Is persecution the purpose?

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Last week, Rebecca Tuvel, an Assistant Professor of Philosophy, had her recent article in Hypatia, ‘In Defence of Transracialism’, denounced in an open letter signed by several professional scholars (among others). They accused her of harming the transgender community by comparing them with the currently more marginalized identity of transracialism. William Rein, on this blog, and Jason Brennan at Bleeding Heart Libertarians, have written valuable defences of Tuvel’s right to conduct academic research in this area even if some find it offensive.

Events have moved fast. The associate editors initially seemed to cave in to pressure and denounced the article they had only just published. The main editor, Sally Scholz, has since disagreed with the associate editors. Critically, Tuvel’s colleagues at Rhodes College have given her their support so it looks like the line for academic freedom might be holding in this case. Without wishing to engage too much in the hermeneutics of suspicion, I think there are grounds to doubt the depth of the critics’ attitudes. I base this on my reading of Judith Butler, who is one of the signatories to the open letter arguing for Tuvel’s article to be retracted.

Seven years ago, I managed to read Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble. Although there are many variations in the movement, Butler is a central figure in the post-structuralist , non-gender-essentialist, feminism that inspires much of the contemporary ‘social justice’ movement. When I got past Butler’s famously difficult prose, I found a great deal of ideas I agreed with. I wrote up a brief piece comparing Butler’s concerns with violently enforced gender conformity to classical liberal approaches to personal autonomy. I also identified some problems.

First, Butler’s critique of the natural sciences seems to completely miss the mark. Butler associates gender essentialism with the study of genetics, when, in fact, genetics has done more than almost anything else to explore the contingency and variation of biological sexual expression in nature. The same applies to race and ethnicity.

Second, more importantly, Butler insists that there is no underlying authentic gender or sexual identity. All identities are ultimately constituted by power relations and juridical discourses. You find this argument repeated among social justice proponents who insist all forms of identity are products of ‘social construction’ rather than ever being based on natural facts. As a result, all personal identity claims are only ever historical and strategic. They are attempts to disrupt power relations in order to liberate and empower the subaltern and oppressed albeit temporarily

I don’t think this is perfectly factually true but lets accept it for now as roughly true. This means that transracialism itself might become, or could already be, another example of the strategic disruption of contemporary juridical discourses, this time about race and ethnicity. The same people currently denouncing Tuvel could very easily insist on the acknowledgement of transracial identity in five or ten years time, and denounce those who hold their current views. From their own position, which explicitly rejects any ultimate restrictions on identity formation, we have no warrant to know otherwise.

In this sense, Tuvel might not be ‘wrong’ at all, just slightly ahead of the social justice curve. And her critics wouldn’t actually be changing their minds, just changing their strategies. Meanwhile, people who actually take their identities seriously should be wary of their academic ‘allies’. They can quickly re-orientate their attitude such that a previously oppressed identity comes to be re-configured as an oppressive and exclusionary construct.

If all claims in this area are strategic, rather than factual, as Butler claims, then why try to damage a philosopher’s career over it? Why provoke an academic journal almost to self-destruct? Rather than working out which ideas to denounce, we should critique the strategy of denouncement (or calling out) itself. In that vein, much as I disagree wholly with the stance of its editorial board, I think calling into question Hypatia’s status as an academic journal, is premature.

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