"This is What a Modern Day Witch Hunt Looks Like” screams the headline of a recent New York magazine article by Jesse Singal. Long ago, a witch hunt ended with a woman unjustly burned at the stake. The title, therefore, promises extravagant, ignorant charges and vicious, unconscionable punishments. Singal is preparing to tell a moral tale; he’s fighting for justice. Click through for pulse pounding excitement and righteousness.
Readers of the article might be puzzled to learn that not only is there no murder in this story, there’s not even any personal punishment recommended by anyone for anyone. It’s a curious witch hunt with neither accusers nor targets. You might conclude that the title is willfully misleading, and that there isn't actually a witch hunt at all.
Singal's article is about Rebecca Tuvel, a philosopher who wrote a paper titled "In Defense of Transracialism," published in the feminist journal Hypatia. Here's Tuvel’s abstract: "Former NAACP chapter head Rachel Dolezal's attempted transition from the white to the black race occasioned heated controversy. Her story gained notoriety at the same time that Caitlyn Jenner graced the cover of Vanity Fair, signaling a growing acceptance of transgender identity. Yet criticisms of Dolezal for misrepresenting her birth race indicate a widespread social perception that it is neither possible nor acceptable to change one's race in the way it might be to change one's sex. Considerations that support transgenderism seem to apply equally to transracialism. Although Dolezal 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."
Tuvel's paper quickly generated a lot of controversy. A number of scholars signed an open letter to Hypatia criticizing the paper, and calling for its author to be tortured to death as a witch.
Or possibly they didn't say that at all. The "witch hunt" letter in question doesn’t call for any sanctions against Tuvel. It doesn’t personally condemn her. It doesn’t even mention her by name, presumably in an effort to avoid sparking online harassment, attacks, or recrimination. Instead, the letter focuses on the institutional failures of Hypatia. It asks the journal to retract the article and apologize.
It seems a thin reed on which to hang a charge of "witch hunt." But Singal has his headline, and he’s not to be deterred by the actual document in front of him. He argues instead that Tuvel is "bearing the brunt of a massive internet witch-hunt" and that her "peers are busily wrecking her reputation by sharing all sorts of false claims that don't bear the scrutiny of even a single close read." He provides virtually no evidence for this except for the open letter itself.
Since the open letter is all he's got, Singal then attempts to rebut the objections put forward by it. The letter, for example, states that Tuvel dead-named a trans woman, using her pre-transition name in the article. Singal argues that the woman in question was Caitlyn Jenner, who has used her pre-transition name often in public, "It’s nonsensical to claim that once a very famous trans person has exhibited comfort using their old name and talking about their pre-transition life, any reference to that name or life is still verboten," Singal insists.
Unfortunately for Singal, a persuasive counter-argument was made by Tuvel, author of the article in question. In a response to the criticism she writes: "I regret the deadnaming of Caitlyn Jenner in the article, which means that I referred to her birth name instead of her chosen name. Even though she does this herself in her book, I understand that it is not for outsiders to do and that such a practice can perpetuate harm against transgender individuals, and I apologize."
So, a scholar failed to follow best practices around the treatment of marginalized communities. Critics pointed out the problem. She acknowledged her error and the harm it caused, corrected it, and apologized. Truly, this is a crisis of totalitarianism in the academy. The open letter also says that Tuvel's article "mischaracterizes various theories and practices relating to religious identity and conversion; for example, the author gives an off-hand example about conversion to Judaism."
The passage in question is here: "Generally, we treat people wrongly when we block them from assuming the personal identity they wish to assume. For instance, if someone identifies so strongly with the Jewish community that she wishes to become a Jew, it is wrong to block her from taking conversion classes to do so. This example reveals there are at least two components to a successful identity transformation: (1) how a person self-identifies, and (2) whether a given society is willing to recognize an individual’s felt sense of identity by granting her membership in the desired group. For instance, if the rabbi thinks you are not seriously committed to Judaism, she can block you from attempted conversion. Still, the possibility of rejection reveals that, barring strong overriding considerations, transition to a different identity category is often accepted in our society."
Singal asserts, "Not a word of this ‘mischaracterizes’ anything. She’s simply making a point about identity transformation by using the example of someone hoping to convert to Judaism."
I wouldn’t use the word "mischaracterizes" myself, but I think there are legitimate reasons to criticize this example from Judaism, especially as a parallel with Dolezal. The very existence of a Jewish conversion process points to differences between religious and racial identity; flattening these for the sake of argument seems tone-deaf. More, Jewish identity is not just about what rabbis say; it's also a function of persecution; people with Jewish ancestors who do not identify as Jews have historically been forced to do so, whether they want to or not. The complexities of Jewish identity could’ve been used to point out that acceptance of transition is often fraught, and predicated on belief, community, persecution, and history. What rabbi's approval would Dolezal seek to become a black woman? What does that even mean? Characterizing Tuvel's approach here as superficial and "off-hand" seems fair. And off-hand thought experiments about multiple groups of marginalized people raise uncomfortable ethical questions.
Is this sloppiness grounds for retracting the paper? I wouldn't say so myself, but it’s a reasonable debate. Singal, though, writes, "Either the authors simply lied about the article’s contents, or they didn’t read it at all." Those are serious accusations, and the justification for them is slim. One is forced to ask, did Singal lie about the open letter, or did he simply not read it?
The main criticism of Tuvel's article, in my mind, is its last one: "It fails to seek out and sufficiently engage with scholarly work by those who are most vulnerable to the intersection of racial and gender oppressions (women of color) in its discussion of “transracialism.”
Singal dismisses this, writing "Whether or not Tuvel cited enough women of color is certainly a fair point to raise, but it simply isn’t the sort of thing that would rise to the level of asking for a paper to be unpublished." But the call here to engage with scholarly work by women of color—and I think the letter should have said, with the scholarship of trans women—seems quite vital. Singal goes on to note that philosophy as a discipline is very white, so there might not have been many people to cite—but this is precisely why seeking out the work of those directly affected by these issues even, or especially if their work is outside philosophy is so important.
For example, comparing the work of Julia Serano on gender as a complex trait with Fields and Fields' Racecraft could’ve offered a much deeper discussion about the possible differences and similarities between race and gender. Ignoring the work of women of color and trans woman isn't just a cosmetic problem. It speaks to the paper's ignorance of a vast swath of relevant scholarship, and to the ethical problems that result when you write about marginalized groups without seriously engaging with their perspectives.
Singal's "witch hunt" then, comes down to a sloppy, tendentious reading of one open letter, which doesn't even name Tuvel, and which calls for no professional sanctions against her, except for the retraction of the paper in question. Singal also cites an angry Facebook post by a philosophy professor at the University of Tennessee—a post that has since been taken down. He points to an apology post by Hypatia's editor, which has also been removed. The judges in this witch hunt seem remarkably diffident.
Meanwhile, in Singal's wake, multiple pieces have gone up in mainstream venues like the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Education denouncing the Hypatia letter, defending Tuvel, and insisting that her article was not offensive in any way and that its critics should be ashamed. None of these article that I've seen so far have been written by black women or trans women, whose critiques, like Zoe Samudzi's have mostly been relegated to social media. It's as if Tuvel's critics are not powerful witch-burners, but rather are advocates for a marginalized group with little access to institutional support, and, as such, can be easily and eagerly dismissed.
Tuvel, in her statement says she has received hate mail. Abusive threats or emails are obviously wrong, and the targeting of controversial authors online can be ugly. But there’s nothing to suggest that Tuvel has been the target of a deliberate campaign of intimidation. Again, the Hypatia letter goes out of its way to avoid targeting her, and the other posts Singal points to have been removed. Writing a viral piece online is far more unpleasant than it should be, and the writers of the open letter were right to try to take the focus off of Tuvel as much as possible. But recklessly making accusations about "witch hunts" seems designed to stir up more anger, not to quell it.
The use of "witch hunt" in this context is especially unfortunate given the history of stereotypes of trans people and trans advocates. As Julia Serano, author of Outspoken: A Decade of Transgender Activism and Trans Feminism told me: "It is common for the mainstream to portray minority groups, or anyone who seems alien in some way, as unduly aggressive or dangerous. This is especially true for transgender people, who are often viewed as transgressing or threatening traditional gender and sexual roles. There is a long history of trans people—and especially trans women, and trans people of color—being stereotyped as sexual predators or deceivers. It's blatant in movies (e.g., Psycho, Dressed to Kill, and Silence of the Lambs), in justifications for transphobic violence (e.g., the "trans panic" defense), and in propaganda in support of contemporary anti-trans legislation (e.g., so-called "bathroom bills")."
Serano added, "Estimates suggest that transgender people make up only 0.2-0.3% of the population. Yet, despite our small numbers, whenever trans people (and our allies) speak out against anything we feel is harmful or potentially misleading, mainstream media outlets will immediately accuse us of ‘attacking’ people or free speech, or engaging in a ‘witch hunt.’"
Trans people don't have the power to police the nation, academia or philosophy; they can't even get mainstream publications to commission them to write about trans issues. Singal's "witch hunt" nonsense is not only false, but, as Serano says, it’s designed, intentionally or otherwise, to "play into and exacerbate historical stereotypes of trans people as monsters, aggressors, and predators."
Many of the defenses of Tuvel have insisted that asking theoretical questions cannot cause harm, and that thought experiments lead us to truth without consequences. In that spirit as an abstract philosophical thought puzzle, it's worth asking, is Jesse Singal a bigot?
Of course, there's no way to know what's in Singal's heart. He has written articles before in which he presents trans activists as a dangerous, powerful lobby ignoring science and restricting free speech and has even used the term "witch hunt" in similar contexts before. So he may have thrown around the term "witch hunt" here because he believes in ugly stereotypes, and sees trans people as dangerous aggressors. Or he may simply have wanted a clickable title. Or perhaps positioning himself as a defender of free speech against unthinking leftie hordes is a good career move. Certainly, many mainstream centrist and anti-left leftie white cis pundits—Kevin Drum, Jonathan Chait, Glenn Greenwald, Freddie deBoer—were eager to step up to declare that they too were eager to punch hippies and defend another random cis person's good name.
Or perhaps Singal is an angel fallen to earth, pure to the core, working earnestly to do good, and the use of "witch hunt" was just a regrettable error caused by his laudable if confused commitment to justice. Ultimately, Singal's motives and intentions don't matter. The fact is he wrote a sensationalist piece that leveraged stereotypes about trans people to create an exciting narrative. He yelled, "witch hunt!" when there was no witch hunt in a largely successful effort to portray the concerns of marginalized people as hysterical, and their actions and words as dangerous. His article is unethical and irresponsible. Neither he nor New York will ever apologize, nor correct their article, nor remove it. But saying they should doesn’t constitute a "witch hunt."