Transgenderism and Transracialism

Another day, another controversy in the philosophy world.  The latest is about "In Defense of Transracialism," an article by Rebecca Tuvel, which was published in the feminist-journal Hypatia. A petition complaining about the article, signed by over 800 academics, enumerates a bunch of alleged problems with the article. The journal (or "a majority of associate editors") has apologized for publishing the article, though hasn't retracted it.

My take on the whole thing is that Tuvel's article is seen as dangerous not really because of her minor faux pas, where language is concerned, and also not really because she doesn't engage with the "right" literature, but due to "fear of modus tollens syndrome."

Here's Tuvel's argument, simplifying a great deal:

Tuvel's Argument (Modus Ponens)
  1. If transgenderism* exists (a person's real gender can be at odds with their apparent gender, in the way millions of trans men and women maintain), then transracialism could exist as well (a person's real race can be at odds with their apparent race, in the way Rachel Dolezal maintains.)
  2. Transgenderism does exist.  Therefore,
  3. Transracialism could exist as well.  
It's not obviously true that transgenderism and transracialism stand or fall together, but she argues that premise 1 is true and responds to numerous objections.  

So what's the problem?  I doubt it's really what the critics say.  Instead it's that her critics are absolutely dead set against transracialism.  They can't respect the likes of Rachel Dolezal, who claims to be black, despite her white parents.  So if Tuvel had a good argument supporting premise 1, they think the upshot would be this:

Anti-Trans Argument (Modus Tollens)
  1. If transgenderism exists (a person's real gender can be at odds with their apparent gender, in the way millions of trans men and women maintain), then transracialism could exist as well (a person's real race can be at odds with their apparent race, in the way Rachel Dolezal maintains.)
  2. Transracialism does not exist.  Therefore,
  3. Transgenderism does not exist. 
It doesn't matter to the critics that Tuvel is making the first argument, not the second. Her first premise is dangerous, they think (I surmise), because it plays into the hands of people who make the second argument.  Since the critics agree with the second premise of the second argument, they've got to refute the first premise of both arguments.  

Fine, then try to refute it! Instead the critics are resorting to shaming and suppression. 

*One of Tuvel's crimes, according to the petition and apology, was using the word "transgenderism."  I use it too, in the spirit of this journal, which is manifestly not anti-trans.


Daniel Hooley said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Daniel Hooley said...

This way of framing the issue is interesting.

In some ways, it reminds me of the anger and frustration that some disability theorists have towards the (poorly named) Argument from Marginal Cases. Here, too, it seems we find a "fear of modus tolens" lurking.

Aeolus said...

I think you are quite right about this, Jean. And Daniel is right about the AMC. Those unwilling to accept that non-humans have significant moral status commonly accuse those despicable animal liberationists who invoke the AMC of viewing mentally disabled humans as "mere animals".

It happens with climate change:
1. If AGW is real and a serious threat to our well being, then it would be a positive thing for government to impose restrictions on our consumption patterns.
2. It would not be a positive thing for government to impose restrictions on our consumption patterns.
3. Therefore, AGW is not real and a serious threat to our well being.

Jean Kazez said...

Nice point about climate change, Aeolus!

Yeah, I've been thinking about Daniel's point. I suppose you might say that, politically speaking, we should only make comparisons between group A and group B, to elevate group B, when the status of group A is secure. Otherwise there's a risk of dragging down group A instead of elevating group B. People who object to the AMC might say disabled people don't have a secure enough status for it to be wise to try to elevate animals with the AMC. Likewise, the Tuvel-critics may be worried that transgender people aren't secure enough in their status for it to be wise to make the transgender-transrace comparison. Besides, they might say, there's just one Rachel Dolezal. So the risk to transgender people isn't worth it for the potential benefit to transracial people. In fact, that makes the transgender-transrace comparison worse than the AMC, since there are vast numbers of animals that stand to benefit from the AMC. If we were talking about strategy and propaganda, maybe I would agree with this, but I take it Tuvel was trying to write a philosophy article.

An Ardent Skeptic said...

I've been following this issue with interest because I actually think that a case should be made that transracialism be accepted as there are people who identify with, have the same experiences as, and feel most comfortable with a racial identity that is in conflict with their ancestry.

My husband's sister is a case in point:

The child of a caucasian mother and a black father who gave her up for adoption.
Adopted by a caucasian couple.
Grew up in a community which was predominately caucasian with lots of prejudice towards POC.
Because of her physical appearances, caucasians assume she is latino.
As a result of this classification as latino by the caucasians in her community, she spent most of her childhood and teen years hanging out with the minority population of latinos in the community because they were the ones who accepted her as a peer.
Married a latino and has children with a latino father, aunts, uncles, grandparents, etc.

My husband's sister identifies most closely as latino despite not having latino ancestry. Is she wrong to do so? Doesn't she have a good understanding of what it's like to be a latino minority in a predominantly caucasian community based on her life experience? Or, do we tell her she's not allowed any racial identity because the only one she can relate to is not part of her biological ancestry?

I think Tuvel has done a great job of opening up discussion on an important issue. And, of all the blogposts and news articles I've read about the reaction to Tuvel's journal article, yours is the most interesting perspective on the issue, Jean. I was hoping you would weigh in on the matter as I thought you would have something enlightening to say about why Tuvel's paper is so controversial.

I'm also hoping that the concept of transracialism continues to be discussed by the philosophical community. I think we owe it to people like my husband's sister to take this issue seriously. I don't think she deserves to have her life experiences dismissed because they aren't what they're supposed to be because she isn't latino.

Daniel Hooley said...

Ardent Skeptic: That is a very interesting story. I wonder how different this conversation might have been if a story like the one about your sister-in-law was closer to mind in this debate (and not a woman born to white parents, like Dolezal, who wants to be seen as black). Concerns about white privilege and cultural appropriation might be driving opinions in a way they wouldn't if stories along those lines were more central (non-white folk with racial identities that don't match their ancestry).

Jean: You are right that there are important dissimilarities. There's significantly less to be achieved by making these arguments although probably more than nothing, as Ardent Skeptic's scenario suggests. And the extent to which transgender people are marginalized and at risk is probably only higher. So I'm inclined to agree with you that, as a matter of general strategy for other, more political contexts, avoiding the comparison might be advantageous.

But I'm still skeptical about the ways in which the transgender/transracial comparison could lead to harm when its made in a journal, or even something like a magazine article. I've yet to see good arguments made on this point, connecting the dots. Of the people who take the time to read a journal, or even a magazine article, I'm just not convinced that its going to sway people away from accepting transgender folk, and towards causing them harm (or failing to respect these folks in other ways). We philosophers tend to overestimate just how powerful our arguments can be! If people read an article like Tuvel's, and as a result come to accept the Anti-Trans Argument (i.e. the modus tollen version), we might be suspicious that is what they were after all along. And we might wonder how they missed - and so easily ignored - all of the points about the why respect for transgender folk is obligatory and important...I just don't see that as being the fault of the author, however.

s. wallerstein said...

Hello Jean,

It's great to see you blogging again.