Symbolic Conscription

I’ve watched the last few days as philosophy social media and now blogs lit up with the crisis at Hypatia over Rebecca Tuvel’s article on transracialism. (Summary of some of the commentary here.) Throughout, I have been dismayed by the way that people I respect or whose work I admire have taken out after each other, engaging in pugilistic, hostile, sneering interactions that now apparently pass for debate. Along the way I acquired a more current insult vocabulary by osmosis. I learned that calling someone “Becky” is an insult, among other things.

There are a host of thorny and complex issues attached to the debates raging on social media and blogs elsewhere. I do not want to engage those here. But here is something I do want to say, a plea, if you will… And, given the heat that surrounds all of this, I feel obliged to render explicit that I here speak only for myself, not for any other bloggers on this site.

The profession of philosophy has a host of problems that are amply in evidence in all of these debates. This list would, in my opinion, include: a long history of exclusionary practices coupled with free theorizing about lives utterly unlike those led by people allowed into the professional guild; self-serving myths about quality control and the quality of arguments, a set of standards we regularly fail to fulfill even as we suspiciously trot them out whenever something new (to “us”) comes down the pike; demographic narrowness that should provoke serious worry that our efforts to address philosophical issues is compromised by homogenous experiences, epistemic patterns, and social situation; journal practices that are sub-optimal in more ways than can readily be summarized; quasi-professional spaces – social media and blogs – that operate like the wild west and leave many misanthropic and alienated, and too often target the vulnerable; failures to address or acknowledge how philosophy and activism can intersect or, at the very least, how philosophical commitments and activism legitimately operate in a recursive loop for at least some philosophers; how dubious gate-keeping practices are a perennial phenomenon within the profession and one we too often refrain from analyzing carefully, much less address coherently; a climate in which philosophers across the spectrum of values and identities attest to be fearful of the ire and contempt of peers, of being subject to conversational and professional practices that savage; and… there is more.

Here, then, is my plea: Please stop symbolically conscripting Rebecca Tuvel into the role of personifying all of these systemic issues that attach to the profession at large. I here do not wish to weigh in on the quality of Tuvel’s scholarship; what I want is to urge that we cease treating her article and her as the personification of issues that are all over the discipline. I here issue no judgment of Tuvel’s work but ask that we all recognize this: Even if you judge Tuvel to have done all of the things that have been laid at her door, she would not be unique in any of them. The problems that have been attached to her, that she has come to singularly personify in all these debates, are ones that her own critics would, I think, freely acknowledge exist all over the discipline. Yet she has been uniquely singled out for public opprobrium.

Behaving as if solving the “Tuvel problem” will alter the deep problems we have conscripted her into personifying is, I believe, to wrong her. But even if you disagree with me about that and imagine that what she has likely endured the last few days is wholly warranted by what she wrote, consider the litany of problems above, consider the litany of systemic problems we have conscripted her into personifying and ask whether addressing her solves any of those problems. I don’t think it does. Worse, it risks certifying as acceptable laying the mountain of our profession’s problems on one untenured scholar. To be clear, we heap burdens on scholars in inequitable ways with a disturbing frequency – our professional gate-keeping is one iteration of how we do this. Treating one scholar, one untenured woman scholar, as the symbolic personification of the profession’s ills – raising petitions against her work, engaging in public insult of her (see: Becky), and so forth – will not fix what ails us. It is a symptom of what ails us. And what ails us is legion.

Bibliography on race and gender

Meena Krishnamurthy has done the profession a great service by setting up a google doc with a wonderful, growing bibliography.  She writes:

One of the central criticisms of the recent piece in Hypatia by Rebecca Tuvel on the infamous Dolezal case is that it failed to discuss much of the relevant literature by POC and transgender people on related topics. In the hopes of moving future work in the right direction, this is a collection of relevant resources that emphasizes work by POCs, transgender people, and members of other underrepresented groups. Thank you for contributing. 

To check out the bibliography, go here.