Defining ‘Harm’ in the Tuvel Affair

The philosophers who sought the retraction of a colleague’s article comparing transgender identity to transracialism have done the real damage in this situation, José Luis Bermúdez writes.

May 5, 2017

An extraordinary and, I believe, unprecedented set of events in recent weeks has raised issues of freedom of speech, the integrity of peer review and (in my view) the credibility of the academy as a place for reasoned debate and the free exchange of ideas.

A quick summary. Rebecca Tuvel, a tenure-track assistant professor of philosophy at Rhodes College, a private liberal arts college in Memphis, Tenn., published an article entitled “In Defense of Transracialism” in Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy. The article explores whether there might be parallels between being transgender and being transracial, focusing specifically on the well-known case of Rachel Dolezal, who is white but presented herself as black for many years.

Tuvel’s argument is that the very same reasons that might justify an individual’s decision to change sexes could also be used to justify an individual’s decision to change races -- so if one is committed to the acceptability of the former (as Tuvel herself is), then one would be committed to the acceptability of the latter.

Shortly after the paper was published in the spring 2017 edition of Hypatia, an open letter with signatures but no author appeared on the internet soliciting further signatures. The letter called for Tuvel’s paper to be retracted by the journal, stating that “its continued availability causes further harm.”

This open letter is now closed to further signatures and has been sent to the editor of Hypatia. While the open letter was still circulating, a statement appeared on the Hypatia website repudiating the article and making multiple references to the harms caused by the article’s publication. The statement has no signatures but is credited to “A majority of the Hypatia board of associate editors.”

This is not the place to discuss the merits or otherwise of Tuvel’s article, which I would encourage you to read (it is clearly written, and pleasantly free of jargon) before reading the open letter and the statement. There is a persuasive analysis of the weakness of the complaints made in the open letter in this article by Jesse Singal in New York magazine. At a minimum, Tuvel appears to have been significantly misrepresented.

I want to explore a much more general issue raised by this whole affair. This has to do with concept of harm, which keeps being raised. The main charge against Tuvel is that the very existence and availability of her paper causes harm to various groups, most specifically to members of the transgender community. This is a puzzling and contentious claim that deserves serious reflection.

The editorial board statement specifically refers to “the harm caused by the fact of the article’s publication.” As the concept of harm is standardly used in legal contexts, this would be a tough claim to defend. It is certainly possible for someone to suffer material or tangible loss, injury, or damage as a consequence of a 15-page article being published in an academic journal. The article might be libelous, for example. But there is no such charge here. The only individual mentioned by name besides Rachel Dolezal is Caitlyn Jenner, and it seems implausible to say that Tuvel has harmed Jenner by “deadnaming” her (i.e., using her birth name), given how public Jenner has been about her personal history.

The authors of the editorial board statement have nothing to say about how they understand harm. This already should give pause for thought. Philosophers, whatever their methodological orientation or training, usually pride themselves on sensitivity to how words and concepts are used. This makes it odd to see no attention being paid to how they are understanding this key concept of harm, which is central to many areas in legal and moral philosophy.

But the statement does clarify what the authors believe has caused the harm: “Perhaps most fundamentally, to compare ethically the lived experience of trans people (from a distinctly external perspective) primarily to a single example of a white person claiming to have adopted a black identity creates an equivalency that fails to recognize the history of racial appropriation, while also associating trans people with racial appropriation.”

This is quite plainly a mischaracterization of what Tuvel is trying to do (as a quick read of her abstract will show). But leaving that aside, the quote shows that the concept of harm has been twisted beyond all recognition. Making a comparison is simply making a comparison -- it is to look at two or more phenomena and identify respects in which they are similar and respects in which they are dissimilar.

Such a comparison can be correct or incorrect. But how can simply making a comparison in itself cause a harm, if it is not explicitly defamatory?

Surely something else has to happen for harm to occur. Most obviously, the comparison might cause someone to behave in a way that brings about some sort of injury to a specific individual or group, for example. But then, in order to substantiate an accusation of harm, Tuvel’s accusers need to explain how her juxtaposition, in a single article, of transgender people and Rachel Dolezal might reasonably be expected to have this effect.

What I find most troubling about this whole business is that none of the signatories of the open letter or anonymous authors of the editorial board statement (I say anonymous because it came only from a majority of the editorial board, thus leaving it an open question whether any given member signed it) appears to feel the need to provide any reasons for thinking that harm or injury will occur as a result of Tuvel’s article.

There may indeed be some argument to be made here. But nobody is attempting to make it, or apparently recognizing that it needs to be made. Innuendo takes the place of argument. Name-calling replaces evidence. This is simply an abnegation of basic academic values, underwritten by failure to explain the relevant concept of harm (or how it is being differentiated from offense in this case).

Still, there are genuine harms here (in the genuine, old-fashioned, legal sense). The behavior of the open letter signatories and the anonymous editorial board members has already led to clear and identifiable injury and loss, and will continue to do so.

The first injured party is, of course, Tuvel, whose academic reputation has been publicly dragged through the mud and who has been personally vilified. As a former dean, I can only imagine the problems that this episode will cause for her tenure case and future career prospects. A number of people have suggested that she has a case for defamation, and that certainly seems plausible.

Hypatia is the second injured party. It is hard to see how this journal can retain academic credibility, after its editorial board has publicly repudiated its own peer reviewers and reviewing practices. Or at least not until all the anonymous authors of the statement have resigned.

Third in line is the philosophical community, which is suffering multiple harms. This is definitely a case where there is such a thing as bad publicity -- as you might imagine, it’s open season on social media, and the incident has been widely and unsympathetically reported in the press. But one also needs to take into account the chilling effect within the discipline of seeing a vulnerable member of the community publicly shamed by a group that will avoid accountability (unless the legal system intervenes).

And finally, harm has been done to the academic community in general, and the humanities in particular. At a time of widespread public distrust of universities, with hostility to the very idea of a liberal education deeply entrenched in the White House and national and state legislatures, we all suffer an injury when the worst stereotypes about academics seem to be confirmed.

All of these genuine and significant harms were completely foreseeable. It is a mystery to me why Tuvel’s accusers have taken no account of them, choosing instead to persecute a junior colleague on the basis of unsubstantiated claims about unspecified harms.


José Luis Bermúdez is a professor of philosophy at Texas A&M University.


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