As polarization has increased in recent years, political clashes within the academy have tended to play out along predictable lines, with progressive students and professors challenging the views of their conservative and moderate peers. However, the current controversy surrounding an article on “transracialism” shows that as academic orthodoxy becomes more rigid and particular, even those who consider themselves allies of social-justice causes may face increasing censorship and overreaction when expressing heterodox opinions.
In the spring issue of Hypatia, a journal of feminist philosophy, Rhodes College professor Rebecca Tuvel published an article that considered the possibility of transracialism, and how it may be similar to the experiences of transgender people. Although, as New York magazine’s Jesse Singal explains, Tuvel carefully framed the comparison as a hypothetical (in the manner of many scholarly philosophical essays), the piece still provoked the ire of a large number of her fellow academics, many of who called on Hypatia to rescind it. Singal writes:
Usually, an article like this, abstract and argumentatively complex as it is, wouldn’t attract all that much attention outside of its own academic subculture. But that isn’t what happened here — instead, Tuvel is now bearing the brunt of a massive internet witch-hunt, abetted in part by Hypatia’s refusal to stand up for her. The journal has already apologized for the article, despite the fact that it was approved through its normal editorial process, and Tuvel’s peers are busily wrecking her reputation by sharing all sorts of false claims about the article that don’t bear the scrutiny of even a single close read.
Singal goes on to address an open letter signed by hundreds of professors criticizing Tuvel’s piece to show the depth of the prejudgment—and the tendency for overreaction—that increasingly prevails within certain wings of the progressive academy. In particular, he criticizes the letter’s claim that Tuvel’s article constitutes “violence” against transgendered people.
As fashionable as it is in some academic circles to refer to certain arguments as “violence,” it’s important to pause for a second and reflect on how misguided and counterproductive this sort of framing is. Trans people face the threat of real, physical violence every day in huge parts of this country and this world. A nerdy philosophy paper trying to suss out the specifics of identity and identity-change is not an act of violence, and it’s really unfortunate that this sort of “speech is violence” language has caught on given that it makes it much easier for opponents of trans rights (or the rights of other marginalized groups) to sweep away legitimate claims of violence as mere hysteria.
The fallout from this controversy—which Singal does not shy away from calling a “witch hunt”—is yet another example of the way political orthodoxies can breed intellectual fragility. But more so than most cases, the reaction to Tuvel’s article shows that the range of palatable opinions within certain progressive circles of the academy may be growing ever narrower, which means that minute differences in viewpoint might increasingly draw the kind of outrage once reserved for conservative opinions.