The Matthew Sears Cower: Getting it Wrong on Free Speech and Social Justice

Last week in the Washington Post Canadian classics professor Matthew A. Sears argued that social justice warriors’ are the true defenders of free speech and open debate.” His argument for this counterintuitive conclusion is appropriately difficult to follow. For instance, after defining “dialectic” as “a form of debate,” he goes on to say that we need “dialectic, not debate” (my emphasis); this is, by Sears’s own lights, a bit like saying that we need chairs, not furniture. But as far as I can tell, Sears proceeds something like this. First, he purports to describe Socratic dialectic as a discursive method that assesses expert opinion in order to generate new knowledge. Second, he purports to analogize the Socratic method to the influence of social justice on university campuses.

But to establish that social justice is the true defense of free speech and open debate would require a missing third step: Sears never explains what either the Socratic method or social justice has to do with free speech or open debate. This means that in fact he never offers any sort of positive argument for the conclusion espoused in his essay’s title. The only time these notions are even mentioned, in fact, is in connection with Socrates’s execution, which Sears writes “ma[de] him a martyr for free speech and open debate that many exalt today.” But if it is censorship that connects Socrates with free speech then it is doubtless those who today are censored who are his truest heirs in that regard, and those who do the censoring the heirs of his killers. So in the final analysis, when it comes to free speech, Sears offers little more than a sleight of hand: there is no robust examination of what would make social justice conducive to debate, or of what would make Socratic dialectic relevant to the discussion in the first place.

That the article amounts to little more than a cheap trick is actually the least of its problems, though. In it Sears misrepresents the Socratic method, social justice, expertise, and truth. It is only the most recent in a slew of patently dishonest accounts of these issues in popular media.

Sears misunderstands Socrates

What surprises me the most about this editorial is the misrepresentation of ancient thought, especially that of Socrates, that emits from Sears, a classics professor. By focusing on Aristotle and Aquinas, Sears arrives at the view that “Socratic dialectic . . . 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. . . . [I]t encourages experts to engage with one another, and new ideas and perspectives to emerge from their learned disagreements and debates.” But anyone who has ever read a Platonic dialogue knows this is not the case. The elenchus (a more precise name than dialectic for the Socratic mode of questioning) was an all-purpose method which Socrates often directed at precisely those who were the least expert, especially the sophist rhetoricians who claimed to be able to speak with authority on any topic, including justice and the good life. It had no necessary relationship to past views, new ideas, expertise, diversity, or anything. Further, it was often completely unproductive, ending in aporia, a moment of puzzle or paradox. These moments often find Socrates’s interlocutors scurrying away on some errand. I experience a similar phenomenon when I ask people like Sears to define core social justice concepts like “power” or “privilege” or “gender.”

There is an irony here: Sears is drawing on Socrates to defend precisely the sort of people to whom he was famously a “gadfly.” For it is simple to see that the role of social justice in the modern university is not to develop expertise in any specific area but to regulate experts in all other areas to ensure that their conclusions are not “problematic.” This is the legacy of sophistry and rhetoric, not of philosophy. The real legacy of the elenchus is in conceptual analysis, the search for the necessary and sufficient conditions of concepts, their borders and shades, that’s practiced in analytic philosophy. It is similarly ironic to see Sears associating Socrates with the development of new ideas. What he’s known for instead is the statement that he knows nothing – as opposed to the so-called experts who think they know.

Sears misunderstands social justice, expertise, truth, and the university

Even if Socrates had been as Sears described him – someone who focused on expertise and diversity, and tried to develop new ideas – it’s difficult to see how social justice exemplifies those ideals. It is, in fact, precisely those who seek to rein in the excesses of social justice in academia who talk the most frequently about new ideas and diverse perspectives. The watchword of Heterodox Academy, for instance, is viewpoint diversity. The mission of Heterodox Academy arises in turn out of research that seems to show a systematic bias in the social sciences in favor of liberal, progressive, and leftist ideas – in other words, in favor of precisely those ideas that are adjacent to social justice movements.

Sears, perhaps, anticipates these concerns with his misrepresentation of Socrates, who, he says, “sought out the most renowned experts on any given topic, took their ideas seriously, and proceeded to show where the ideas were lacking.” If we simply assert that the most renowned experts on social science subjects are precisely those scholars most invested in social justice, then the open debate which Sears tenuously connected with Socratic dialectic might seem to come to rest on the participation, and even the intervention, of experts. Indeed, Sears goes on to write: “Socrates did not believe in a ‘disinterested pursuit of truth,’ and neither should we. . . . 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.” The “tools” of “experts” who are not “disinterested” will end up just being rhetorical devices meant to shield social justice shibboleths from criticism. The tools are built, and the experts trained, precisely for that purpose.

Sears conveniently neglects the pernicious influence of standpoint epistemology in this regard. Under standpoint epistemology, expertise in the study of some or another social category is taken to be conferred at least in part by the possession of a marginalized identity within that category: women and trans people as the experts on gender; black, Hispanic, and mixed-race people as the experts on race; and so on. The rise of “mesearch” or “me studies” comes part and parcel with standpoint epistemology. If it is impossible to become a full expert on some topic because of your identity, it makes sense to focus your research on another topic, where your identity is an epistemic boon and not a hindrance.

Sears shows his allegiance to the most extreme formulations of such doctrines when he writes that “[t]ruth depends on different perspectives and lenses, and this is what experts in the humanities — the so-called social justice warriors — bring to education.” The equation, first of all, of “experts in the humanities” with “social justice warriors” is ludicrous. As though there are no great conservative professors of literature or history. Second, his phrasing is philosophically inept, in a way that makes clear his confusion. What in the world would it mean for truth to depend on “different perspectives and lenses,” after all? What advocates of diversity (of whatever sort) generally say is, instead, that different perspectives and lenses aid in the search for truth. But the notion that truth itself depends on a diversity of perspectives is radically relativist: it suggests that truth is determined by who’s speaking or participating rather than what’s out there, in the world, for humans to discover rather than construct.

Such truth is hardly truth at all. It is certainly not the sort of truth I care about. It is not the sort of truth Socrates would have cared about either. And it is not the sort of truth that universities in the United States or in Canada or in anyplace else in the world should care about. Sears’s editorial lays bare the thinness of the claims to expertise and epistemic robustness that one often hears from academics with social justice loyalties. Its argument is unsound both in form and in content. And that itself should be jarring; for Sears is right that many in the academy are, in both intellectual and political terms, just like him.

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  1. Well done on the logical rebuttal to that Sophistry by Sears.

    When I first saw the article title “social justice warriors’ are the true defenders of free speech and open debate” it immediately reminded me of that article on the huffington post a while back called ‘Muslims are the true feminists’. lol

    Next up will be “How Stalin was a true libertarian” followed by “How the KKK are the true anti-racists”.

    1. In case you missed it in Oliver’s reply – Sears has no control over what WaPo titles his articles. It also doesn’t reflect the nature of his argument. You may want to keep that in mind the next time you judge a book by its cover.

  2. I wonder if it is coincidental that Sears, in writing of “[d]ialectic, not debate,” echoes Bret Weinstein in that infamous video from early in the Evergreen disruption, which Sears references. What Weinstein meant by his declaration to the student mob around him was that he was interested, like any good teacher, in dialogue that pursues understanding, not the victory in dispute that shuts down the further pursuit of still deeper understanding. A distinction between understanding and truth is crucial here.

  3. Thank you – this describes the conceptual errors made by epistemological and moral relativists very well. I could concede that in pursuing truth in any specific disciplinary field, the kind of questions asked are important. Any object of study, or problem, usually comes to us first through experiences of, and within, everyday life; and these initial questions usually reflect this. But unless the meanings here are relocated within the academic disciplinary contexts germane to the problem, and to its fuller understanding, the knowledge produced will lack the powers of explanation and generalisability which are important epistemic criteria. I can see how all this would sit uneasily with the best aims of some (especially young students) SJW – who, like many before, are often motivated by a positive idealism. But if a central conceptual distinction were made, and observed between the sphere of politics (between citizens who are politically, equals), and pursuit of truth for its own sake (between expert communities) – the necessary stratification and hierarchy needed for producing disciplinary knowledge would be less problematic. There is a relationship between experience and disciplinary knowledge, but it is not a straightforward, directly representational one, and needs to be worked out within the epistemic constraints of each discipline. Theory which explains (or seeks to justify) little other than a particularist perspective interpretation of reality will lack the ability to make broader universal truth claims through which public moral authority can be gained – in fact it often results in either distorting or ignoring aspects of reality which don’t fit narrow and rigid conceptual frameworks. So they end up resorting to using claims of vulnerability to justify their truth claims instead; unaware, or not caring , how this fuels an authoritarian policing of knowledge claims. There is also a noticeable absence of the invitation of SJW academics to admit for the need of self-critique of their claims – another important epistemic criterion. These features of SJW knowledge claims strike me as fundamentally anti-democratic and antithetical to freedom in any meaningful sense of the word.

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