Stoics Do Care about Social Justice: A Response to Irvine
This past weekend I had the good fortune to attend “the largest gathering of Stoics in the history of the world”—Stoicon 2016, held in New York City. The conference was stimulating and thrilling in many ways, and I thoroughly enjoyed the plenary talks, parallel sessions, and the opportunity to meet a number of people whom I knew through their books and/or the online community. A special thanks to the generosity of Ryan Holiday, moreover, for giving every single conference participant a free hardback copy of his new devotional book, The Daily Stoic!
Last weekend, however, was also a moment where I became acutely aware that the modern Stoic community can do much better in the way that it approaches the topic of Justice.
The Need for Justice
We Stoics always have to navigate a fragile balance when we present our ideas to the world. Many of our most powerful and appealing psychological tools revolve around accepting events that happen and recognizing that they are ultimately outside of our control. The reason that Stoicism is relevant to such a large and diverse array of people today is exactly because it purports to offer a powerful solution to almost any source of distress: “retire into yourself” (Meditations, 7.28). We are perpetually at risk, however, of having our doctrine of “indifference” toward externals misconstrued for a “neglect” of externals. The benefits of inner peace speak for themselves—but the extreme emphasis that our philosophy puts on personal virtue as an “inner citadel” puts us in an understandably delicate position, politically speaking.
Any speech extolling the merits of inner peace and apatheia goes wrong—and in fact becomes positively toxic—the moment that the audience begins to suspect that our school advocates for complacency in the face of social injustice. A great deal of the world’s harms are not inevitable, and in fact are immanently preventable (fate permitting), if only we humans could get our act together. If Stoicism teaches that we should be passive toward these fixable harms, or if our school is quick to “blame the victim” for their own unhappiness while simultaneously ignoring injustice, then our philosophy is immoral, and ought to be immediately rejected as such.
Of course, Stoicism teaches no such thing! To the contrary, we believe that no man or woman can be moral (or Happy) unless they work tirelessly for the benefit of all humanity. Justice and Benevolence must be a guide to all of our actions—“any action of yours,” in fact, “which has no reference, whether direct or indirect, to these social ends, tears your life apart!” (Meditations, 9.23). We do not believe that our doctrine of inner peace is mutually exclusive with Justice in any way whatsoever. “It is difficult, to be sure, to unite and combine these two states of mind,” says Epictetus, “the vigilance of one who feels attracted by outside objects, and the composure of one who feels indifferent to them; but all the same it is not impossible” (Discourses, 2.5.9).
People are right to be concerned, though, that Stoicism might teach an inappropriately shallow sort of fatalism. The more unilateral emphasis we put on the inner fortress as a shield against injustice, the more rational reason people have for fearing that we are abandoning our natural responsibility to work diligently in defense of the downtrodden. Moreover, there are well-founded reasons for being concerned that the ancients themselves failed to emphasize Justice as much as they should have. “About the institution of slavery,” say the authors of the introduction to the Chicago University Press’s series of Seneca translations, “there is silence, and worse than silence: Seneca argues that true freedom is internal freedom, so the external sort does not really matter.”
I believe that contemporary Stoics need to be absolutely unambiguous about the fundamental moral imperatives that are essential to our ethics. Say it loud and clear: the way that we treat each other—and the way that we allow others to be treated by our society—is not “indifferent” at all. Stoicism is a system of virtue ethics, not only therapy, and as such it demands that each practitioner strive to be a force for Justice and Benevolence at all levels of society.
The Need for Charity
There is a little anecdote, preserved in Diogenes Laertius, where we find Zeno confronting a man who had been strongly critical of Antisthenes. Zeno apparently felt that the man had not done his due diligence as a critic, and he reprimanded the man strongly for it: “are you not ashamed,” he said, “to pick out and mention anything wrong said by Antisthenes, while you suppress his good things without giving them a thought?” (Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, 7.1.19). Donald Robertson likes to retell this story and interpret it as illustrating a strong normative principle: if we are going to criticize a person or school, we ought to engage the best of their thinking along with the worst, and to acknowledge what their ideas have to teach us about virtue. This is an idea that philosophers sometimes refer to as the “principle of charity.” Far from prohibiting or undermining criticism, the principle of charity is supposed to make us better, more just, and more incisive critics of flawed ideas.
Threading the needle of Stoic Justice becomes doubly difficult when a Stoic tries to go about offering advice to activists about how they can better run their movement. In many cases, criticism of activism effectively amounts to telling victims of hardship, injustice, and oppression how we think they ought to bear their plight more virtuously. This is a very difficult thing for anyone to do in a fair and sensitive way—it requires a lot of research and a generous dose of the principle of charity. It is virtually impossible to achieve, moreover, if it is not clear whether you actually, in fact, care about the injustice in question in the first place.
Unfortunately, this is exactly the sort of can of worms that Bill Irvine stirred up at Stoicon 2016 in his presentation on what he has called “insult pacifism.” If you missed the talk, it closely follows a post he published the previous week on the Oxford University Press blog, titled “How would the ancient Stoics have dealt with hate speech?”
Irvine’s central point is that we can teach people to be resilient to injustice. Insults don’t need to be emotionally damaging, and when we judge them to be inherently bad and horrible, we end up suffering unnecessarily. Channeling the advice of the Stoics, Irvine argues that a stance of non-retaliation, or of “receiving these people’s insults as jokes” (as Seneca puts it in De Constantia), can not only protect us from emotional disturbance, but can in fact send a highly effective normative signal: “on failing to provoke a rise in his target,” says Irvine, “an insulter is likely to feel foolish.”
I am completely on board with the notion of insult pacifism. I was raised to value the principle that evil is best repaid with kindness (Romans 12:20), and “that ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matthew 5:39). I’m delighted at Irvine’s effort to popularize similar Stoic ideas in his books and elsewhere. In my own personal practice, in fact, I am currently trying to use pacifism toward automotive insults to counter my own tendency toward road rage: pacifism comes highly recommended when you are barreling down the highway in a 3,000 pound projectile!
Irvine’s manner of treating the topic leaves a great deal to be desired, however, and I fear that it only reinforces the notion that Stoics are disinterested in Justice in general, and that modern Stoicism, far from taking a charitable interest in contemporary activism, is indifferent or even hostile to the concerns of marginalized people.
Irvine’s Criticism of Social Justice
First, Irvine’s Stoicon presentation is lopsided in that he is largely silent on the need for Stoics to work for Justice at all—a weakness that is shared by his 2013 book, A Slap in the Face: Why Insults Hurt—And Why They Shouldn’t (Oxford University Press). But his approach indeed becomes “worse than silence” when he chooses to frame his talk as a one-sided criticism of contemporary social justice activism.
In the chapter of his book titled “Societal Responses to Insults”—which could have included a discussion on how we can work to make the world a better, more Just place for everyone—Irvine opts only to zero in on what he calls the “political correctness code” that emerged in the 1970’s and has since, in his opinion, gotten way out of hand. “If Stoic philosopher Epictetus had been alive to watch the rise of hate speech laws, and, more generally, the political correctness movement,” concludes Irvine, “he would have shaken his head in disbelief. According to him, the best way to spare people the pain of being insulted is not to change the world so that they never feel insults; it is instead to change people so that they are, in effect, immune to insults” (p. 182).
Now, there is plenty worth criticizing when it comes to activism on college campuses and society more broadly. Whatever nuances may be involved, I don’t for a moment pretend that all of the widely publicized cases in which students have inappropriately stifled free speech, inhibited their own exposure to challenging ideas, or capriciously assaulted the academic freedom of university professors in the name of “safe spaces” are defensible (if this specific issue is of relevance to you, I encourage you to have a look at the 102-page report that PEN America released this week; a short summary can be found here). I myself accept the Stoic view that anger is always irrational and vicious—a position which, if I’m not careful, easily gets me into hot water with the activist community!
The problem is not that Irvine has criticized these abuses of popular social justice ideas, or even that he apparently finds the concept of microaggressions to be useless (though, personally, I would implore him not to throw the baby out with the bathwater). Rather, the problem is that, in the same way that he has approximately nothing to say in defense of Justice despite our school’s well-known reputation for a shallow fatalism, Irvine chooses to show no sympathy—and instead only active contempt—for the fundamental concerns that motivate activism.
For contrast, I invite you to have a look at the nuanced criticism of trigger warnings that Massimo Pigliucci wrote last year—which delved headlong into similarly sensitive waters, but only served to spark a very productive and cordial conversation among a diverse readership. I think it forms an exemplary model of how Stoics can treat such difficult topics while remaining true to Zeno’s advice, and while making it clear that we do care deeply about Justice.
Irvine, meanwhile, admits that he is “puzzled” by the surge in concern over social justice issues on college campuses. He is perplexed that students feel “humiliated and even downtrodden” by the behavior of their peers, when in previous decades these issues were not very high in the public consciousness. Rather than engaging the many complex reasons that these students and other activists might give for their societal concerns, Irvine chooses to blanketly suggest that the systemic injustice so many are working to dismantle is simply a product of the imagination of feeble-minded youths: the infamous “hypersensitivity” of the activist. He lays the blame for the most recent round of sensitivity in efforts to teach people to recognize microaggressions, which are “such will-o’-the-wisp things that it takes training to spot them.” And the idea of microaggressions, he believes, is motivated—not by a concern that the longstanding systemic injustices that plague the United States are enabled and aggravated by deep and pernicious social norms—but by a singular and simple purpose: to find new and innovative ways to feel “insulted.”
In short, just as Zeno worried, Irvine opts to “pick out and mention” everything that is wrong with contemporary activism, but to “suppress the good things without giving them a thought.” He allows the imprudent behavior of a misguided minority of activists—behavior which otherwise very much deserves to be criticized—to completely overshadow and eclipse the efforts of those who are working seriously and virtuously to bring Justice to the world. This approach is incomplete, reactive, and cavalier, and it is doubly problematic in a talk that explicitly purports to give marginalized people advice on how best to cope with oppression and hate speech.
Pigliucci, meanwhile, also strongly rejects what he sees as the general thrust of student activism with regard to trigger warnings. But he takes care to acknowledge the legitimate concerns, where they exist, that motivate the various voices involved in the controversy. Faculty have a human and professional duty, he says, “to be sensitive, rather than dismissive, to students’ concerns.” The result is not just a presentation that is less likely to offend, but one that comes across as better researched, commonsensical, and highly persuasive. These are the fruits of charity.
No doubt, Irvine only meant to use a few vicious behaviors by some college students as an illustrative example for his ideas. I’m sure that Irvine does believe that Justice is important (even if he chooses not to emphasize it for fear of exacerbating existing abuses in the activist community). Instead, however, his contribution to Stoicon gave a strong impression that modern Stoicism is indifferent or even hostile to the social concerns of historically marginalized groups and minorities—such as women, people of color, and LGBTs. Between his deafening silence on the moral imperative to Justice and his uncharitable characterization of activist’s concerns, his presentation lends credence to the erroneous idea that because Stoics believe that “true freedom is internal freedom,” they also believe “the external sort does not really matter.”
The Alienating Effect on Minorities
As Irvine delivered his pithy summary of campus activism, the predominantly white male audience laughed heartily—oblivious, it seems, to the sensitivity of the subject.
In the meantime, my wife—a black, female graduate student who is probably better educated in the scientific literature on microaggressions than both Irvine and 90% of the Stoicon audience—was having a very different social experience. She had come along to New York as a favor to me, to see what this philosophy is that I’ve become so interested in lately, and to learn about how it relates to Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy and REBT. But in that moment, she became acutely aware of one simple fact: it did not appear that ethnic minorities or their distinctive concerns are welcome or wanted, much less understood, in the modern Stoic community. “Alienating” is perhaps too weak a word to describe how she experienced Stoicon.
Stoicism is remarkable among the world’s major religio-philosophical traditions for its history of including the voices not just of emperors and wealthy statesmen but also of people with physical disabilities, mental illness, and chronic pain, victims of torture and PTSD, and prisoners serving life sentences. But when marginalized people encounter Stoicism today, do they come away believing that Stoicism has something to offer them? Or do they come away with the impression—right or wrong—that Stoicism is just one more system created by privileged people who are out of touch with the severity of the world’s fixable injustices?
If people find modern Stoicism’s advice for victims of injustice off-putting, it may have more to do with the choices we make about how to go about presenting that advice than with what the ancients have said. Being resilient to insults and being an active agent for Justice are not inimical objectives, and while I accept Irvine’s call to the former, I would caution him that he has gone too far in his neglect of the latter.
Stoics for Justice
Stoicism is not a political theory. I agree with Pigliucci when he says that demanding a specific social vision from our school is a “category mistake.” To the contrary, he says that “one can be a Stoic conservative or progressive, as well as a Stoic atheist or theist. But as long as we all practice virtue and attempt to become better people, we will be more likely to engage in constructive dialogue over what and how to change society for the better.”
I believe that Stoicism can do amazing things in the world of politics and philanthropy if we create a space for those “constructive dialogues” to take place—especially if those dialogues are rooted in Zeno’s principle of charity, and if they implement the Socratic model, in which we “stop at point after point, and make out what each person is willing to admit and what he denies” (Cicero, De Finibus, 2.3).
Moreover, I strongly suspect that the Stoic emphasis on the four cardinal virtues offers a uniquely powerful antidote to the pervasive miscommunication, polarization, and rancor that seemingly attend all political arguments. A Stoic is someone who cares about personal resilience and Temperance, but who also cares deeply about Justice. If we present ourselves this way, the world should never have reason to be confused on this point, or to doubt our support for both social justice (whatever exactly that means) and personal virtue. Our school teaches that virtue is one, after all, and that if we separate it into pieces, we destroy it.
In my opinion, Stoicon left something to be desired when it comes to getting these values across (notwithstanding Christopher Gill’s excellent and helpful presentation on the history of Stoic activism). But the conversations at Stoicon were neither the first nor the last word on the matter.
That is why, starting now, some of us are coming together to form a Facebook group called “Stoics for Justice,” as a space to push Stoic philanthropy forward and to find ways of working together to pursue the “common benefit” (as Marcus liked to say). Whether you prefer radical activism aimed at disrupting oppressive power structures, or whether you see your role in the world as focused on community building, education, and hands-on philanthropy—or, yes, even therapeutic training in becoming resilient to insults—you should be able to find a role to play in any hypothetical Stoic-led movement for Justice and Benevolence.
Come join us at Stoics for Justice and let us know how you think we might move Stoic philanthropy forward on the issues you care about most!
Thank you to Kristen de K., John Martin, Charmika Stewart, and Arianna Scott for their very helpful feedback on earlier versions of this article.
Eric “Siggy” Scott writes the blog Euthyphroria. He is interested in moral practice as a way of life, and in how secular and religious people can find common ethical ground (a question which Socrates raised in Plato’s Euthyphro). In real life, he is a PhD student in computer science at George Mason University, where he does research on machine learning and evolutionary algorithms.