Last week the feminist philosophy journal Hypatia published an article by Rebecca Tuvel, assistant professor of philosophy at Rhodes College in America. It has caused quite a stir. In her paper, Tuvel asks (not unreasonably) why the popular response to “unapologetic race-faker” Rachel Dolezal has been so negative, while “Woman Of The Year” Caitlyn Jenner has been lauded by the liberal-left. Beginning with the premise that transgenderism is utterly excellent (not a good place to start, but hey ho), Tuvel suggests that since the criticisms levelled against Dolezal could just as easily be levelled against Jenner, we should accept the right of individuals to adopt a ‘transracial’ identity. In other words, maybe Rachel Dolezal is black!
It hasn’t gone down well on social media. Tuvel has received a great deal of hate mail and Hypatia have since apologised for publishing the piece, describing the vitriolic response as “predictable and justifiable”. The Hypatia editors’ cowardice was no doubt partly the result of an open letter signed by hundreds of people, many of them academics that condemned Tuvel’s article in the strongest terms. Astonishingly, the primary accusation levelled against Tuvel is that her article is transphobic. Despite the fact that she makes it explicitly clear that she is fully in support of trans politics, the open letter insists that her article perpetuates harm against trans people and demands that it be unpublished. A particularly scathing facebook post (now deleted) by philosopher Nora Berenstain included these criticisms,
Tuvel enacts violence and perpetuates harm in numerous ways throughout her essay. She deadnames a trans woman. She uses the term “transgenderism.” She talks about “biological sex” and uses phrases like “male genitalia.” She focuses enormously on surgery, which promotes the objectification of trans bodies. She refers to “a male-to- female (mtf) trans individual who could return to male privilege,” promoting the harmful transmisogynistic ideology that trans women have (at some point had) male privilege.
Another critic, PhD student Zoe Samudzi, wrote on twitter that “Tuvel bludgeoned trans materiality and then has the audacity to whine about ‘academic freedom’ when her epistemic violence gets pushback”.
I think Tuvel’s argument is silly and I obviously think transracialism is absurd and offensive. For a more detailed analysis of the article and a response to the various criticisms I’d recommend this excellent piece by Jesse Singal.
It’s clear to me that the reason Tuvel’s article has caused so much furore is that the links between transracialism and transgenderism are actually very obvious. Tuvel may conclude that both are legitimate, but most people know perfectly well that Rachel Dolezal is not black. Drawing attention to the similarities between Dolezal and Jenner highlights the glaring problems in the theory behind transgenderism and this makes many people on the liberal-left very uncomfortable. Persecuting Travel is the only way of avoiding that discomfort.
What really alarms me is the use of the word ‘violence’ in criticisms of the article. Berenstain, for instance, sees ‘violence’ in the use of the words “biological sex” and “male genitalia”. Samudzi uses the term ‘epistemic violence’, which, despite being trendy among some people in academia, is both ridiculous and confusing. I suspect that it is derived from the term ‘epistemic injustice’ used by feminist philosopher Miranda Fricker. In her 2009 book on the subject, Fricker writes of a form of injustice,
wherein someone has a significant area of their social experience obscured from understanding owing to prejudicial flaws in shared resources for social interpretation. (Fricker, 2009: 1)
For example, before sexual harassment became recognised as a specific form of harm experienced in the workplace, women who were victims of sexual harassment were unable to describe their experiences in a meaningful way. Thus the victim was,
unable to make sense of her ongoing mistreatment, and this in turn [prevented] her from protesting it, let alone securing effective measures to stop it. (Fricker, 2009: 7)
The words and concepts needed to combat injustice did not exist, and so the injustice went unchallenged. Or, to put it another way, in order to fight your oppression you need to be able to describe it.
The mis-use of the word ‘violence’ has become widespread among liberal feminists, most often in discussions of trans issues. The reasoning goes that offensive speech or text may lead to either 1) increased hostility to trans people and so a greater likelihood of transphobic violence, or 2) distress to trans people and so a greater likelihood of them attempting suicide. Since both of those outcomes are violent, the words that lead to those outcomes must also be violent. Thus we have an ever-expanding category of violent language and (surprise, surprise) the horrid disgusting transphobes most often ‘called out’ for this linguistic violence are almost always radical feminists.
This new definition of ‘violence’ has disturbing results. For instance, a friend of mine told me last week about a woman she knows who until recently described herself as a lesbian. Of course being a lesbian is now considered very exclusionary and passé, so this woman now describes herself as queer. She recently began a relationship with another queer person – an AMAB non-binary person, or (more accurately) a man who sometimes wears lipstick and uses the pronouns ze/zir. My friend asked her how she was getting on in this new relationship and whether the sex was… New? Different? Of course they both knew this guy had a dick, that was the subtext. She replied that, yes, the sex was new and different. For instance he liked to choke her during sex, even though she didn’t like it, “but I guess that’s zir kink”.
According to liberal feminist dogma, the real violence in that paragraph is that I just misgendered the abusive arsehole. The actual physical violence done against this woman – the choking, the coerced sex – is just a kink. This gross distortion of the meaning of ‘violence’ obscures what is being done and who is being victimized. The woman being choked is not a victim of violence because BDSM is actually super sex-positive and anyone who doesn’t recognize that just has vanilla privilege. And it’s certainly not male violence, because how could you possibly misgender a non-binary person you disgusting TERF?! While calling a man a man is violence, beating a woman is a kink. While liberal feminist groups demand trigger warnings before any mention of menstruation or pregnancy, any criticism of the violence of porn is condemned as sex-negative. Even porn that features ‘rape play’ or ‘age play’ is excused. Critics of prostitution are condemned as whorephobes motivated only by misogyny. The real, actual, physical violence of the sex trade is as nothing to the ‘violence’ of hurting a man’s feelings. The true perpetrators of violence – the group who commit 95% of murders worldwide – are made invisible. After all, if violence is committed through language, then women are just as guilty as men.
Rebecca Tuvel’s ‘epistemic violence’ has hurt nobody. She has not beaten, raped, or killed anyone. All she did was use the words “biological sex” and “male genitalia”. Meanwhile the victims of real violence – overwhelmingly perpetrated by men – go unrecognized. Fricker writes that injustice takes place when the victim is “unable to make sense of her ongoing mistreatment” – she cannot describe it, she cannot protest it, and hence she cannot stop it. When a woman being choked during sex cannot name what is being done to her as violence, she is a victim of further injustice. In order to fight your oppression you need to be able to describe it.
Fricker, Miranda. Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009