Insult Pacifism: A Reply to Eric O. Scott by William Irvine

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Let me begin by thanking Eric O. Scott for taking the time to respond to my Oxford University Press blog and my STOICON talk (I start talking at 58:00; sorry about the poor quality of the audio!). As I like to tell my students, if what we seek is the truth, we have the most to gain from those who challenge our views, since they will be the quickest to discover our mistakes.

The Stoics were very much interested in transforming themselves into better human beings. As part of their program of self-transformation, they attempted to develop their own character. Such efforts might have included doing things that they were afraid of doing, simply as an exercise in overcoming fear. Or it might have included intentionally interacting with difficult people, simply so they could practice preventing anger from arising within them.

But besides being concerned with their own well being, Stoics felt a social duty to make their world a better place. This could be done, they knew, by introducing other people to Stoicism, but it could also involve helping extract non-Stoics from the trouble they got themselves into as a result of their misguided views regarding what in life is valuable. Marcus Aurelius is a prime example of a Stoic who took his social duty very seriously, but despite being the emperor, he failed to bring about a just society. The Rome that he ruled still allowed or even encouraged slavery and acts of human cruelty.

It is easy for us to judge Marcus harshly, but before we do so, we should realize that future generations are likely to do the same to us. Eric Scott says we live in an unjust world. I agree entirely, but I think I have a different perception of that injustice than he does. It is this difference in perception, which I will now explain, that makes me critical of some of the campus protests that have recently been in the news.

Consider, for example, the injustice, on a global scale, of allowing people to live on two dollars a day. Many of us in the developed world, including many college activists, find it easy to ignore the plight of these individuals: because they live so far away, their lives don’t intersect with ours. And yet, closer investigation would reveal that their lives are not only interconnected with ours, but are, in a sense, as close as the shirt on our back or the dress on our body. If the label on that shirt or dress says “Made in Bangladesh,” it was likely made by someone working long hours under hazardous conditions, for two dollars a day.

Many college activists concern themselves with the injustice of the racial discrimination they detect on their campuses. They even take pains to develop an ability to detect racial microaggression, as when a fellow student asks, “Where are you from?” These same students, however, seem oblivious to the rather more serious form of racial discrimination—known as slavery—that still exists in places like Mauritania. They also seem ignorant of or indifferent to the human trafficking that might be taking place in their college town. This last injustice, of course, is sex based rather than race based, but this makes it no less objectionable.

College activists might without thinking twice carry on a conversation about the injustice they experience on their campus, all the while eating a juicy hamburger at a local restaurant. They can do this only because they are oblivious to the inter-species injustice that is involved in treating animals cruelly and then killing them, all to satisfy our craving for meat.

College activists might think of themselves as social justice warriors, but it is unlikely that their descendants will share this assessment of them. And when these descendants learn of the students’ obsession with microagressions, they will be even more puzzled by their behavior. Where, they will wonder, was their sense of proportion?

In my recent remarks, I was passing on the advice I think the ancient Stoics would offer to modern targets of insults. These include not only barely perceptible microagressions but outright racist, sexist, and homophobic attacks.   The Stoics’ advice: shrug or, better still, laugh them off. This advice is a consequence of the Stoic insistence that we divide the things in our life into two categories: those we can control and those we can’t. We can’t control whether other people insult us. We can very much control, though, how we respond to those insults, and in particular, we can respond in a way that minimizes the harm they do us. College students would do well to give this Stoic strategy a try.

I was surprised, by the way, that Scott would refer to those who experience injustice as “victims.” They are certainly targets, but the Stoics would tell us that they are victims only if they choose to see themselves as such. They would add that if you choose to play the role of victim, your suffering will be intensified.

When we examine the lives of Stoics, we find that many of them were targets of injustice. Musonius Rufus, for example, was exiled to the desolate island of Gyaros, but he did not spend his time there complaining about the unfairness of it all. This is in large part because he refused to play the role of victim, a refusal that doubtless made his exile far more endurable than it otherwise would have been. More generally, when we look at the Stoics, we cannot find a “victim” among them—and if we could, Stoicism probably wouldn’t have remained a viable philosophy of life for two thousand years.

The social movements of the last few decades have taught us how harmful labels can be. We therefore no longer refer to someone who is blind or missing a limb as being handicapped.   This change in thinking has had profound consequences. These days, “handicapped” individuals are doing things that in the past would have been unthinkable: there are blind skiers as well as footless individuals who, with the aid of prosthetics, can outrun the rest of us. So much for their “handicaps.”

In much the same way, those who are targets of sexist, racist, or homophobic slurs have an important choice. If they take themselves to be the victims of insults, they are likely to be needlessly miserable. If they instead take themselves to be the targets of insults, and if they respond to those insults by shrugging them off, thereby making their insulters look foolish, they not only limit the harm the insults do them but act as an inspiration for the rest of us.

Realize that shrugging off a sexist, racist, or homophobic insult does not preclude you from fighting the injustice that probably lurked behind it. To the contrary, it leaves you with more energy with which to carry on that fight! Imagine how different the world would be if people like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, on being the targets of racism, had chosen to play the role of victim. Suppose that instead of spending their days organizing protests, they had responded by wallowing in hurt feelings.

And before I conclude, let me respond to Scott’s observation that my remarks at STOICON did not make ethnic minorities feel “welcome or wanted.” I know that this is what you are supposed to do if you are trying to get someone to convert to your religion or join your political party, but it is not something an ancient Stoic would have felt compelled to do. Indeed, when Musonius Rufus lectured, he did not try to make those in his audience feel welcome or wanted. To the contrary, those in his audience were reduced to silence by the sting of his remarks. They were, Epictetus tells us, made to feel ashamed of the way they were living their lives. He adds that a visit to a Stoic should feel like a visit to the physician’s office: you should not leave feeling good, since any treatment that can cure you is likely to cause you discomfort at first. [Discourses, III: 23.]

We Stoics invite everyone to join us in the practice of Stoicism and think that what Scott calls “marginalized people” have as much to gain from its practice as anyone, but we extend this invitation fully aware that not everyone will find Stoicism an attractive doctrine. To benefit from Stoicism you have to be willing to critically examine your values and your strategies for living. It is an examination that most people are unwilling to undertake.

It is entirely possible that if the Stoic movement continues its current geometric growth rate, someone will come up with an “I’m okay, you’re okay” version of the doctrine that allows you to call yourself a Stoic without requiring self-transformation. But this Indulgent Stoicism, as it might be termed, will have lost its power to transform people and thereby transform the society in which they live.

William B. Irvine is professor of philosophy at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, and the author of A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy and A Slap in the Face: Why Insults Hurt And Why They Shouldn’t.  For more on his life and other writings, visit his author website.

14 thoughts on “Insult Pacifism: A Reply to Eric O. Scott by William Irvine”

  1. When a friend who is not a Stoic is experiencing external challenges such as the loss of a loved one or debilitating physical illness, I could respond in one of two ways:

    1) I could tell this person that their hardship is illusory for it is outside of the sphere of choice, and thus they are being irrational by causing themselves needless suffering. I could talk about how they would be better served by hardening themselves against all externals, and about how people in developing nations have it far worse so their concerns are unimportant. I could talk about how they are exemplifying a politically correct culture of crybullies that is just attention seeking and needs to get over it.

    2) Or instead I could listen to their story, I could offer my sympathy and condolences. I could empathize by imagining what it would be like to be in their position. I could seek to understand why this person is so affected by this event. And then perhaps after all that, I could ask them what is in their control to do now, or perhaps make a suggestion for how they might respond wisely and effectively to the external event.

    Which option is more virtuous? I would propose the latter is the clear winner for a practicing Stoic.

    Even if you feel like your friend is upset over nothing — for as Epictetus recommended to say to all externals, “this is nothing to me” — it is still more virtuous to empathize and at least *pretend* for the moment that externals really do cause people to feel bad.

    Then after some time, perhaps it would be useful and wise to offer a perspective that could help your friend to become more resourceful and respond more effectively.

    Even you completely disagree with a particular activist or an entire activist movement, justice is still one of the four central virtues of Stoicism. Seneca frequently talked in his letters about being human to people, even when they suffer “needlessly” from externals. Marcus Aurelius talked about loving all people as our brother (or sister), even those annoying people who bother you every day because they don’t know good from evil.

    When we ignore justice, or diminish the experiences of those who suffer from unjust systems, we lose out on an opportunity to practice virtue with practical wisdom. I think the Stoic Sage is clearly the person who listens and empathizes first, and that’s the type of person I aim to become.

  2. There is some excellent back-and-forth on the issues here – very nice! My sense is that this is not an issue that has a single, always-and-forever resolution. Rather, one will need to continue to analyse situations as they arise and apply wisdom in deciding which side to come down on in particular instances. Much as they are seen as being all of a whole, the Stoic virtues can and do conflict with one another on occasion; this is where the wisdom comes in.

  3. Outstanding post! “Political Correctness” and “Social Justice” are only concerned with silencing debate, and they need to be confronted wherever and whenever they try and push their misguided beliefs.

  4. Dr. Irvine,

    Thank you for taking the time to read and respond to my piece—“the one loan that even those who are grateful cannot repay,” as Seneca puts it in his first Letter!

    Among the thoughts you’ve shared, I especially appreciate where you say “shrugging off a sexist, racist, or homophobic insult does not preclude you from fighting the injustice that probably lurked behind it. To the contrary, it leaves you with more energy with which to carry on that fight!” I think that point establishes our strongest piece of common ground!

    That is all I really want so say at this point—we’ve each made our case, and the readers of Stoicism Today are doubtless content to move on to other topics. Since this is now a two-way dialogue, however, I’ll go ahead and make a few additional remarks in the interest of mutual understanding:

    ———

    I think you are correct that we each “have a different perception” on the world’s injustice—but it may lie along somewhat different dimensions than the ones you have identified.

    Let me first emphasize that I can’t really speak to campus or radical activism. My original article neither condoned nor strongly censored these student groups, because I have no personal connection to any such student organization, and I have not studied current events well enough to know what incidents are and are not representative of the culture of campus activism.

    I am far more interested in what the implications of your arguments are for the broader community of people who are concerned about racism, sexism, etc—a community that includes a large fraction of modern Stoics.

    With that in mind, here are my thoughts on three of your statements in particular:

    ———

    1. On campus activists’ “sense of proportion”: I’m sympathetic to your argument here, since, after living in a rural third-world village for a while as a missionary kid, for a long time I had troubles feeling concerned over *anybody’s* plight in the West. The economic inequality in the world is just so incredibly vast that it can sometimes seem to dwarf any other kind of purported injustice in an affluent country like the USA (short of outright violence).

    It is worth noting, however, that people who are concerned about microaggressions—whether they are moderates like me or radical student activists—typically view them as only the very tip of a much bigger and more devastating ice berg, such as systemic racism (the sort of thing you find documented in books like Michelle Alexander’s famous *The New Jim Crow* (2010)). There is also arguably a very close relationship between tolerance for microaggressions and people’s willingness to vote for someone like Donald Trump for the presidency. In that sense, your argument about a “sense of proportion” would have sounded somewhat stronger before November 8th.

    ———

    2. You speak of microaggressions and microaggression training as if their chief and only purpose is to facilitate feeling insulted, or to adopt a mindset of “victimhood.” No doubt there are some people who match this description, but when it comes to the broad community of people who are concerned about racism, etc, it is little more than a caricature.

    I can accept your proposition that we distinguish between ‘victims’ and ‘targets’ (so long as we continue to show those ’targets’ appropriate respect and kindness). But there are other reasons that one might want to learn or teach others about racism, sexism, etc: In my experience, people are usually far more interested in how to avoid *committing* injustice themselves, or avoid being a *bystander* to injustice, then they are in feeling offended, complaining, or in viewing themselves as victims.

    Scott Aikin and Emily McGill-Rutherford have developed these ideas beautifully in their paper on Stoic feminist theory—I strongly recommend that paper to you, if you are not already familiar with it: “Stoicism, Feminism and Autonomy,” Symposion, 1(1):9–22, 2014.

    If we were to take a poll of every faculty and staff member who is involved in microaggression training on college campuses, I strongly suspect that almost none of them would tell you that “creating victims” is their objective. I think they would all tell you that their objective is to create people who are interested in self-transformation and self-criticism, and in standing by ‘targets’ of injustice. It may be that they have failed to meet that objective—and that they could benefit from supplementing their efforts with a course in Stoic resilience training!—but the virtues of there intentions at least deserve to be acknowledged.

    ———

    3. It surprises me that your response to the idea of helping minorities feel “welcome and wanted” is to adopt the argument that if people don’t like truth-telling, they can go elsewhere.

    People feel welcome and wanted when we show their ideas the Principle of Charity—it’s as simple as that. As I made clear in my essay, the Principle of Charity does not prohibit you from criticizing people’s ideas or their use of impressions—quite the opposite! If you want to give a lecture that has power like Musonious Rufus, Charity is vital. People need a persuasive case before they can be deeply moved, and they will not be persuaded as long as they feel they have been misrepresented or had their concerns treated in an injust or cavalier way.

    I don’t for a moment think that you need to back off on the Stoic principle of resilience toward insults, Professor. But I also don’t for a moment believe that people of color, LGBTs, etc, are somehow less interested in self-transformation than other people are, or that they will tend to only be interested in a diluted, “you’re okay, I’m okay” philosophy. No: we all have the seeds of virtue.

    All we need to do in order to create a “welcoming” environment for marginalized people and their allies is to A) make clear in the abstract that we do care about injustice of all kinds, and B) be willing to acknowledge the valid concerns, where they exist, that motivate people who think differently than us, rather than reducing them to a one-dimensional caricature.

    You have now been clear in conveying (A), and I appreciate that! As long as you continue, however, to broadly characterize progressive-minded people as being motivated solely by a dishonorable lack of Courage and Temperance (i.e. a “victim mindset”) rather than an honorable love of Justice and Prudence, then you will continue to find that your audiences come away not so much “ashamed” by your moral message, but something closer to “disappointed” in it.

    We need to find a way of strongly encouraging people toward Courage and Temperance without downplaying or trivializing their love of Justice.

  5. *I was surprised, by the way, that Scott would refer to those who experience injustice as “victims.” They are certainly targets, but the Stoics would tell us that they are victims only if they choose to see themselves as such. They would add that if you choose to play the role of victim, your suffering will be intensified.

    When we examine the lives of Stoics, we find that many of them were targets of injustice. Musonius Rufus, for example, was exiled to the desolate island of Gyaros, but he did not spend his time there complaining about the unfairness of it all. This is in large part because he refused to play the role of victim, a refusal that doubtless made his exile far more endurable than it otherwise would have been. More generally, when we look at the Stoics, we cannot find a “victim” among them—and if we could, Stoicism probably wouldn’t have remained a viable philosophy of life for two thousand years.*

    That is a very cynical viewpoint and moreover NOT true. All the stoics tell us that the good of the whole is more important than that of the mere parts; that the parts, that is, the individual, must always be prepared to sacrifice himself for the good of the whole, that is, the collective good. The victim in other words is seen by the as an heroic figure. This can’t be emphasised enough. Witness Socrates who chose to remain in prison, who chose death, when he might easily with the help of friends have escaped. What does he say? It is better to be the victim of injustice than the perpetrator of it. Witness Cato who sacrificed himself rather than continue to live in a world ruled by Caesar. Witness Epictetus who gladly sacrificed his leg to his master rather than submit to him. Do I need to say any more? When someone willingly sacrifices himself for the greater good he plays the part of the sacrificial victim.

    1. I don’t see how the tribulations of Socrates, Cato and Epictetus were sacrifices for the common good.

      If Socrates is acting in the common good, would he not have stayed alive and continued to lecture and teach and be the agitator trying to teach Athenian’s a higher sense of virtue?

      Would Cato not have remained alive and fought Caesar if he had been concerned with the common good?

      As for Epictetus, I don’t recall any writings establishing that he sacrificed his leg. It’s seems unclear whether his master broke it or he had suffered an injury as a child. Nonetheless, how does this sacrifice of a leg help the common good? I think if he had been given a choice, he would have kept his leg. It seems his choice to teach philosophy after being freed from slavery show more of a desire to help the common good, than the loss of his leg.

      I think you are confusing resignation to one’s fate with some kind of sacrifice to the common good. And it seems to me these men did these actions because they refused to be victims of the troubles they suffered, rather than live in them and let those things define them.

      1. Let us hear what Epictetus says:

        “I will assert of the foot as such that it is natural for it to be clean, but if you take it as a foot, and not as a thing detached, it will be appropriate for it to step into mud and trample on thorns and sometimes to be cut off for the sake of the whole body; otherwise it will no longer be a foot. We ought to hold some such view also about ourselves. What are you? A man. Now if you regard yourself as a thing detached, it is natural for you to live to old age, to be rich, to enjoy health. But if you regard yourself as a man and as a part of some whole, on account of that whole it is fitting for you now to be sick, and now
        to make a voyage and run risks, and now to be in want, and on occasion to die before your time. Why, then, are you vexed? Do you not know that as the foot, if detached, will no longer be a foot, so you too, if detached, will no longer be a man? For what is a man? A part of a state; first of that state which is made up of gods and men, and then of that which is said to be very close to the other, the state that is a small copy of the universal state.” Epictetus, Discourses, II, 5.

        Another, of the same persuasion as Epictetus is Marcus Aurelius.

        The history of stoicism is littered with examples of what can only be described as the noble victim.

  6. Irvine’s advice is consistent with REBT philosophy. It is so much better to rely on your own psychological defenses instead of counting on other fallible humans to avoid insulting you. I dare you to shrug off the next insult hurled at you.

  7. I cannot help but agree. Identity politics and political correctness diminishes agency and casts entire groups as “victims” – this strikes me as in opposition to the stoic call to individuality and self examination, and as William argues, formulating strategies for living that sometimes reveal harsh truths.

    As William also points out there is much logical incoherence and moral inconsistency at the heart of political correctness. I would draw your attention to Professor Jordan Peterson, a Canadian academic and Psychologist currently challenging key tenants of campus style social justice and at risk of losing his position at the University of Toronto.

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