Philosophy professor Rachel Tuvel has had a bad few days. Hypatia, a journal of feminist philosophy, published her article “In Defense of Transracialism.” As the name suggests, her article considered whether transracial identity should be given the same status as transgender identity. (My short, somewhat reflexive answer would be “No,” but this is a question philosophers should consider.) Academics then unleashed the most heated, brutal criticism against her and her methods – calling her work “violence” for using phrases like “male genitalia” and deadnaming Caitlyn Jenner, who also alternatively refers to her former name. Hypatia, which accepted the paper after anonymous peer review with several referees, ultimately apologized for the article and claimed it should never have been published.
Some academics have come to Tuvel’s defense. Philosopher and law professor Brian Leiter claimed the open letter and Hypatia’s apology are defamation. I would not go this far. The statements against Tuvel were based on opinion and judgment that did not imply the existence of untrue, defamatory facts. To stifle discourse by threatening a lawsuit would be to engage in even more extreme forms of censorship than the feminist philosophers trying to ruin Tuvel’s career. I would, however, say that this event illustrates the crisis of blurred lines in feminist rhetoric (and in academic and political discourse more generally).
“Blurred Lines,” the song by Robin Thicke et al., is a fun, naughty song that I found empowering and narrative-complicating – in that women don’t have to accept the social construct of being a “good girl.” Of course, many feminists described this song as perpetuating rape culture, because of the blurred line between consent and rape. Rape culture is a term that itself blurs the lines between a forced sexual encounter, cultural values shared to varying degrees by individuals, most of whom do not rape, and a piece of iconoclastic music. The reaction to this song is the perfect metaphor for why the rhetoric of some feminists are happily destroying people like Rachel Tuvel, and, to some degree, free thought and inquiry.
First, in order to obtain more sympathy for attacks on the dignity of people who belong to historically marginalized groups, like trans women of color, feminist philosophers criticizing Tuvel have blurred the line between speech and conduct. Misgendering or otherwise undermining the identity of a trans person is not physical violence. Instead, it is a disrespectful (and shameful) way of disagreeing with their gender identity, rejecting evolving views about gender, and devaluing their equal status. It also reminds someone that they were not born in the body that matches their gender identity. This reminder, while painful, is also the truth. Labeling misgendering as “violence” is also a way to blur the line between fact and fiction in order to serve an extremely marginalized group – a group that is targeted for actual violence.
In light of yesterday’s stabbings at UT-Austin, the horrific, permanent effects of physical violence should be clear. Violence literally kills people, not kills them in the metaphorical way of causing mental anguish, or even in the way of contributing to the reason someone commits suicide. Suicide is the tragic act of a hopeless person, but it is an act that involves complex forces and some choice of the suicide victim. Blurring the line between ideas and violence creates a world where everyone must agree with you – on the definition of gender, on which song lyrics are permissible, and on which academic ideas do not deserve to be published despite peer review.
We, as a society, have become obsessed with feeling “safe,” far beyond the ordinary meaning of the term. Blurring the line between ideas and violence is premised on the view that we have no control over our own emotional responses. Statements that describe views as causing an “emotional assault,” require the idea that the person hearing the insulting statement has involuntarily suffered a blow. This robs people of agency. Long gone is Eleanor Roosevelt’s notion that “no one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”
Part of the reason women feel so scared, and are so obsessed with “safety” broadly defined, is because we have also blurred the line between violent, forcible rape and much lower degrees of unwanted sexual touching or verbal harassment. None of these is acceptable, but this blurring inflates statistics about how many women are victims of sexual assault. Many women unnecessarily walk around thinking they are on the brink of being victimized. This also undermines agency, and, to my mind, undermines feminism. As someone who has experienced unwanted contact and verbal intrusions that do not in any way rise to the level of serious sexual assault, I can say that I am not traumatized. There are degrees along the intrusion spectrum that have real meaning. I am not walking around scared of sexual violence the way many women, especially young women who identify as feminists, tell me they feel. It is unfortunate that many women have to deal with any unwanted touch, much of which can create great distress, but they are not all the same. Blurring the lines between different forms of unwanted sexual intrusion discards all nuance in discussions about sexual assault and robs the much deserved potency from the term rape.
I would like to consider myself a feminist. I am a free-thinking, career-oriented woman who believes women and men should stand together on the front lines of any war and should share equally in society’s rights and responsibilities. I cannot, however, condone the rhetoric, hyperbole, misuse of data, and censorship of many modern feminists.