The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why ‘social justice warriors’ are the true defenders of free speech and open debate

Critics misunderstand what makes for the best debates — and the best educated students.

Universities like the University of California at Berkeley, which is known as being the birthplace of the free speech movement, now face a new debate about free speech in the classroom. (AP)
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Do universities still educate their students or does political correctness hinder genuine intellectual development?

The political polarization that has divided the nation escalated last year on many campuses. Evergreen State in Washington witnessed a virtual campus takeover by left-wing student activists, leading to the departure of two prominent professors. NYU’s Jonathan Haidt argues that the leftist turn on campus, especially as expressed in the “social justice” orientation of the humanities and social sciences, poses as great a danger to society as the hyper-partisan politics of Fox News.

To Haidt’s point, a scandal erupted in the fall in Canada when Lindsay Shepherd, a graduate teaching assistant for an introductory communications course at Wilfrid Laurier University, played a video clip in which Jordan Peterson, a controversial professor, declared his refusal to address trans students by their preferred gender-neutral pronouns. Shepherd claims she was showing the video neutrally, just to start a debate about grammar usage, but she was reprimanded by her supervisors in a now-infamous meeting that she recorded and released to the media.

One prominent commentator, while decrying the seeming censorship evinced by Shepherd’s ordeal, likened Peterson’s challenge to current campus orthodoxies to the skepticism practiced by Socrates — just the kind of thing that should lead to increased knowledge. Indeed, many now insist that healthy skepticism and free inquiry, the supposed heart of the Socratic method and what Haidt labels the “disinterested pursuit of truth,” are in dire need of a revival in the academy.

I’m not so sure.

In fact, in important ways the social justice approach — which emphasizes the dynamics of power and oppression — that many fear has taken over the humanities and social sciences at its best is actually an improvement over the “disinterested pursuit of truth” and more in line with the Socratic method. In fact, rather than constituting an attack on knowledge, the social justice lens reflects new ideas generated by academic disciplines and experts within them, and generally encourages expanding our knowledge and opening up subjects to new perspectives, much like Socrates advocated.

Socrates, the famous Athenian philosopher of the fifth century BCE, is beloved as the paragon of open debate, an example for all teachers to follow. He engaged in vigorous discussion with some of the most influential political and educational figures in Athens, usually to demonstrate that even the wisest figures in society did not know nearly as much as they thought they did.

Socrates’s questioning of the powerful made these leaders so uncomfortable that they eventually used trumped-up charges of corrupting the youth to execute him, making him a martyr for free speech and open debate that many exalt today.

The “Socratic method,” however, was far more than simply debate. Philosophers call Socrates’s habit of challenging assumptions “dialectic,” which is best understood as “cross-examination.” Like a good lawyer, Socrates picked apart the positions of his conversation partners by careful questions, until even the most self-evident propositions were shown to be based on nothing and his interlocutors were left scratching their heads.

Even if Socrates regularly humiliated his sparring partners, his method of dialectic did not consist of mere ridicule or dismissal of the opinions of others. Rather, he sought out the most renowned experts on any given topic, took their ideas seriously, and proceeded to show where the ideas were lacking.

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.

His philosophic successors, Plato and Aristotle, went far beyond face-to-face dialogue to include the rigorous study of the arguments of other philosophers, even those long dead. Aristotle, for example, devoted the entire first book of his Metaphysics to presenting the ideas of his predecessors, including Plato, and showing where they were right and where they were wrong. Only then did Aristotle advance his own ideas.

The most influential medieval philosopher, Thomas Aquinas, an astute student of Aristotle, based his entire philosophical method on cross-examining the ideas of previous great thinkers. His famous summas, or summaries, began by stating a philosophical question before outlining the arguments and objections of others, even those with whom Aquinas disagreed vehemently. Once Aquinas wrestled with the ideas of his opponents, as presented in the best possible light, he finally stated his own views.

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.

Socrates did not believe in a “disinterested pursuit of truth,” and neither should we.

Truth depends on different perspectives and lenses, and this is what experts in the humanities — the so-called social justice warriors — bring to education. Critical theories about race, gender and sexuality are not undermining education. Rather, they complicate and expand our understanding of familiar topics, including those in my own field of classics like ancient Roman imperialism and the nature of Greek homosexuality.

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.

I regularly teach about controversial and offensive topics, including rape, war, imperialism, slavery and racism, but I never simply present “both sides” neutrally and without the context necessary for students to grapple with such issues fairly and meaningfully. Before my students read about Aristotle’s theories of natural slavery, for example, they have already learned about ancient slavery in general. After they read Aristitole, I guide the discussion by suggesting ways Aristotle’s ideas on slavery can be critiqued, even by his own work.

Offering this sort of context is exactly what a professor’s job is, and by no means reflects a perverse desire to stifle debate for the purposes of P.C.-indoctrination. Dialectic, not debate, is the key to good teaching and learning.