Opinion

A Conservative’s Guide to Discourse with Social Justice Warriors

Image result for social justice march 2018

Engaging with students who promote ideology relating to social justice, intersectionality, an increased presence of government, and theories of oppression can be difficult for conservatives.
These students have a national reputation for provocative tactics to be heard on college campuses across the country, all the way from Berkeley to Yale. Students who advocate for social justice have a community of their own at Wake Forest and have already engaged in multiple protests and other disruptive behaviors over the past year.

While students have gone about handling the percolation of discontent with the administration and current policies of President Trump in different ways, below is some advice to having a productive conversation with a student who advocates for these policies in a civil and respectful fashion

Engage to Understand

Many conservatives at Wake Forest argue with social justice advocates to argue with them, and sometimes end up trivializing the concerns and issues that protestors and social justice advocates raise on campus. To be clear, of the more radical stances taken by social justice-oriented students merit little attention, and can be belligerent enough that there is no use in engagement.

Free speech principles, which all conservatives should support, hold that everyone ought to have a right to express their opinions in a marketplace of ideas. While that does not mean those opinions to have a right to be taken seriously, it is important to attempt to gain an understanding of where activist students are coming from. The more outrageous methods that the social justice community takes at Wake Forest are for getting attention and for people to become more aware of a deep-seated concern that they feel is important to the whole population.

While conservatives and activists may never reach an agreement, it would be extremely disingenuous of any intellectual conservative to not want to have a conversation with a member of the community to understand the context of their stances on issues. Perhaps some common ground can be reached on those issues, or at least clarity of each side’s arguments. The Wake Forest Review has been intensively laboring to make Wake Forest a safer community for free speech, and it is important for conservatives to engage with other’s ideas just as they wish to be engaged with.

Keep the High Ground

As observed with podcast conversation last semester between Ryan Wolfe and Rakin Nasar, members of the social justice community at Wake Forest have a deeply personal stake in many issues, which can cause them to become irate when talking to those they disagree with. While some emotion can be justified, social justice warriors often cross the line into ad hominem attacks. Mr. Nasar crossed the line in the podcast when he insulted Wolfe personally and made off-base and frankly reviling statements about conservatives, calling them illiterate and white supremacists.

This type of rhetoric estranges others from the debate, and Wolfe did well to steer clear of insulting Nasar. Of course, this is not to say that one ought to be wholly deferential and kind to a person who personally degrades conservatives. Yet, if conservatives on campus are to convince moderate students and even principled liberals of their ideas and decrease derision on campus, it is imperative they comport themselves in a respectful fashion where they are not dismissive of the concerns of lefts, nor accusatory or presumptuous of what leftists think.

Conservatives must play by a set of rules that allows us to keep the high ground and gain credibility, instead of resorting to many of the tactics of the left.

Know Thy Enemy

Conservatives need to read left-wing literature. If you wish to discuss gender issues with feminists, read MacKinnon and Dworkin. If you want to discuss race, read more Baldwin and Coates. The reality is that most social justice advocates on college campuses willfully ignore reasonable conservative opinions and logic. Anything considered ‘patriarchal,’ ‘heteronormative,’ and ‘ethno-nationalist’ has no place in their dialectic.

Therefore, instead of using traditional lines of conservative reasoning, what is more rhetorically salient is utilizing the vocabulary and terminology of a campus activist. Cite the same authors, know them thoroughly and reduce their points to illogical nothingness. The way the political playing field has turned in college, unfortunately, is that conservatives can no longer convince most students of their points using traditional lines of argument.

Instead of victimizing ourselves over this fact, let’s be practical—come to discussions prepared and well-read in the annals of secularist and socialist literature. If you don’t know what a social justice oriented student is even talking about, it can be difficult to refute their arguments. Ultimately, what a shrewd and practical conservative should do is turn the arguments and intellectuals of the far-left on themselves by highlighting the inconsistencies of their arguments using their own beloved terminology.

Discern the Value of Dialogue

Conservatives need to make the distinction between when dialogue is appropriate and what issues that deserve dialogue. Many times, activist students aren’t interested in having an honest conversation about the issues. For example, the Eudaimonia Institute drama a year ago merited little discourse, as the grand and deep-seated conspiracy that a Koch Brothers-funded think tank would erode the values of Wake Forest was truly nonsensical, and dignified no response.

Indeed, when leftists see some issues in strictly moral terms there is no conversation to be had. Some on the left see capitalism and commerce as the root of inequality, which can in their eyes, only be an evil and societal ill. Yet, as Friedman and Hayek tell us, the free market and rule of law inevitably lead to some degree of inequality, and that inequality is based on capacity, not opportunity. To charge that capitalism is the problem rather than capitalism fixing the problem is a dubious point with which to begin a dialogue.

In summation, we cannot lose sight of the fact that while the methods, divisions, and anger that SJWs espouse on campus are deeply problematic, it is important to engage to create greater understanding between opposing sides. Conservatives must play by a set of rules that allows us to keep the high ground and gain credibility, instead of resorting to many of the tactics of the left. Purposely creating more outrage and more ugly protests is counterproductive, when we handle a conversation with SJWs with logic and understanding. Using these strategies, conservatives can do their part to increase unity and understanding on campus and in our country.

7 Comments

  1. The article would be better if the condescension was withheld.

    “…more radical stances taken by social justice-oriented students merit little attention” could be phrased ” More radical stances taken by the extreme right and left…”,

    “Conservatives must play by a set of rules that allows us to keep the high ground and gain credibility, instead of resorting to many of the tactics of the left” could be rewritten … “to the tactics of the extremes.

    Or ” Many times, activist students aren’t interested in having an honest conversation about the issues.” So why did Wolfe invite Nasar onto his podcast if the result was highly likely to be ” While some emotion can be justified, social justice warriors often cross the line into ad hominem attacks. Mr. Nasar crossed the line in the podcast when he insulted Wolfe personally and made off-base and frankly reviling statements about conservatives, calling them illiterate and white supremacists.” Could the podcast not have included a more restrained opponent? What was the goal of the podcast?

    You write ” The reality is that most social justice advocates on college campuses willfully ignore reasonable conservative opinions and logic. Anything considered ‘patriarchal,’ ‘heteronormative,’ and ‘ethno-nationalist’ has no place in their dialectic.” Most liberals, in my experience do not fall in the following category Do you have any statistics that support your statement. It is no more representative of the left than the neo-nazis are of the right

    I believe that the following statement is unduly underestimates your fellow classmates. “The way the political playing field has turned in college, unfortunately, is that conservatives can no longer convince most students of their points using traditional lines of argument

    You say “Indeed, when leftists see some issues in strictly moral terms there is no conversation to be had.” Did you mean that there is no moral argument that can be made by conservatives, thus no conversation is possible? Reword.

    You say “Yet, as Friedman and Hayek tell us, the free market and rule of law inevitably lead to some degree of inequality, and that inequality is based on capacity, not opportunity. To charge that capitalism is the problem rather than capitalism.”

    True, yet how many college students know that Hayek also said…In the 1973 Law, Legislation, and Liberty, Hayek wrote:
    “There is no reason why in a free society government should not assure to all, protection against severe deprivation in the form of an assured minimum income, or a floor below which nobody need descend. To enter into such an insurance against extreme misfortune may well be in the interest of all; or it may be felt to be a clear moral duty of all to assist, within the organized community, those who cannot help themselves. So long as such a uniform minimum income is provided outside the market to all those who, for any reason, are unable to earn in the market an adequate maintenance, this need not lead to a restriction of freedom, or conflict with the Rule of Law,

    And in The Road to Serfdom he wrote: Nor is there any reason why the state should not assist the individuals in providing for those common hazards of life against which, because of their uncertainty, few individuals can make adequate provision. Where, as in the case of sickness and accident, neither the desire to avoid such calamities nor the efforts to overcome their consequences are as a rule weakened by the provision of assistance – where, in short, we deal with genuinely insurable risks – the case for the state’s helping to organize a comprehensive system of social insurance is very strong…. Wherever communal action can mitigate disasters against which the individual can neither attempt to guard himself nor make the provision for the consequences, such communal action should undoubtedly be taken.

    Friedman also advocated for a minimum level of income.

    Perhaps college students should retain an open mind, and continue reading.
    “Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics” by Richard H. Thaler
    “Irrational Exuberance” by Robert J. Shiller
    “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” Adam Smith
    The three above deal with the limits of free market theory as it applies to a rational market.

    Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics by Reinhold Niebuhr
    Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (autobiography)
    The two above classics read to understand some of the basis for an understanding of social justice.

  2. James Otteson

    To Tom Daly: Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments does not “deal with the limits of free market theory as it applies to a rational market.” It does not deal with economic markets or economic theory at all. It offers an account for how people come to have the moral sentiments they do, basing it on what Smith calls their natural desire for “mutual sympathy of sentiments.” In the course of his discussion, Smith does offer a conception of “justice,” which he contrasts with “beneficence,” and this distinction might have political implications. But Smith does not trace out in TMS what those implications might be, and there is no discussion in TMS of economic markets–“free,” “rational,” or otherwise. Smith discusses economic markets in his later book, The Wealth of Nations.

    • That Smith’s work is argument against rational markets I borrowed from Noble laureate Richard H. Thaler, one of the behavioral economist.
      You can argue with him.

      • Just so you do not have to look it up Thaler on Smith

        You know, and I know, that we do not live in a world of Econs. We live in a world of Humans. And since most economist are also human, they also know that they do not live in a world of Econs. Adam Smith acknowledged this fact. Before writing his magnum opus, The Wealth of Nations, he wrote another book devoted to the topic of human “passions,” a word that does not appear in any text book. Econs do not have passions.
        ,,,there is nothing new in economics; Adam Smith said it all. The same can be said of much of behavioral economics. The bulk of Smith’s writings on behavioral economics appeared in his earlier book The Theory of Moral Sentiments, published in 1759. It is here that Smith expounded on self control…. The crucial feature of Smith’s conception of our passions is that they are shortsighted. … The pleasure which we are to enjoy ten years hense, interests us so little in comparison with that which we may enjoy today.

        In Thaler’s book sighted above.

        • James Otteson

          Thank you. I know both Thaler’s book and Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments. I’m sure you can appreciate that Thaler is trying to put Smith to a very particular use, and in any case it is a long way to go from Smith’s discussion of what he calls the virtue of “self-command” to a discussion of markets (let alone policy regulating markets). Perhaps you might consider reading Smith’s TMS itself.

          If you are interested in my take on TMS and its relation to Smith’s Wealth of Nations, you might have a look at my Adam Smith’s Marketplace of Life (Cambridge, 2002) or Adam Smith (Bloomsbury, 2013). I also offer an interpretation of Smith’s possible connection to Thaler (and Cass Sunstein) in my “Adam Smith’s Libertarian Paternalism,” forthcoming in the Oxford Handbook of Freedom (link: http://www.oxfordhandbooks.com/view/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199989423.001.0001/oxfordhb-9780199989423-e-5).

          • You say ” I’m sure you can appreciate that Thaler is trying to put Smith to a very particular use “, well that is the whole point of Behavior Economics, for which he won his prize.
            As Thaler points out more traditional viewpoints (such as often published by Oxford, have a hard time explaining the stock market loosing 22%of its value in one day under Reagan and the movement of the markets worldwide in the last week. They seem neither rational or transparent.
            None the less I will keep an open mind and read your new article, as I have read others.

          • Your link has a paywall –
            Any suggestions?

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