and elsewhere in Tuvel’s defense.
But in reading these pieces, a troubling subtext becomes apparent: It seems that the outrage isn’t only the attack on free expression and academic freedom, it’s that it was directed at a liberal in good standing. For example, in a Chronicle of Higher Education piece called “Academe’s Poisonous Call-Out Culture,” writer Suzanna Danuta Walters begins with this:
We are in the midst of the Trumpian apocalypse. Actual bigoted provocateurs like Charles Murray and Ann Coulter throw flames in the academy. Hate crimes against trans people and people of color and Muslims are on the rise; women’s reproductive rights are on the line, as are just about every other aspect of bodily autonomy and gender justice. So what’s making scholars hyperventilate in outrage? A feminist academic whose body of work is clearly on the side of progressive social justice.
Is she even aware of the irony? I suppose the “call-out culture” is only poisonous when directed at progressives. Otherwise, Charles Murray is fair game. Otherwise, hyperventilation is fine. After all, abortion and “just about every other aspect of bodily autonomy and gender justice are on the line.”
Academic freedom cannot and will not flourish if its alleged defenders reserve their outrage only for when their ideological allies fall victim to the online mob. If progressives feel they have to torch conservative straw men before mustering up the courage to defend free inquiry, then academic freedom has a dark future indeed. Conservatives will be walled out entirely, and progressive discourse will be jammed into ever-tighter ideological spaces as a brave few liberals fight a desperate rear-guard action against the true radicals.
One hopes that professor Tuvel’s ordeal will serve as yet another wake-up call, teaching professors that there is no safe space from social-justice warriors. But if the Left’s defense against the far-Left is limited to calls for unity against the true enemy (men such as Charles Murray, apparently), then it’s just disguised intolerance. “We should want academics to write about complicated, difficult, hot-button issues, including identity,” Singal wrote. “Online pile-ons cannot, however righteous they feel, dictate journals’ publication policies and how they treat their authors and articles.” One wonders how many campus progressives are likely to agree with his sentiment.