Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Why I'm not moved by the plight of a theoretical sincere Rachel Dolezal. (Hint: note the word "theoretical.")

OK, so. I’m kinda-sorta up to date on the philosophy controversy over an article arguing that if transgender is fine, then so, too, is transracial. The article itself, that is, and some but not all of the heap of commentary the article has inspired. I come at the topic not as a philosopher, nor as someone with a team on the campus speech meta-debate. (For the long version of my thoughts on campus politics, yup, it’s in the book.) No, I come at this as someone who’s found something not quite right about the Dolezal-inspired “transracial” debate all along, beyond the obvious (it's offensive, yes, but why?) but who was only able to sort out, for myself, the… actually quite simply issue at hand this morning, while walking my dog podcast-free. 

To be clear, I’m addressing the topic, not the academic-politics angle. While the short version is, yes, that I think Tuvel’s argument (or, more to the point, premise) is way off, enough so that I do think there's value in people outside her field expressing opinions, my aim here isn't to protest the article appearing in the first place, a debate I think is outside my role to even have.

One more disclaimerish thing: If this overlaps with what any of the other 100,000,000 Dolezal takes have already argued, apologies in advance. I admit I have not read each and every one of them, and so can only say this isn’t one I can recall coming across. With that, here goes:

The problem - not just in Rebecca Tuvel’s article, but in the mainstream conversation about this topic - comes from looking at the issue too… philosophically, or just too much in the abstract, and missing key facts on the ground. In The Article, Tuvel “suggest[s] that Dolezal offers an important opportunity for us to think seriously about how society should treat individuals who claim a strongly felt sense of identification with a certain race. When confronted with such an individual, how should we respond?”

I’m suggesting, in turn, that we take a step back and ask: Are we, in fact, confronted with such individuals? Because if we’re not (and Tuvel admits as much), then we’re giving rather a lot of weight to the well-being of made-up, thought-experiment-inhabiting people, and putting their feelings above those of people who do in fact exist and do in fact make their wishes known.

Put another way: Transgender is a thing, transracial is not. There are people who suffer tremendously from being assigned a gender at birth that does not match up with who they are. These are real people who really exist. Are there people in the same boat where race is concerned? Well, there’s Rachel Dolezal, who seems, above all, a mess. There was a tabloid story a while back about a white man who’d had cosmetic surgery in order). Life, as Mallory Ortberg often reminds, is “a rich tapestry,” and if you comb the planet you can find everything. But it’s unavoidably the case that in the society where this conversation is taking place – and I avoid saying in our society, for reasons you’ll understand after reading philosopher Eric Schliesser’s post on this, which you should* – there is demand for transgender rights, while "transracial" remains an abstract concept, associated almost exclusively with one case, a case that, as Tuvel herself notes, may not even fit. 

There are certainly cases of racial identity being ambiguous, and yes, racial identity has margins. (Trust me, I’m an otherwise white person not considered white by white supremacists!) That, however, is something else. If margins and ambiguous cases were the topic at hand, there’d be intersex analogizing, not transgender.

So the question to ask is what the stakes actually are. If there aren’t – Dolezal aside – white people identifying as black, it makes sense to ask what it is white people do want when rooting for Dolezal (and theoretical other Dolezals) to get to count as black. What comes to mind: While there’s hardly a stampede of white people wishing to be black, there are a good number who wish to be able to say the n-word, or two wear blackface, or to engage in other, less overtly racist forms of (to use a term requiring more unpacking than there’s room for here) cultural appropriation. There are, in other words, plenty of white people who want to live in a society where they can be casually racist without consequences. That phenomenon – unlike transracial – is a thing.

Where transgender is concerned, yes, there are some (cisgender) women who take offense at the existence of trans women, and who feel that the phenomenon of a person assigned male at birth identifying as a woman is the appropriation of a marginalized identity. (That would be "TERFs", but also – and I say this anecdotally – some cisgender women who aren’t radical feminists of any kind.) There, however, the concerns of cisgender feminists – however legitimate in the abstract – tend to fall apart in the face of trans women’s actual existence and actual suffering.

With transracial, meanwhile, literally all that’s at play – again, where actual people are concerned – is, there are many black people who find “transracial” to be, well, racist. But there isn’t any competing concern of the transracial community because guess what? There isn’t a transracial community, let alone an oppressed transracial community. So what you’re defending, in effect, when you defend the non-existent transracial community is the right to be gratuitously offensive. Because that’s the demand white people – not all, but lots – are actually making.

*Schliesser – who also happens to have been my favorite college instructor – also says what’s needed to be said about Tuvel’s discussion of Jewish conversion.


Miss Self-Important said...

Isn't the discipline of philosophy pretty much the study of theoretical things? Even more than simply a broad concern for the theoretical, the majority of 20th and 21st century philosophy that I've read is based on reasoning from hypothetical scenarios. You've probably encountered the famous ones - pushing the fat man off a cliff to stop a runaway train, etc. Hypothetical scenarios are almost always at the limits of typical behavior or events because their purpose is to test the logic of a proposition. The point of the fat man/cliff scenario is to test your moral intuitions about the utilitarian principle or question its tenability. We can't test it except in theory, or by reference to a scenario we don't want to make real. It's not always the case that you need an extreme case to test the logic of a principle, but often you do.

So is your objection that philosophy should not consider theoretical things, or hypothetical scenarios? Or it should not test the logic of arguments, or not test them with improbable hypothetical scenarios? Or is it just particular kinds of arguments that should be off-limits to this approach (say, those made by groups who can claim to be "actually suffering")?

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Good points! So I do get at this in some of my Twitter ramblings post-blog-post but not here, but not enough, so let me try...

I think - and this converges with Schliesser's take - the issues with the argument had to do with the definition of terms. Which society is this theoretical population of thus far unseen (but for Dolezal who doesn't even count) transracial population emerging into? It's too vague - the thought experiment takes place sort of half in our Dolezal-possessing real society, and half in some other society where there are a bunch of sincere Dolezals. The stakes depend on whether there's, *concurrently*, the issue of racist white people using faux-transracialists as a pretext for demanding the right to offend and not be criticized for offending.

For me, the article would have worked a whole lot better if it would have spelled out that this is an if-we-were-to-cross-that-bridge thought experiment, and not a Dolezal-inspired theory that there very well might be a transracial population secretly pining for its rights. (The Dolezal-Jenner symmetry doesn't work because even if transgender issues are newly prominent in the news, gender non-conformity is a longstanding part of human experience. Caitlyn Jenner is merely the best-known trans person, not the individual on whom the concept holds.)

But it's also unlikely to wind up being a very interesting question, in that penned-off context. If transracial were a thing, and always had been but were simply newly in the news (and were not just a silly concept based around one woman who's either very troubled, a con woman, or both), then... yeah, maybe it would be just fine? The reasons the topic is fraught require returning, repeatedly, to the society in which Tuvel and Dolezal, you and I, actually live. Take that context away and there's no difference between changing race and changing socks. It's the context that makes it so there's even a question.

Miss Self-Important said...

So the problem with the article is that there isn't a critical mass of "sincere" Dolezals in our society to merit asking how they should be categorized? (If so, is there a standard by which we could we determine the sincerity of such people?) Or is it this, plus you concurrent condition - that there are people out there eager to misconstrue the author's argument to advance racist ends? So then the rule for philosophy would be something like, "Thou shall not use hypothetical scenarios to test the logic of propositions not currently being advanced by a sufficiently large political interest or identity group, especially when the results of this proposition-testing may be put to undesirable political use"?

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

I just want to know what it is the author herself thinks she's doing. Is she discussing a phenomenon that does, might, or theoretically could exist?

Again: Absent the Dolezal context, indeed absent cultural conversations that predate the Dolezal story, there's zero reason to think "transracial" would cause controversy, or indeed that race as a category would exist. Which world is this thought experiment occurring in?

The absence of Dolezals - sincere or insincere, frankly - matters. It matters because there's an existing discussion about "transracial" that would, presumably, exist in the theoretical society where the thought experiment takes place.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

One more context note, but a different one: It's hard to discuss this story without the context of a pile-on that (going by a FB thread I'm following) involves death threats to the prof in question. It makes me, and others I'm guessing, inclined to be more generous to the argument itself. It ends up being a conversation not about whether the argument about the article in question was any good, but instead about whether its author must be banished from polite society (or worse), which is another whole level of deeply, deeply mistaken.

Miss Self-Important said...

I'm not sure I can follow your argument here. What the author says about what she's doing is pretty much what all logic-extending analytic philosophy articles do: start from Claim A, show that all conditions of Claim A apply in Hypothetical Case B (which in this case has a Real Example), conclude that Case B meets the conditions of Claim A, address possible objections, vindicate original assertion. Her version of this progression:

In this article, I argue that considerations that support transgenderism extend to transracialism. Given this parity, since we should accept transgender individuals’ decisions to change sexes, we should also accept transracial individuals’ decisions to change races. I entertain and reject four objections that suggest a society should not accept an individual’s decision to change races. I then turn to Sally Haslanger to argue for an account of race that allows for racial membership on the basis of social treatment, and, I will add, self-identification. I conclude that if some individuals genuinely feel like or identify as a member of a race other than the one assigned to them at birth—so strongly to the point of seeking a transition to the other race—we should accept their decision to change races.

I don't read analytic philosophy for a living, but when I've come across it, I don't think I've ever seen the kinds of caveats you're asking for employed - about exactly how many real people the hypothetical scenario applies to, or how sincere they are, or whether the logic deployed might be used for ill by others. That's all beside the point, which is only to ascertain whether Case B meets the conditions of Claim A. Why would you need to do sociology in order to carry out a thought experiment that's essentially about the logic of an argument?

Maybe a potentially parallel example could illustrate: let's say you want to think about why adult incest is proscribed. You see that, in general, society accepts the argument that sexual relations are legitimized by the consent of the parties, so, you ask, why can't adult siblings or parent and (adult) child give consent, or why don't we treat their consent as coeval with that of two consenting unrelated adults? So you set out to write an article as follows:
Recently, a professor at Columbia was caught having sex with his adult daughter, and this caused a big controversy. But why should it cause a big controversy? Even if this professor is the only such case of this in recent popular memory, let's use him to illustrate the logical error of denying someone a right to have sex with his grown children. Society accepts sexual relationships between unrelated adults if they're consensual, so if consent is the basis of legitimacy, and all adults can consent, then it follows that they can also consent to sex with their own parents. Here are some objections: blahblahblah. Here are my responses to them: blahblahblah. ERGO, I AM RIGHT AND I WIN.
Is there any problem with such an article? (Other than that it might make fatal errors in the blahblahblah sections.) Does it matter that there's no actual social movement to legalize and normalize adult incest afoot, and that you only have this one scandalous case to show that it might ever be a real issue? Does it matter that most incest that does happen in the world inflicts harm on people? That the argument can be co-opted for potentially nefarious ends: in cases involving abuse and manipulation of one of the parties, the other party can use the arguments he learns in this article to falsely claim it was consensual? It seems to me that the answer to all these questions is clearly no. What matters for writing a philosophy article testing the logic of consent is only the logic of consent and the nature of the case, not the real world. Would you agree? And if so, why wouldn't this logic apply to the transracial/transgender article?

Miss Self-Important said...

Oh, sorry, I didn't see your second comment. I would think that if the only thing in question is whether the article is any good in terms of its argument, this would be a skirmish of a narrowly disciplinary kind, and you and I would not be discussing it. The question being disputed in the larger media is whether the editorial board's claim that it "should never have been published" is right, b/c it violates some set of professional norms and standards. But clearly, many if not even most academic articles are not "good" in the sense of beyond dispute, but that is not the standard for publication. Being wrong is not a violation of professional norms.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Re: the first - and maybe this is just me being a philosophy ignoramus - I'm not seeing how "blahblahblah" wouldn't be, for lack of a better term, sociological. Yes, if social context is removed, tons of things are not problems that, in context, are problems. To stick with your example, how would "most incest that does happen in the world inflicts harm on people" not need to be part of the blahblahblah? I guess I'm confused - and not just re: "transracial" - about this sphere where one could pare things down to situations without social contexts, except kind of still with them. Pushing one person to their death to save other people, yes, that's a (gruesome) topic that could be discussed without a societal context. But... to return to the transracial question, if you remove the cultural controversies and sensitivities and so forth, *how is there even a question*? If there weren't the fraught context, what's even up for discussion? Wouldn't the "blahblahblah" need to address the real-world context (which this one does, but maybe not effectively)?

And re: the second, agreed. Argh. That may be its own post after all...

Miss Self-Important said...

Oh, I think I see your objection. The answer is simply this: the reason someone would write the consensual incest article is precisely to show that our "sensitivities" are no more than that: illogical knee-jerk reactions, and therefore to be devalued or altogether discarded. They do not trump the rights claims of the adult-incesters, because they do not hold up to rigorous logical examination. Hypothetical scenarios work by removing the case or claim in question from its usual fraught social context and putting it in a clearer, purer light, so that we can examine the logic of the argument free from our usual social biases, and often purged of the messiness of real life. Did the daughter really consent? is Dolezal really sincere? Who knows who cares let's just say for the sake of our argument that the answer is indisputably YES and move on.

In our incest article, the blahblahblah might include an objection like "But most incest is not consensual in the real world," but I'd imagine that would be an easy one to overcome, with, "Ok, but I'm only arguing about the narrow subset of cases when it is." More complex would be something like, "But parent/child relations inevitably involve asymmetrical power dynamics not necessarily present in regular sexual relations. The forms of coercion involved are more subtle and easier to hide behind a mask of consent." Maybe we'd fail to answer that objection and lose our argument (never!), but that wouldn't make it wrong to set up the paper in this way.

It seems like your main objection is that analytic approaches to philosophy are too detached from social reality. That is a common objection, and I too find this approach tiresome (for probably different reasons than you), but I see the rationale behind the endeavor. It is sometimes important and useful to follow the pure logic of an argument in order to understand its self-contradictions or inconsistencies, apart from all the different social complications that might muddy it in the real world. It's like the way that mathematical equations representing physical reality can illuminate things that reality itself obscures. You could not deduce the formula for the area of a circle solely from measuring circles you've drawn by hand. Using the formula derived from an ideal circle will never give you the precise area of any actual circle, b/c the actual circles are all imperfectly formed. But, imprecise measures from the ideal seem to work well enough to keep our actual buildings standing most of the time.

Miss Self-Important said...

Oh, and I should say also, you can use this approach in order to vindicate cultural sensibilities too, not just to undermine them. To do that, you'd still have to show that they're more than just sensibilities, by elaborating a logical foundation for them. (Eg, for the incest article, you could argue that although society's moral opprobrium is mainly based on incest being icky, it is actually good that we proscribe it, b/c the power dynamics involved actually constitute a violation of the principle of consent.) The argument can go in either direction, the point is just that it can't rest on cultural sensitivities alone.

Larkin said...

You make good points. However, if she doesn't address the fact that transracial people appear not to exist, I think it's because she's responding to arguments that don't make that point. She's responding to the actual claims made by people who don't think "transracialism" is a thing. Can you really fault Tuvel for not addressing arguments that aren't at the forefront of the discourse on this issue?

I'd also dive a little deeper into this: "There are, in other words, plenty of white people who want to live in a society where they can be casually racist without consequences. That phenomenon – unlike transracial – is a thing." Much of your argument rests on this prediction, so: are these people really a thing? We can analogize this to the argument that transgender isn't a thing because there are plenty of men who just want to creep into womens' bathrooms without consequences. While those men probably exist, there are consequences if they want to do it. They either have to commit to the various trappings of womanhood in order to demonstrate their seriousness, or face all sorts of sanctions.

If "transracial" were a thing, a similar dynamic would play out. White people who want to appropriate black culture AND live in the black community would still have to commit to Dolezal-levels of lifestyle change in order to be taken seriously, which is a big commitment for someone who just wants to be an asshole. Are there *really* plenty of white people who would pull a Dolezal just to be gratuitously offensive? Have we seen cases of pervy dudes who "go transgender" just to hang out in locker rooms? I honestly don't know, but if we *haven't*, I think that would speak to the frequency of "fake transracialism".

The other problem is that you could have made these same arguments before the word "transgender" was coined in 1965. "Sure, this person says they are a man even though they are biologically a woman, but is this really a thing when we only have this one documented case? I mean, sure, we have cases of transvestitism, and transexualism, and Viola in Twelfth Night, but those aren't the same things, and is it really worth having a whole rethinking of gender based on this one case, when this would be a harm to the women who have fought so recently to ensure equal rights?" In other words, maybe we'd find more of these people if it were allowed to be a thing. It's hard to know!

Andrew Stevens said...

Agreed that Rachel Dolezal is a mess. But I have no doubt whatsoever she was sincere (in her racial identification, I mean). I don't see how anybody can read the publicly known facts about her and conclude otherwise. She had a 20 year history of such identification before she started working for the NAACP.

Andrew Stevens said...

Which, by the way, raises the question for you: how ought we to treat Rachel Dolezal? Assuming that we are willing to overlook the whole reporting fake hate crimes thing (and whatever else) and treat it separately from her racial identification.

David Severy said...