The – justified – criticism of the publication of “The Case for Colonialism” recalls another recent controversy concerning the publication of an article going against the common arguments of the field. I’m talking, of course, about Rebecca Tuvel‘s article “In Defense of Transracialism”, published in the journal Hypatia last May. Prima facie, the reactions are similar: accusations of widely insufficient engagement with the relevant literature, of harming disenfranchised populations in academia, and of perpetuating exclusionary practices. In Tuvel’s, as in Gilley’s case, calls for retraction abounded, and editors refused to retract the article. Yet, as I hope to make clear below, the “transracialism” article did not warrant retraction, for the same reason as the “colonialism” article does.
“In Defense of Transracialism” asks a simple question: why is gender taken as an attribute under the full control of the individual – where self-identification should be the only relevant criterion for definition – while race is taken to be assigned and immutable? In other words, why is transgenderism taken to be a human right while transracialism (as in the Rachel Dolezal case) rejected? This is, by all accounts, a hugely controversial position to take, and Tuvel (and the Hypatia journal) was accused in a petition signed by over 800 scholars – including prominent names such as Judith Butler and Wendy Brown – of sending a message “that white cis scholars may engage in speculative discussion of these themes without broad and sustained engagement with those theorists whose lives are most directly affected by transphobia and racism”, and of “caus[ing] further harm” through this publication.
As I mentioned in my previous post on “The Case for Colonialism”, I am not convinved that accusations of “harm” or “violence” are valid. Kelly Oliver, Tuvel’s dissertation adviser, denounced the jump to accusations of violence well:
The most vocal figures on social media claimed they were harmed, even traumatized, by Tuvel’s article, and by my defense of its right to exist. Some said that Tuvel’s article harmed them, and I was doing violence to them, even triggering PTSD, just by calling for an open discussion of, and debate over, the arguments in the article. While I readily agree that words can do harm and that hate speech exists, my call for philosophical engagement with Tuvel’s article does not constitute harmful speech. In fact, if an essay that openly supports trans identity does violence, and defense of open debate causes PTSD, then by which name should we call the physical violence inflicted on trans people and others daily? What of the PTSD caused by domestic violence, rape, and hate crimes? If an essay written by a young feminist scholar in support of trans rights is violent and harmful, then haven’t we leveled all violence such that everything has become swept up by it, and the very notion of violence has lost its meaning? Certainly, at the very least, we need to distinguish between levels of violence. One Facebook critic called my remarks “unforgivable,” seemingly putting them on par with crimes against humanity.
Indeed, it is quite surreal to compare the “violence” and “harm” caused by the publication of one article (and possibly a forthcoming book) with the harm done to a female tenure-track professor by such an overblown reaction. Not all harm is equal, and excluding some questions from academic pursuit for such reasons seems the very antithesis to free speech and academic inquiry.
That being said, as I also mentioned, research going against the main academic current in a discipline must pass a higher threshold: whoever seeks to overturn conventional arguments must shoulder the burden of evidence and make their case more forcefully. This is not censorship, but prudent scepticism. On that point, Tuvel falls short for the same reason as Gilley: her lack of engagement with the most relevant literature, in her case, literature on race theory and by minority scholars. That being said, one key difference between the “colonialism” and the “transracialism” articles must be noted: Gilley’s piece is a standalone piece, making a complete argument, while Tuvel’s article is an exploratory article, meant to culminate in a forthcoming book. One can therefore expect, and hope, that Tuvel’s book will indeed engage – as it should – with the relevant literature and judge her work in its most complete form.
Most importantly, however, “In Defense of Transracialism”, unlike “The Case for Colonialism”, did undergo the full peer review process and was recommended for publication. This, in itself, makes any case for retraction moot. As retraction is an extreme measure, it must be reserved for extreme cases of misconduct. In other words, better let one poor article slip through than retract too hastily. Gilley’s viewpoint article was published due to unacceptable perversions of peer review; Tuvel’s was published as a result of a complete, and fair (if perhaps flawed) process. It is certainly fair to criticise and rebut the article (although, as I suggested above, waiting for the book may not be a bad idea); but retraction would have been a mistake, and the editor of Hypatia, Sally Scholz (now former editor, having resigned), must be commended for standing by the article and not retracting it.
In summary, therefore, the crucial differences between a radical article on feminist philosophy published in Hypatia, a journal of radical feminist philosophy, and an article defending colonialism in Third World Quarterly, an explicitly postcolonial journal, should lead to very different outcomes. “In Defense of Transracialism” is the controversial output of a normal publication process, and should be treated as such; “The Case for Colonialism” was published as a result of a perversion of peer review and should not be allowed to stand. In both cases, scholars may wonder how the article passed through – or indeed, did not pass through – peer review. However, the publication process relies on delegating the responsibility of judging worthiness of publication to anonymous reviewers and, barring evidence of misconduct, these reviewers should be trusted.
P.-S.: The Hypatia controversy was compounded by the flurry of contradictory statements made by the Journal’s editor (Sally Scholz), its Associate Editorial Board, and its Board of Directors. The Daily Nous has followed the fallout extensively here, here, here, and here.
I close with a precision on my last post: Natasha Saunders pointed out that I may have been too generous in reading Shahid Qadir’s statement. As Natasha points out, Qadir never claims that the article was recommended for publication by reviewers, merely that it did “undergo double-blind peer review and was subsequently published”, leaving open the possibility that the Journal decided to publish it against the advice of reviewers. As such, it is possible that the article was never, in fact, recommended for publication by anyone, and that Qadir decided unilaterally, for whatever reason – fear of accusations of censorship, clickbait, etc. – to publish an article that he knew was unfit for publication. At any rate, this makes two things clear: 1) A full inquiry by Taylor and Francis and the editorial board (or what remains of it) is necessary to understand how the peer review was perverted in this instance; 2) it is very questionable whether the current editor can be trusted to respect good academic practice, and a resignation/removal seems to be in order.
I thank Natasha for this very perceptive correction, and encourage you to keep an eye out for her forthcoming book!
 See also Suzanne Danuta Walters’ article in The Chronicle of Higher Education and Jesse Walters’ article on NYMag.com.