The time when you should most of all withdraw into yourself is when you are forced to be in a crowd.--Seneca, Letter 25.
I was away from the internet for a few days, and I returned to renewed turmoil in the philosophical blogosphere. To seasoned hands these take on a predictable sequence and by now we're far along in the cycle that Brian Leiter has used the phrase 'defamation per se;' before long we should expect, as a discerning observer noted, the conservative media (and her tactical allies]) to use the occasion to inform their readers that this whole episode is another instance of the threat to free speech on American college campuses. Meanwhile, among philosophical feminists friendships are being tested, and an apparently well-meaning junior scholar, Prof. Tuvel, is exposed to some of the more serious perils and uncertainties of lack of tenure.
I was going to ignore the controversy (and retreat into Seneca), and treat the whole episode as a learning opportunity about the complexities of several scholarly fields and the ways these intersect with activism of various types in a profession that has some unease with activism. Yet, when Tuvel writes, So little of what has been said, however, is based upon people actually reading what I wrote, I felt compelled to read her piece. [HT Dailynous] In what follows, I won't weigh in on the merits of the piece qua contribution to existing scholarship on transracialism and transfeminism (I am an ignoramus), to what degree it is harmful to some communities (I'll let them be the judge), and to what degree Hypatia erred in publishing it.+ I do hope that legitimate, animated scholarly disputes (which may well reflect different stances on politics and strategy) can be prevented from spilling over to the law-courts.++
Yet, I do not refrain from comment altogether. That's because Tuvel's explicit stance is (I quote from the concluding section), "broadly Millian; as a rule, we should encourage “different experiments in living” and not interfere with others’ liberty unless doing so would prevent harm to others (Mill 2002, 47)." This is, in fact,, broadly, my own stance to such matters, although, at times, I incline (recall) more to Thoreau's version of it than Mill's (but recall). In addition, when it comes to racial/ethnic matters, the Millian, who wishes to be both true to her tradition and re-animate it, should show restraint and modesty given Mill's non-trivial moral mistakes on race and empire.
So, what follows is a tentative response to some elements in her piece from the perspective of a fellow-traveler in Millian philosophy. In particular, I explore her piece in light of my ongoing reflections (recall this piece a few weeks ago) on the nature of philosophical authority. For, Tuvel frames her piece with the following remark,
I suggest that Dolezal offers an important opportunity for us to think seriously about how society should treat individuals who claim a strongly felt sense of identification with a certain race. When confronted with such an individual, how should we respond?
I have to admit that I dislike the first person plural (we) here because it is identified with society. In immediate context, Tuvel does not mention (i) which society she has in mind and (ii) why any of us should identify with it. In the next paragraph, Tuvel switches to the more impersonal "a society;" in the next paragraph, when discussing obstacles to Jewish conversion, she uses "a given society" before making clear that in her article, she is talking about "our society." By this our, she clearly means "American society" (a locution she uses a few times later in the article), a society she understands as "racist."+++
Now, near the end of the paper, Tuvel writes, "I have taken it as my task in this article to argue that a just society should reconsider what we owe individuals who claim a strongly felt sense of identification with another race, and accordingly what we want race to be." Here the "we" is identified with a clearly aspirational just society. I say, clearly aspirational because the piece is written, in fact, in part to combat status quo bias (e.g., Tuvel criticizes a particular argument by Cressida Heyes as follows: " it dangerously appears to limit to the status quo the possibilities for changing one's membership in an identity category.")
Now, for some people, the question (a) how should I respond to X while we live in a just society and (b) how should I respond to X while we live in a racist society may seem the same question. But I don't think so. For the very same behavior may have different effects (including harms) or social meaning attached to it in different contexts (and this may well influence how one answers a-b). Moreover, if the aim is to move a society from being racist to being just, it may well be the case that one needs to do things that one would never do, or (morally) have to do, once justice is achieved. (In fact, one may well suspect that in a just society many Xs that are now subject to political and moral contestation would not be noticed or a demanding a response at all.) Here my mention of effects/harms in context is in the spirit of Tuvel's argument, which, recall, is offered in the experimental spirit of Mill's harm principle.
I take it that within the known limits of the possible impact of philosophical writing, Tuvel's aim is, in fact, to contribute to some such changed political environment. As she writes in her conclusion:
I hope to have shown that, insofar as similar arguments that render transgenderism acceptable extend to transracialism, we have reason to allow racial self-identification, coupled with racial social treatment, to play a greater role in the determination of race than has previously been recognized. I conclude that society should accept such an individual's decision to change race the same way it should accept an individual's decision to change sex.*
This is, indeed, a proper Millian stance. It is, however, peculiar that her analysis largely ignores to what degree relevant minority communities (which she grants are also oppressed) have the same obligations as 'society.' She addresses the point in an example:
For instance, if someone identifies so strongly with the Jewish community that she wishes to become a Jew, it is wrong to block her from taking conversion classes to do so. This example reveals there are at least two components to a successful identity transformation: (1) how a person self-identifies, and (2) whether a given society is willing to recognize an individual's felt sense of identity by granting her membership in the desired group. For instance, if the rabbi thinks you are not seriously committed to Judaism, she can block you from attempted conversion. Still, the possibility of rejection reveals that, barring strong overriding considerations, transition to a different identity category is often accepted in our society.
As an aside, it is a bit disconcerting that those branches of Judaism, which allow female rabbis, are (in the example) taken to stand in for all of Judaism because orthodox Jews tend not to accept female rabbis. This matters to the present case because the rules that govern conversion into Judaism differ among different congregations (and the differences are most notable between orthodox and non-orthodox congregations). Some branches of Judaism actively discourage would be converts as part of the routine process of (to use somewhat false terminology) screening converts.
With that in mind, let's stipulate, for the sake of argument, that it may be morally wrong to block somebody from taking conversion classes into Judaism. It does not follow, as Tuvel (implicitly) recognizes, that even an imperfect, liberal society should thereby oblige a minority group to accept a would-be-convert to it or accept or recognize such a conversion while the members of the minority group do not. In fact, while the state should not put any obstacles on the would-be-exit of individuals from a minority group (and even has an interest in making sure that such exit is genuinely possible to adult members), it should allow, if (Lockean) freedom of association means anything,** minority groups to decide on their (often illiberal and sometimes immoral) entry-requirements, if any, as much as possible. (And these may well disagree amongst themselves.)
That is to say, I am inclined to say, in my more Millian liberal moments, that, in the first (and second) instance, it is not up to us in so far as we primarily belong to the very imperfect, American society to decide the most central claims about a transition/conversion/ from "identity category" X to "identity category" Y (where Y is membership in a disadvantaged/subordinate/oppressed minority). I suspect the proper Millian perspective on this, is that that such matters should be left to those that have authoritative standing in interpreting the rules governing, or the other members of (etc.), the relevant 'identity categories' (especially) even when these differ in their judgments.***
As it happens, Tuvel misses an opportunity to engage with this perspective. At one point she quotes Tamara Winfrey Harris as stating "“Ms. Dolezal's masquerade illustrates that however much she may empathize with African-Americans, she is not one, because black people in America cannot shed their race … I will accept Ms. Dolezal as black like me only when society can accept me as white like her.” (emphasis added) Tuvel's response treats Harris's point as being about a question of "exercising privilege;" and so she thinks it is sufficiently allayed by "trying to ensure equal access to the resources that permit one to change race." Yet, Tuvel here misses that Harris can also be taken to suggest that members of a subordinate group should have (at least some) control over membership and recognition conditions.
Now it is possible (I honestly don't know) that Professor Tuvel belongs to one of the (subordinate) groups she is writing moral theory about, and that she is really making a claim to her peers about how such groups should engage with would be new members. But that's not the rhetorical-authorial perspective from which she writes. (This is not to deny that her position could not be welcomed by members of such groups who, may well wish to contemplate, to quote LK McPherson, "the conceptual possibility of race or gender transformation.") Rather, she writes from a Millian-liberal perspective about what society should do; this perspective is probably not shared by many of her radical and vocal critics. But as I noted above, it happens to be mine, too. So, with her I reject her critics' strategy of non-engagement. In defiance of such attempts at silencing, I have here tried to engage with the bit of her argument that directly concerns me; and I wish to register that she does not speak for me.
+Having said that, the evolving responses of Hypatia's editorial team are a sorry spectacle (if only because they leave ambiguous to what degree there is still a disagreement between the editors and associate editors not to mention others associated with the journal). In their most extensive statement thus far, the associate editors seem to farm out culpability to the anonymous referees (and the "review process") and not the actions of the editors/editorial board themselves. In my view, scholarly communities should treat referees as mere advisers to editors, who have responsible for what is published in their journals. (Obviously, they can be misled and fooled by authors, referees, etc.)
++I am inclined to give others wide latitude to criticize each other's scholarship in rather vehement ways (and most latitude toward those who lack professional and social/economic standing).
+++One can imagine slightly different circumstances in which some of her most vocal defenders would have castigated her for this claim.
*Let's leave aside here that in some contexts, allowing X may well be different from (the more demanding) accepting X.
**How far? Well, that's going to depend on the case and the circumstances of our imperfect society.
***Of course, life is not so simple. In light of past harms, the American state sometimes confers benefits on various oppressed groups. So, one may well wonder to what degree the state should feel itself bound in following the members' wishes on the membership boundaries of the identity group. That's a tough question, but it's not the one Tuvel really engages with.