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No, Washington Post, Socrates Was Not A Social Justice Warrior


The Washington Post recently published an article headlined: “Why ‘social justice warriors’ are the true defenders of free speech and open debate.” Written by Matthew Sears of the University of New Brunswick, the piece is an academic fantasy. Sears might as well have opened his article by declaring: “Let us begin by setting aside all the facts.”

Even if the clickbait headline, which the author likely did not write himself, is set aside, the article is ridiculous. It attempts to graft a bland discussion of Socrates, philosophical history, and educational theory onto a defiant vindication of social justice warriors as the real truth-seekers and defenders of intellectual inquiry. Sears claims social justice warriors are the true heirs to the Socratic method of dialectic, “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.”

But campus enforcers of political correctness do not seek out the best arguments of those they disagree with. They do not engage in respectful, informed debate. Rather, they shut it down. They scream, blockade, threaten, and assault to stop speech they disagree with. Left-wing academics systematically discriminate against conservatives (especially Christians) and even stage hysterical witch-hunts against each other to suppress perceived heresies. Social justice warriors are not the heirs of Socrates; they are precisely the sort of people who had Socrates sentenced to death.

Have You Ever Met a Social Justice Warrior?

Sears presents a fanciful vision of “social justice” as inspiring a superior approach to intellectual inquiry. However, his writing about respectful, informed debate condemns, rather than vindicating, actual campus social justice warriors. Their very name gives them away. They have labeled themselves “warriors” rather than “debaters” or “dialoguers” or “respectful interlocutors in a shared effort at moral and philosophical inquiry.” None of Sears’ high-minded piffle bears any relation to how social justice advocates actually behave in the classroom and the academic community.

Sears mentions incidents like left-wing mobs’ takeover of Evergreen State College, but never disavows them. If Sears wishes to defend social justice as actually practiced on college campuses, he should do so forthrightly and honestly. If he wishes to claim that violent campus mobs and vindictive academic witch-hunters are not real social justice warriors, he should explain how they have deviated from the true gospel of social justice.

But he notably does not attempt to explain the chasm between the idealized theory he describes and the practice of those who claim it. This omission becomes particularly ominous when he later argues that experts ought to guide and limit academic debate.

In the abstract, this claim may have some merit. Expert guidance is desirable in classroom discussion. In practice, given the tactics of self-declared social justice warriors, it is a mask over the ruthless suppression of opinions and ideas that offend campus mobs and the academically powerful.

Social Justice Philosophy Inherently Opposes Discussion

Sears does inadvertently reveal part of why demands for social justice have so readily descended into violence and calls for suppressing opposing viewpoints. He writes that the “social justice approach…emphasizes the dynamics of power and oppression.” Again, in theory there is some merit to such an approach, but in practice social justice warriors usually consider all alternative perspectives illegitimate and fundamentally oppressive. Disagreement with their analysis of oppression is considered to be a denial of the reality of oppression. Thus, disagreement itself is considered to be a contribution to oppression, which justifies violence in response.

Social justice as practiced on campuses does not encourage “experts to engage with one another,” or the emergence of “new ideas and perspectives…from their learned disagreements and debates.” Rather, it is a dogmatic system that enforces intellectual conformity, stifles inquiry, and saps philosophical rigor. Embracing this is the opposite of following Socrates, who exposed the moral and intellectual weaknesses of the educational leaders of his day.

The “Gorgias,” in which Plato portrayed the conflict between Socrates and the intellectual elite, is a condemnation of the sort of expert class of professional educators that Sears lionizes. Despite his attempt to appropriate the good names of Socrates and other great philosophers for his faction, Sears is left unable or unwilling to either disavow or defend the violence and dogmatism that defines real campus social justice warriors.

Sears’ platonic ideal of a social justice warrior might be a delightful person to have a few drinks with while discussing the nature of justice, love, or the best political regime. It would also be nice to have a unicorn that would take me to the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. If Sears wishes to construct a better social justice ideology, he needs to address the angry mob in the classroom.