To appropriate a line, it would take a heart of stone not to laugh at the controversy engulfing the “feminist philosophy journal” Hypatia in response to its publication of an article justifying “transracialism” on the same grounds as transgenderism.
Critics have charged the author with using the wrong words (including “transgenderism,” which is apparently unacceptable), failing to cite sufficient minority scholars, and generally doing “harm to the communities who might expect better from Hypatia.” One philosophy professor, whose opinion many seem to share, even declared that the article “enacts violence and perpetuates harm.”
Instead of defending an article that made it through their review process, the journal editors have knuckled under and issued an apology, even though the author, other than regretting some word choices, stood by her article. What is fascinating here is not the argument over whether the logic of transgenderism also justifies transracialism. Rather, it is the reaction to the article that piques one’s interest.
Words Can’t Bloody Your Face
While the publish or perish demands of academia have ensured a plentitude of scholarly journals, they are obscure almost by definition. Never before has so much been written by so many to be read by so few. The claim that an article in a minor philosophy journal “enacts violence” or does “harm” to anyone is amusingly overwrought.
For connoisseurs of human folly, this kerfuffle offers a delightful tableau. However, it also offers insight into an illiberal worldview of increasing power, especially in higher education. This view, that words and arguments are threats equivalent to violence, is familiar from various campus protests, where it is often used to justify actual physical violence.
Activists will declare that certain views are attempts to “erase identities” and “deny people their humanity” or suchlike, thereby justifying suppressing those views, sometimes violently. Outrage mobs, whether in person or online (often both), will threaten the careers and safety of those with whom they disagree, and of allies whom others deem to have stepped out of line.
In this case, shaming and silencing an academic ally shows that equating speech with violence is not just an opportunistic excuse to shut down right-wing views. Rather, it is a genuine article of faith—specifically, of a secular creed that is attempting to grapple with the problem of original sin.
But What If We Can’t See the Worst Evils?
There has been a rediscovery of sin as an inescapable condition of human existence, although not in traditional Christian terms. We are, this secular faith holds, all born into systems of oppression that can never be fully abolished, and the greater our privileges the greater our guilt. Sin is everywhere and there is no grace or redemption, only the struggle.
Human existence, finite and conditional, necessitates that we constantly participate in social and political systems that are unjust. As we do so, even seemingly innocuous actions perpetuate injustice, even if we do not intend it. And to perpetuate an unjust system is to perpetuate its inherent violence, regardless of intention.
It’s very similar to Christian teaching, in which all sin, no matter how seemingly minor, separates us from a holy and perfect God. So also in this secular faith, all participation in injustice sullies us. Our very existence implicates us in injustice, often without us realizing it. The doctrine of microaggressions is one articulation of this, the preaching on privilege is another.
There is no redemption or eschaton in this intersectional faith, but that does not mean that it lacks a sense of righteousness. Victimhood is one way to righteousness, with those most harmed by the overlapping systems of oppression (based on race, class, gender, etc.) able to claim the most moral authority. Righteousness may also be had by those who articulate doctrine accurately and deconstruct their own original sins of privilege.
Additionally, a certain type of religious person will demonstrate sanctity by detecting sin in ever-smaller doses and increasingly violent reactions to it. The merest hint of heresy or blasphemy is sniffed out and denounced as if it were a complete denial of the sacred creed. The lack of proportion is the point, for one’s holiness and righteous purification is assured and confirmed by the vehemence with which one discovers and denounces every smidgen of sin.
Outrage Mobs Are the New Witch Hunts
So there are the outrage mobs, whose actions are a performative religious ritual—a symbolic purification and cleansing in which heretics and blasphemers are punished and witches sniffed out and vilified. “Witch hunts” is a particularly apt term, if we juxtapose the alleged wrongs (words that inflict “harm” and “enact violence”) with the centrality of words of power, especially names, to magical systems. Substituting “the witch cursed me” for complaints about “misgendering” or “deadnaming” only be clarifies the accusation.
The roots of these witch hunts are found in the psychological pathologies that sometimes appear in religious persons. Thus, we see a magical belief in the power of words, especially names, to shape reality, and observe attempts to assert one’s righteousness against the omnipresence of sin in human existence through preposterous overreactions to the merest hint of sin.
Consequently, much of the pushback against the Hypatia hysteria and similar witch hunts fails to address the real issue. A widely shared piece in New York Magazine on this “modern-day witch hunt” mostly argued that the accused wasn’t a witch, rather than making the case against witch hunts themselves. But telling a mob of outraged witch-finders and heretic-hunters that they’ve made a mistake in a particular case may only legitimize them, as it suggests they just need to find the right victim. The true problem is not that an outraged mob of religious fanatics is trying to destroy the wrong person, it is that the mob is trying to destroy anyone.
Although the spectacle will provide amusement to those normally accused of witchcraft, witch hunts will not be deterred by occasional complaints that a particular target isn’t actually a witch. They will cease when witch hunts are dismissed automatically, and the mob’s pretensions to moral superiority through overreaction are treated with contempt.