When Daily Nous first broke the Hypatia story from last month with this post, it sparked a flurry of reactions from across the discipline of philosophy. Many far-left feminists objected to the article, claiming that its publication was irresponsible and harmful to both the transgender community and the black community. In this post, I’m going to examine the public Facebook reaction of professor Lisa Guenther at Vanderbilt University, who works in phenomenology, feminism, and mass incarceration, which apparently is a sub-discipline of philosophy. Guenther has some interesting things to say, but ultimately these things strike me as deeply problematic.
First, Guenther highlights an interesting problem for philosophy with the comment about “ideal theory”. My understanding of an “ideal theory” is that it abstracts away from the details and particulars of lived life, leaving generalized principles. This is something that philosophy does a lot, and whether Guenther meant to, her comment gets at a limitation of this practice—abstraction ultimately leads to meaningless.
Is all abstraction bad, then? No. For if it was, it would render huge swaths our our sentences meaningless. Science would not be able to state laws of nature, or talk about similarity between phenomenon, as these involve generalization and abstraction. So, abstraction, in and of itself, cannot be bad.
This leads me to the discussion of a second interesting point that Guenther makes. She indicates that the problem with Tuvel’s argument is that it “toys around” with “…arguments that deeply and viscerally affect the lives of people whose social location is radically different from her own, with no evidence in the article of an awareness of the context, power dynamics, or stakes of these issues for trans people and people of color.” Again, I think Guenther has an interesting point—people cannot really deeply understand situations that are “radically different from their own”, and so anything they say about such situations will be inherently flawed. My suspicion is that Guenther thinks that discussing situations that are radically different from one’s own without the necessary understanding of the context—the “power dynamics” and the “stakes”—perpetuates harm by acting as though (perhaps through ignorance) these important aspects don’t exist.
I think she has a real point. If your background and experiences are radically different from mine, and I have no understanding of these things, then how can I reason about them in any way that isn’t stunted? I do not think we can. The real question, I think, is ‘Are the contexts of “trans people” and “people of color” (I don’t like this PC language) radically different from those of “non-trans people” and white people?’ Suppose it is. Then how did Lisa Guenther, herself a white, non-trans person (I assume her gender and race with great fear and trepidation!), come to the place where she understands the power dynamics and stakes for the transgendered and people of color? Note, she can’t think that the contexts of the transgendered and people of color are so radically different as to be unrelatable for white people. If she thought this, she would completely undermine her own ability to speak to the issue. Furthermore, we might wonder if such a view entailed wide ranging skepticism—how could any of us relate to anyone else? On the other hand, if the contexts of the transgendered and people of color are not radically different, then people like Tuvel, or more radically, white men like me, can reason about these things without having to bend over backwards to show we appreciate the relevant contexts.
This is smoke in mirrors. Those who wanted the retraction of Tuvel’s article, such as Guenther, use the appeal to radically different perspectives to dismiss conclusions they don’t like and hoist themselves as keepers of special knowledge on which we must all defer to them. The assumption that they’ll almost never state openly is ‘we white feminists understand these radically different contexts, and anyone else who understood them would arrive at the same conclusion as us’, so if you arrive at a different conclusion, that is sufficient grounds for concluding that you haven’t understood how these arguments “deeply and viscerally affect” people. They try to stack the deck by leaving no room for people to understand the contexts and deeply disagree.
Guenther goes further with a second post:
Ah yes, she does not mean “feminism that happens to be practiced by white people” (because that would undermine her own position), she means feminism that disagrees with her. This statement implies that Tuvel’s work is feminism that is actually allied with the “cis hetero anti-black patriarchy”—this, despite her pains to express that she is an ally to all the groups of which progressives are supposedly allies. Tuvel didn’t arrive at the right conclusions, and didn’t signal her virtue significantly enough by showing her awareness of the contexts, power dynamics, and stakes. This is absurd, and uncharitable. What’s worse, it comes from someone who was on Tuvel’s dissertation committee! A word of advice to prospective students out there. Stay the heck away from Lisa Guenther. Being a progressive isn’t enough to keep her from throwing students under the bus and boosting her own position at your expense.
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