University of New Brunswick Professor Matthew A. Sears argues in a recent op-ed for the Washington Post that social justice warriors are the “true defenders of free speech.”
Sears began his column with an analysis of the recent social justice incidents that took place at Evergreen State College and Wilfrid Laurier University. He then pivots, centering his argument that social justice warriors at the “true defenders of free speech and open debate” on a weak analogy to the intellectual practices of Ancient Greek philosophers such as Socrates and Aristotle.
“Socrates’s method benefited his students (and maybe even some of the powerful people whom he challenged) precisely because he didn’t just call for an open marketplace of ideas, but deliberately steered the conversation to the point at which true inquiry could begin and true knowledge sought,” Sears wrote.
He adds that Socrates didn’t give “all ideas and opinions equal weight.”
Socratic dialectic, then, as practiced by Socrates and those who followed him, is a form of debate in which new ideas can emerge only after the very best ideas of the very best thinkers have been considered and taken seriously. Socratic dialectic does not, however, give all ideas and opinions equal weight. Rather it encourages experts to engage with one another, and new ideas and perspectives to emerge from their learned disagreements and debates.
“Professors should not just serve as referees in classroom debates about topics like gender-neutral pronouns. Rather, as experts in their field, they should provide students with the best tools available to engage in debate,” he continued.
Sears’ comparison to the practice of the influential Greek thinkers is ineffective. It skirts the reality that these thinkers omitted ideas that were collectively agreed-upon to be obsolete or outdated. It’s almost laughable to invoke Socrates and Aristotle as a defense of social justice warriors, a group notoriously known for donning black clothing and masks last February and burning buildings at UC Berkeley over a controversial speaker’s scheduled lecture.
In April 2017, I used the phrase “tyranny of the anointed” to describe the farcical notion that there exist individuals wise enough to appoint themselves the arbiters of tolerant and intolerant speech. This phrase is applicable here too.
If Socrates and Aristotle were alive in present-day America they would engage directly with the speakers and ideas that social justice warriors have consistently attempted to shut down. They would have stood with teaching assistant Lindsay Shepherd in her battle against Orwellian administrators who accused her of violating Canadian law for showing her students a clip from Canadian public television. They would have stood with Bret Weinstein against the swarms of social justice warriors that roamed the campus with baseball bats. This is what social justice warriors are.
They would engage with these controversial ideas not because they are correct but because of the size and scope of their influence. Until ideas are whittled out of society through the debate that social justice warriors refuse to let happen, self-anointed tyrants such as Sears will posit themselves as the arbiters of mainstream and obsolete thought.
We shouldn’t let them.