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.

42 thoughts on “Symbolic Conscription

  1. This is well said, I think.

    Jan Dowell Director of Graduate Studies Associate Professor Department of Philosophy Syracuse University

    On Tue, May 2, 2017 at 6:00 PM, Feminist Philosophers wrote:

    > Prof Manners posted: “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 r” >

  2. I concur that it’s a mistake to treat the problem (of speaking from a privileged standpoint without full engagement with the work of those most vulnerable) as unique to any one person (or to any one group, like white cis women). And pain is so often transmuted into snarkiness in ways that can further complicate efforts at more effective communication. At the same time, I see in this moment that some are applying language of “attack” and “witchhunt” in connection with efforts to call Hypatia to account. The author is not unique, nor is Hypatia unique in being willing to publish some work that handles race and gender identity questions in insufficiently attentive ways. Hypatia does, however, have a special commitment to taking robust engagement with marginalized standpoints seriously as crucial for feminist scholarship. Hence it’s reasonable for Hypatia’s readers to hold the journal to that standard. To be clear, I do concur with you that big-picture problem-solving is at odds with individualized attacks (when they really are attacks — neither legit critiques nor private venting). Though you haven’t spoken directly to this point, I hope you might concur on this: Criticizing an important journal for failure vis-a-vis its own norms and mission is not the same as criticizing any individual’s character.

  3. Thanks for this post—I agree with you.

    I know that there are many relevant differences that makes a direct comparison difficult, but I have been struck by how much more heated some of the rhetoric has been in this instance, compared to the Synthese case last year with Jean-Yves Beziau.

  4. Thank you for this, especially for drawing our attention to the long-standing, systemic problems for which we all–especially those of us who are cis-gendered and white–bear responsibility. One hope is that we will find ways to bring Hypatia along on the journey toward doing that. [Naomi, I edited this lightly. Hope that’s ok. PM]

  5. Elise, thanks for your comments and I appreciate your raising the way pain transmutes. I don’t think I know enough about the progression of events regarding Hypatia, so let me just express what concerns me about what I have seen, with the caveat that I may well not have seen all there was to see. From what I saw, any dialogue with Hypatia’s editors happened at light speed, from social media stirrings to a public firestorm and petition for retraction over a single weekend. People were also running Facebook threads to encourage authors to withdraw submissions, referees to withdraw service, and running lists of alternative publishing venues. It looked like Hypatia was being flushed as irredeemable all over a single weekend and all of it transpiring in (quasi-)public. Hypatia does have a special commitment, but that’s exactly why I find the fast, public, and rather total condemnation so troubling. I do think Hypatia should be held to its own standards and aspirations, but I worry that some near-fatal wounds have been dealt it and so quickly that it has no way to recover easily. And I think that incurs collateral damage we can’t even well assay, from bystanders who will shy away from topics to journals that won’t risk a situation like this by publishing work in marginalized areas.

  6. So I’m deeply sympathetic to your core point about structures versus individuals, but this bothers me: in order to not have known already that ‘Becky’ is an insult, you have to have completely insulated yourself from even the very most mainstream products of Black culture. And you sound almost proud of that ignorance here.And that’s kind of the problem, right? This is why people of color (and trans folks) are suspicious. Because they are being judged by people who kind of willfully know nothing about them.

    I don’t want this to come off as hostile. There is a lot that I like about this post, but there are also points here that need to be made about white ignorance and epistemic justice.

  7. Prof Manners, I agree with you entirely in all that you’ve said. And your fears that Hypatia has succumbed to serious damage and won’t recover easily, and that this is a loss to us all. A major own goal, I fear. I would also like to make an admission. I simply haven’t dared to put my name forward against all that has been happening. I’m too scared. I suspect there must be other more-or-less well known feminist philosophers in the same boat. (Incidentally, I’m no longer an AE at Hypatia – I rotated off last year).

  8. Rebecca, I am not proud of my ignorance and admit that I only discovered the meaning of “Becky” by googling it after seeing it thrown around on Facebook feeds. It did come as a surprise to me that it derives from Black culture, as all of the many I saw using it on Facebook were white commentators. I then also asked my child about it and apparently her high school experience is similar – it has been, at least in some quarters, appropriated as a white-on-white insult. This too is apparently a cultural fact and one I find unsettling in several ways.

    To the more general point about insularity though and at risk of sounding defensive, I am not at all up to date on most of popular culture of any sort. That too is an ignorance that I am not boasting about, but just a fact of my own overstretched life. I do protest the idea that fluency in contemporary insult is an expectation of epistemic justice. I am confident that my epistemic limitations are many, but this?

  9. Thank you for this. Among much that is concerning about this, I am especially concerned about the damage being done to an untenured philosopher. Publication practices are damaging enough without this.

  10. Hi Rebecca, perhaps you are epistemically well placed to learn that ‘Becky’ is an insult because your first name is Rebecca. I first learnt this about a year ago, watching Beyonce’s Lemonade video album. As bell hooks pointed out, this is a particularly well calibrated commodification of black American womanist culture. Do you have better suggestions for remedying white ignorance? Following people on black twitter? Personally, I wouldn’t hold ignorance of a twitter insult against anyone.

  11. Hi Prof. Manners, I appreciate you writing this post. It is fair and well expressed. I wish more philosophers would try to get into the heads of both sides instead of retreating into the usual two camps.

  12. It has nothing to do with my being named Rebecca. The insult goes back to Vanity Fair but has been live in black culture from Sir Mix-a-Lot and Beyonce. Those are two really hard popular figures to know nothing about. Look, people are not responsible for knowing about pop culture. But when something is associated with a towering, maximally mainstream icon of black culture, I think being snarky about not knowing it or acting like it is arcane knowledge is inappropriate in this conversation.

  13. There is much to like about this post and its claims about structural rather than individual problems. But I am disappointed that the author takes Becky just to be an insult like any other–given that it is an insult typically leveled by black women against white ones. Surely there is room for people in marginalized groups to criticize those in dominant ones–sometimes in humorous ways? And surely whatever harm was caused in this case was not primarily the harm of black women making jokes about a white woman’s misrepresentation of them. I expect better from a feminist philosophy blog

  14. S, I agree that it is not an insult like others and did not mean to suggest so, nor to suggest that humor is out of bounds in marginalized critique of dominance. But it is also an insult now appropriated by white women to insult other white women, which is a different (albeit familiar) phenomenon. That usage is what I was alluding to, and it’s not clear to me that white women calling other white women Becky is at all the same thing as you describe, especially when the white women doing so enjoy more employment privilege than the untenured target. To me at least, that reads as a gross abuse of the cultural significance of the insult.

  15. Could we please not get sidetracked on the pejorative use of “Becky”, which is referenced in the post.

  16. How is discussing the racialized dimensions of the discourse around this affair ‘sidetracking’?

  17. Just a quick comment on the ‘Becky’ thing that has come up: I had no idea this was an insult term until very recently, and I am a black man. Maybe I’m just dense and missed it all these years, but I don’t think I’ve insulated myself from “black culture” (an idea I’m actually pretty uncomfortable with). Indeed, this would be nearly impossible to do, because I have so many black family and friends! And what is black culture other than cultural elements produced by people like us? To say that it’s something different than this, and that some black people (like myself) do not understand it or are not sufficiently engaged with it seems to suggest that blackness just boils down to culture. And maybe it does! But that has some pretty interesting implications, including in the case of people like Rachel Dolezal.

  18. JBR, talking about race here is not sidetracking. Much conversation is occurring around an alleged “witch hunt.” The people who made the initial criticisms were largely black and trans. So casting an insult black women use as the cause of the alleged victimization of Tuvel contributes to the view that a white woman is being victimized by black women. Though I agree that Tuvel is vulnerable, certainly it is germane to point out concerns with casting others who are more vulnerable than her as the cause of her victimization.

    Ms Manners–thanks for taking the time to respond and your clarification

  19. “Do you have better suggestions for remedying white ignorance? Following people on black twitter?”

    While this wasn’t addressed to me, I am Black and found the questions somewhat unsettling. Yes, we are in or around the philosophy profession. But to be so thoroughly cut off from sources of knowledge that might provide some remedy for “white ignorance” — and with not a clue as to how this ignorance might be remedied — suggests almost willful distance or disinterest.

    It is hard to believe that a white person sincerely asking how she could learn anything substantial about the lives of Black folk might think that following “black twitter” is a place to start. How about spending time in black or mixed neighborhoods, or actually talking to black persons, or visiting the recently opened National Museum of African American History and Culture, etc.? Syllabi, reading lists, and readings are readily available online, often for free. You could start, for instance, with this well-known article by Ta–Nehisi Coates:
    https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations/361631/

    Or might making any such effort be too much work? To be clear, you would be the main beneficiary. You don’t want to be this type of person, for example, even had he not gone public:
    http://www.theroot.com/i-a-white-rode-the-train-with-blacks-one-day-and-it-1794724440

    Good luck!

  20. To be clear, the real issue is not who should know what Becky means. It is that to those who do, this article conveyed the idea that Black women were harming Tuvel. Part of the initial criticism against Hypatia was that philosophers don’t care enough about harm and vulnerability of black women. This post in its initial form, its focus on Tuvel’s vulnerability to the exclusion of the vulnerability of others, does nothing to alleviate that worry.

    I get that intersectionality is hard to practice but assume that most readers of this blog think it is a useful concept. Ignoring the ways in which people besides Tuvel might be victims is a problem, as is telling women of color (that’s me, but I know I didn’t give you my name) they are sidetracking by talking about race is not consistent with feminist commitments.

  21. Prime – you might want to look at your interlocutors before making any assumption about their identity. [Edouard, I’m not comfortable linking to one of our commenter’s professional page given the atmosphere around all of this. I hope you don’t mind my edit. PM]

  22. I didn’t see the Becky comment everyone’s talking about, but it may not be a coincidence that Prof. Tuvel’s name is Rebecca. It’s a thing on the internet to belittle a Rebecca by calling her Becky, to belittle an Elizabeth by calling her Liz, to belittle a Charles by calling him Chuck…. If that’s what was going on, it had nothing to do with race.

  23. But S the post in its initial form did not focus on Tuvel’s vulnerability to the exclusion of the vulnerability of others. It was framed around the notion that philosophy has been exclusionary and that much work needs to be done for it to stop being exclusionary but that it is problematic to scapegoat Tuvel and implicitly suggest that the failings (supposed or otherwise) of her paper are not to be found most everywhere else within philosophy.

  24. Hi Prime, I’m also black! (but not African American, though I now live in the US). I was being a bit flippant in my comment to Rebecca above. What I would say in a more serious vein, and to pick up on the systemic-individual point form the original post, is that I take “white ignorance” of “black culture” (double scare quotes as, like Alexus, I’m not comfortable with this homogenizing concept) to be a symptom of segregation (economic, residential, workplace) and we should focus our attention on this bigger source of injustice rather than attacking individuals for manifesting the effects of living in a segregated society. Furthermore, I’m deeply suspicious of the idea that white ignorance can be remedied by individuals consuming pop cultural products which package blackness to make a profit. And one last thing — speaking as someone who was teased as a child for having an African name that is hard to pronounce — I am really averse to using names as insults when they’re associated with a racial or ethnic group. The ‘Becky’ thing leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

  25. Black Women were using the term Becky on Facebook in this case, and the racialized usage is clearly what at least two white women I can think of in early Facebook discussions of this article had in mind.

  26. “Prime – you might want to look at your interlocutors before making any assumption about their identity.”

    Edouard: I directly quoted from and was responding to Mazviita’s comment. I don’t know what assumption you think I was making about anyone’s identity, especially under current circumstances. The issue concerned “white ignorance” for those to whom it would apply for whatever reasons.

  27. The initial post discusses Tuvel’s vulnerability and describes a term used primarily by Black women about white women as its description of the cause of Tuvel’s vulnerability.

    If I am the only person on FP who sees any of this even a little, and everyone on FP is really sure race is irrelevant to a discussion of Beckys, this is not the blog I thought it was.

  28. I thought Manners was pointing to Tuvel’s vulnerability as stemming from her lack of tenure and junior status in the profession, rather than from her having been called Becky.
    Discussing race is absolutely relevant, I am sure everyone agrees with you. Prof Manners not knowing what ‘Becky’ meant is not so obviously relevant, to me at least, to the specific question of whether Tuvel is being ‘symbolically conscripted’ to stand in for a whole raft of problems.

  29. Alison, thank you for saying this.

    I have never claimed that Prof Manners not knowing is the problem. I have also said I agree with the substance of the post is systemic problems.

    You are correct that untenuredness is presented as part of the cause of T’s vulnerability. I hope you can also see that saying that calling her Becky is part of the problem, given the term’s meaning and the actual context of who used the term, this post is reasonably read as placing blame on women of color for Tuvel’s situation.

    I will be leaving this blog now.

  30. Beautifully put S! I’m a little disconcerted that the dimensions of this that are more culturally and epistemically available to white women (i.e., vulnerability of a junior woman) are being easily accepted as relevant, while there’s pushback against accepting the relevancy of issues that are racialized or come from racialized sources of knowledge. If “Becky” is simply an insult, then the people using it are just being mean. But as S and Rebecca Kukla have already pointed out, it has a specific racialized history and it’s used to playfully (and yes, exasperatedly and insultingly) refer to a particular kind of oblivious and prestige seeking white femininity. The term is being used as part of a critical commentary, not just as an insult, and when we dismiss that we’re also dismissing (and demonizing) the race-based criticisms it’s part of.

  31. I agree with Alison that I too thought Manners took Tuval’s vulnerability to derive from her untenured status, and that the “Becky” issue was not implicated in this point.

  32. I went back and reread Manners’s original post in line of what S has said, and I see that actually ‘Becky’ does come up in it quite a bit –more than I noticed before– and is standing in for the nature of the criticisms levelled against Tuvel in a way that sort of both presupposes the context in terms of race, and yet doesn’t make it fully explicit, when race is very explicitly involved in the whole issue. I’m not sure what follows from this, however.

  33. I think it is a distraction for the sort of reasons suggested by others: it was not essential to the main point of the post. For example: if you removed mention of “Becky” from the post, nothing of substance would have changed.

  34. Mazviita: Respectfully, “Black [capital “B” for “Black American”] culture” is no more a “homogenizing concept” than Western culture, LGBT culture, etc. Such a culture concept is supposed to capture various shared, relatively distinctive features of the experiences and activities of the people(s) in question.

    On the issue of “Becky”: the word is a soft insult that roughly means “white girl who is the object of some disapproval.” This is the etymology: there are, Black American folk believe, very few Blacks named “Rebecca”; and “Becky” is taken to be the epitome of a “white girl” nickname in that Black women who are named “Rebecca” almost certainly do not go by the nickname “Becky.”

    There is a long tradition of Black Americans using wry insider humor broadly in response to their experience of racial subjugation. In the Tuvel case, those who referred to her as “Becky” surely meant it as a double entendre. I happen to find this humorous, even though I disagree with their assessment of the occasion for using it. In any case, I’d be very wary of trying to establish a norm, for Beyonce and other Black American folk, according to which Blacks refrain from expressions of wry insider humor because some persons are sensitive about racialized humor. Of course, Mazviita, maybe you weren’t suggesting such a norm and were instead merely reporting your own personal preference and experience.

    Last point: usually, persons who make flippant comments about criticisms of “white ignorance” are white. My response was addressing that type of person — who, as far I knew, may or may not have been Mazviita herself. I’m sorry for the understandable confusion.

  35. “maybe you weren’t suggesting such a norm”. Exactly – I wasn’t suggesting one. Hence the phrase, “speaking as someone who….”

  36. I think “Western culture” is problematic too. I’ve spent a good bit of my career thus far arguing that such concepts are insufficient and lead to major mistakes in understanding ancient texts. As with “black culture”, anything that could capture the diversity on offer would have be much too general to be a very useful concept. And it leads to a reification of black experience such that there become expectations (even demands) for any black person to conform to a particular type, else we are considered not *truly* black. It’s a denial of diversity that can be enforced both from outside and within. Some of the responses to all of this I’ve heard suggest that there is a uniform or nearly uniform black response to this Hypatia episode. I think this is a mistake. Personally I find myself on a very different side than some other black scholars- I don’t think there’s any answer to the question of which of us have the view most authentic to “black culture”- because I think it’s just not the right question. Apologies as only some of this directly addresses the topic in the last few comments, but I think this ties to some of the issues that have been floating about the past few days.

  37. “Becky” doesn’t just mean “white girl who is the object of some disapproval”. It also means “white girl that gives lots of oral sex”. Unlike Prime, I don’t find it’s use humorous, especially as it is constantly thrown out at me as I walk down the street.

  38. Anonymous: I’m sorry about your experience of constantly being the object of unwanted verbal attention from certain men. But the salacious interpretation of “Becky” is associative (namely, and objectionably, re “white girls” as such), not part of the standard meaning/use of the word itself.

    Presumably, The Root counts as a fairly reliable source for confirmation. See here for examples, none of which suggest oral sex: http://thegrapevine.theroot.com/this-white-woman-singing-about-the-ghetto-while-doing-y-1795054661

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