Social Justice and Insult Pacifism


Professor Bill Irvine and I have now completed a debate in Stoicism Today over Stoicism, personal resilience, social justice activism, and what it means for modern Stoicism to be welcoming toward women and minorities.

You can read my original piece at “Stoics do Care about Social Justice: A Response to Irvine,” and then the reply he published today at “Insult Pacifism: A Reply to Eric O. Scott.”  For other recent Stoic perspectives on political activism, see also my Stoic Social Justice Roundup and the constantly-expanding reading list in the Stoics for Justice Facebook group.

What follows is my reply to Irvine’s reply.  It originally appeared in the comments section of Stoicism Today.


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 to 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 their 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.

One thought on “Social Justice and Insult Pacifism”

  1. I think there is a real opportunity for someone to extend Stoicism by writing about Stoicism and Democracy. The ancients wrote in an atmosphere where social change was either by force or impossible. Today, most of us believe that rationality plays a role in governance. So especially the Roman Stoics concentrated on the individual transformation rather than social transformation. Today, social transformation is embedded in our founding documents and actions and Stoicism was also a part of it.

    Liked by 2 people

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