5.5.17

THE EMERGENCE OF A DISCOURSE PRACTICE.

We understand the role of a university as a place where people ought be free to play with ideas.

For play to be constructive, though, there must be rules of inference and construction.  Thus, at any time, there are standards of proof, generally accepted foundational premises, and criteria by which an argument is useful.

And as new situations emerge, the existing premises and criteria might not be adequate.

Such might be the case with the emergence of "I identify as" rather than "I am" as a statement of personality.  Rhodes College philosopher Rebecca Truvel smacked into the frontier with an hypothesis that seems reasonable enough.
Considerations that support transgenderism seem to apply equally to transracialism. Although [Rachel] Dolezal [who appears to be changing her name] herself may or may not represent a genuine case of a transracial person, her story and the public reaction to it serve helpful illustrative purposes.
Professor Truvel is working in philosophy, and in this post I intend to focus on what I understand as existing discourse practices in philosophy.  The discourse practices of other disciplines are also in play, as is clear in coverage of the controversy at the house organ for business as usual in higher education.
Ms. Tuvel added that she had received hate mail and had been strongly urged to retract the article. She also said that a few people had expressed support — talking about “bullying culture, call-out culture, virtue-signaling, a mob mentality, and academic freedom.”

“So little of what has been said, however, is based upon people actually reading what I wrote,” she continued. “There are theoretical and philosophical questions that I raise that merit our reflection. Not doing so can only reinforce gender and racial essentialism.”

She added: “Calls for intellectual engagement are also being shut down because they ‘dignify’ the article. If this is considered beyond the pale as a response to a controversial piece of writing, then critical thought is in danger. I have never been under the illusion that this article is immune from critique. But the last place one expects to find such calls for censorship rather than discussion is amongst philosophers.”
The calls for censorship appear to be coming from disciplines other than philosophy, and they have their own discourse practices, and their own foibles, which provide material for a different kind of post.  For instance, "gender and racial essentialism" are statements about how chromosomes, or anatomy, or melanin levels, or lactose intolerance do not determine what a person identifies as.  And I'm forced into that passive "identifies as" because there are subfields of disciplines that disagree over such things as nature, nurture, and social influence.  All the same, when a young philosopher whose priors align with the deconstructive culture-studies perspective acknowledges the existence of virtue signalling and call-out cultures, there might be something good to come.

In philosophy itself, Brian Leiter has done yeoman service supporting the proposition that academic research is a conversation, within which arguments are judged on the merits according to generally accepted principles.  As his Sheffield colleague Jimmy Lenman puts it,
I am deeply vexed and shaken by the sheer nastiness of l'affaire Tuvel. I seriously begin to question if I really belong in this profession. I entered it naively thinking it was a place where everything could be challenged, everything questioned, a glorious field of free inquiry where intellectual integrity counted for everything, ideological conformity for nothing. Increasingly it looks instead like a place for the enforcement of pious orthodoxies where self-righteous bullies queue up to trash the reputation of anyone foolish enough to question bien pensant received opinion, not just powerful, tenured folk like me, but vulnerable early career folk like Tuvel. I am utterly horrified and disgusted. God knows, at my age, I don't have a plan B for earning a living. But I seriously begin to think I need to give the matter some thought.
That post relies heavily on a Facebook message from Northern Illinois's Mylan Engel.
[Truvel's] argument runs as follows:

1. Generally, when a person genuinely and sincerely self-identifies as a member of a socially constructed category, we should recognize and respect that person’s self-identification.

Given 1, it follows that:

2. People who sincerely self-identify as a particular gender should have their self-identified gender be recognized, accepted, and respected (regardless of their chromosomal structure or the external or internal genitalia). [As Tuvel puts it: “Thankfully, there is growing recognition that justice for trans individuals means respecting their self-identification by granting them membership in their felt sex category of belonging.”

Likewise, given 1, it also follows that:

3. People who sincerely self-identify as belonging to a particular race should have their self-identified race be recognized, accepted, and respected (regardless of their ancestry or color of origin).

The point Tuvel is making is this:

Just as gender identity has RIGHTLY shifted from an emphasis on one’s sexed biology toward an emphasis on gendered self-recognition, racial identity should shift away from ancestral ties or color of origin toward an emphasis on racial self-identification.
Under the rules of argument in philosophy (epistemology, ethics, logic, rhetoric) the conclusion follows from the premises.  You can strike the RIGHTLY (a prescriptive position) from the conclusion, convert the prescriptive "should shift away" into "can shift away" and the conclusion (as a positive statement) still holds.

And practitioners in psychology and psychiatry can still contest what it means to "sincerely self-identify."  The article does not condone a person genuinely and sincerely identifying as Napoleon.

Exactly when that "generally" starts to apply remains open for further research.

Likewise, there are still frontiers of research in genetics and physiology that are unaffected by the proposition being advanced in the article.

Professor Truvel's statement also appears in a roundup of scholarly responses in The Daily Nous.  Read the whole thing.  And Professor Leiter is displeased with the spinelessness of Hypatia's editors.
A tenure-track assistant professor submits her article to a journal, it passes peer review, it is published, others take offense, and the Associate Editors of the journal declare that "Clearly, the article should not have been published" and that the abuse to which the author is being subjected is "both predictable and justifiable."
Let things be done decently and in order. A tenure-track assistant professor submits her article, it passes peer review, it is published, and if it's a controversial article, or if there's an error, there's a series of comments or corrections.  That, in turn, affects citation counts, impact factors, Herfindahl indices, and all the other academic counterparts to the earned run ratio and the slugging percentage.  What are we going to have to do, put an asterisk on citation counts when the article and the follow-on comments involve content that a subset of the discipline pronounces anathema on?

Here's Jesse Singal codifying decently and in order.
We should want academics to write about complicated, difficult, hot-button issues, including identity. Online pile-ons cannot, however righteous they feel, dictate journals’ publication policies and how they treat their authors and articles. It’s really disturbing to watch this sort of thing unfold in real time — there’s such a stark disconnect between what Tuvel wrote and what she is purported to have written. This whole episode should worry anybody who cares about academia’s ability to engage in difficult issues at a time when outrage can spread faster than ever before.
Put another way: where there are difficult topics, and disciplines bringing different paradigms to bear on those topics, the absence of a consensus implies the existence of opportunities for further research.

But in trendy sub-fields of new age philosophy, there must be consensus, and there are heretics to be burned.
You’d expect that if a scholar disagrees with it, that scholar would just write a critical article.

Nope. You see, certain subfields are politicized, and the people within them no longer behave like academics or scholars. They are hell-bent on getting philosophy to go the way of the humanities in the 1980s. Many of these people are activists first, scholars second.
Not all, as the exchanges on Leiter Reports evince.  But enough.
Even if all these charges were true (no evidence is given that the article caused harm), they would be, well, underwhelming. Usually papers get retracted for things like plagiarism or falsifying data, not for failing to write in the preferred style of or failing to cite the preferred authors among some heterodox ideological and methodological minority.
No, the paper that fail to cite the referees don't get past the referees.  More to the point, the purpose of the academic enterprise is to distinguish the useful and general arguments from the derivative and idiosyncratic.  That, inevitably, leads to the less useful arguments getting marginalized.
Personally, I’d say that failing to fully engage critical theory is a feature, not a bug, of the paper. After all, questions of race and gender identity are important and serious questions, while “critical” (sic) theory is predominantly low quality, politicized, morally and intellectually unserious pseudo-scholarship. If anything, there is a moral obligation to approach these topics with the tools of standard philosophy and the social sciences, that is, with rigor and intellectual openness, with data and evidence, and with a commitment to seeking the truth no matter where it lies and no matter how unpleasant it turns out to be. But even if I were wrong about that (of course I’m not), obviously there are a plurality of ways of doing philosophy, and there isn’t an obligation to work within some heterodox and fringe framework that hardly anyone in philosophy pays attention to.
Rod Dreher also notes the suicide of the discipline. "And now, the mob has turned on [Professor Truvel] as an oppressor."

Academic philosophers can keep their discipline in order.  But the ideas of the mob live rent-free in the heads of Student Affairs types, and that's where the damage is going to be done.  And all the Oppression Studies cults are more concerned with doctrinal purity than with the purpose of the academic enterprise.

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