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Op-ed: Campus social justice warriors ‘the true defenders of free speech’

Social justice identity politics are similar to ‘the Socratic method,’ writer claims

A writer at The Washington Post has made the case that, quite apart from the public image painted by student mobs, ruthless ideological conformity and paranoid identity politics, campus social justice warriors are in fact “the true defenders of free speech.”

“[I]n important ways,” University of New Brunswick professor Matthew Sears writes, “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,” Sears adds, “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.”

As Sears notes, Socrates is known as “the paragon of open debate,” a man who “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.

This, Sears claims, is the vein in which modern social justice warriors operate: “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.”

Read Sears’s defense of social justice warriors here.

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