Stoicism and politics: between the Scylla of the New Left and the Charybdis of the alt-right

When I came to the United States from Italy, back in 1990, I was warned that Americans don’t like to talk about politics, religion, or sex. To which I obviously replied: what on earth do you talk about, then?? Since this post is about one of those taboo topics, it’s going to be a really tricky one, so please bear with me until the end, then go for a walk, take a few deep breadths, and only then, if you still feel like it, come back and comment on it.

To tackle politics, especially within the context of a blog devoted to the fundamentally non-partisan (as I see it, more below) practice of Stoicism is a very delicate matter. But if one’s philosophy of life has nothing to say about the polis and how to run it, then it has a gigantic lacuna that should make you question the very use of it. Besides, the Stoics were very clearly pro-socially oriented: the concept of oikieios is about bringing other people closer to your sphere of concern; the idea of cosmopolitanism, which they developed, is that we are all in the same boat together, and we therefore need to agree on how to steer it; the discipline of action is about how to interact socially in a constructive way; and the virtue of justice concerns how to ethically treat others. All of this has to do with politics, defined in the Aristotelian fashion: the Greek politika means “affairs of the cities,” which the Romans later expanded to the res publica, “the public thing.”

I have argued in the past that Stoicism is compatible, at least to some extent, with a broad range of metaphysical views, and therefore religions. (Though not all of them, and not everyone agrees.) Similarly, it seems to me that Stoicism is compatible with a similarly broad range of political positions and social policies. Just looking at the ancient Stoics, Cato the Younger and Hierocles were pretty “conservative” by modern standards, while Zeno and Musonius Rufus were fairly “liberal” (yes, I’m aware that those labels are both anachronistic and imprecise, but I think you know what I’m getting at). And I don’t see why one couldn’t be a mainstream libertarian and a Stoic (indeed, an interesting little know fact is that the libertarian Cato Institute is named after Cato the Younger, though by way of a circuitous route).

At a personal level, one of the main reasons I’m into Stoicism is because I regard it as a big tent. I’m a progressive liberal atheist myself, but I don’t wish to create a club that excludes virtuous Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Taoists and so forth, or conservatives, centrists, libertarians, anarchists, etc. either.

All of the above said, I do think that there are some political ideologies that are not compatible with Stoicism, or at least are difficult to reconcile with it. I can’t imagine a Nazi or fascist Stoic, for instance, and I’ve argued that Ayn Rand’s “Objectivism” ain’t Stoic either. Here I will suggest that two additional contemporary political positions in are at odds with Stoic principles: some versions of the New Left that focus almost exclusively on identity politics (which I associate in the title with the Scylla monster faced by the Stoic role model Odysseus), and the so-called alt-right and its close kin, the men’s rights movement (which I link above to the other monster faced by Odysseus, Charybdis — bonus points if you can figure out why this particular coupling, rather than the reverse, see here for a clue).

Let me take on Charybdis first, since it ought to be easier. The alt-right is, among other things, a white supremacist and anti-immigration movement, while the men’s rights stuff is inherently sexist. If you disagree with either of these characterizations, I can’t help you, they seem to me both crystal clear and undeniable, and I will not argue for them, I will simply treat them as given.

What’s the problem? Beginning with the alt-right, it goes against the Stoic ideals of cosmopolitanism and of the equality of all humans, as in the following, for instance:

“Do as Socrates did, never replying to the question of where he was from with, ‘I am Athenian,’ or ‘I am from Corinth,’ but always, ‘I am a citizen of the world.’” (Epictetus, Discourses I, 9.1)

“Kindly remember that he whom you call your slave sprang from the same stock, is smiled upon by the same skies, and on equal terms with yourself breathes, lives, and dies.” (Seneca, Letter XLVII. On Master and Slave, 10)

The men’s rights stuff, instead, implicitly or explicitly denies the equality of men and women (and other genders, one should obviously add), which is instead affirmed by plenty of Stoic sources:

“Women have received from the gods the same reasoning power as men — the power which we employ with each other and according to which we consider whether each action is good or bad, and honorable or shameful.” (Musonius Rufus, Lectures 3.1)

“I know what you will say, ‘You quote men as examples: you forget that it is a woman that you are trying to console.’ Yet who would say that nature has dealt grudgingly with the minds of women, and stunted their virtues? Believe me, they have the same intellectual power as men, and the same capacity for honorable and generous action.” (Seneca, Consolation to Marcia XVI)

The bit that worries me in particular, as far as the Fifth Stoa (as I shall call modern Stoicism from now on) is concerned is that I have seen increasing attempts by people who are into alt-right and/or men’s rights to appropriate Stoicism for their own purposes. Here is a nice article by Jules Evans that provides a good analysis of the problem.

Jules says: “Some of them are drawn to classical virtue ethics like Stoicism because it offers a way to feel strong in a chaotic world. Clearly, they misinterpret ancient philosophy. … Some alt-righters in the manosphere are drawn to ideas from classical philosophy and modern therapy, which help people take control of their emotions.”

Julian believes, perhaps optimistically, that one can actually use alt-right’ and men’s rights’ interest in virtue ethics as a wedge and a teaching tool, explaining to these people that Stoicism didn’t just talk about courage (and even then, it was moral courage, not just the physical variety), but also about justice, for instance. He aptly quotes Epictetus on this: “A guide, on finding a man who has lost his way, brings him back to the right path — he does not mock and jeer at him and then take himself off. You also must show the unlearned man the truth, and you will see that he will follow. But so long as you do not show it him, you should not mock, but rather feel your own incapacity” (Discourses II, 12.3-4).

I think that is the proper Stoic attitude, but Jules’ piece also validates both my analysis of and my worry about these movements.

So much for Charybdis. Let’s turn now to Scylla. There has been much talk about rampant “political correctness” on university campuses, the creation of “safe zones,” the “deplatforming” of invited speakers, and the “cultural appropriation” of this or that ethnic food, dress, or whatever. Here is what pointed critic Jonathan Haidt has to say about it, and here is my more moderate (though substantially similar) take. (And if you want yet another one, here is what seven professors teaching in relevant fields in the humanities think about trigger warnings in particular.)

Concerning the more limited issue of trigger warnings and safe spaces, I must say that as a Stoic I do not seek any such thing. (Then again, I’m obviously “privileged,” in the relevant lingo.) I abstain from judging others about it, but Epictetus is pretty clear on what the Stoic response is to insults:

“Remember that it is we who torment, we who make difficulties for ourselves — that is, our opinions do. What, for instance, does it mean to be insulted? Stand by a rock and insult it, and what have you accomplished? If someone responds to insult like a rock, what has the abuser gained with his invective?” (Discourses I, 25.28-29)

Easier said than done, you say. Right, but that’s the point. Stoic practice (or the serious practice of any philosophy of life or religion) is demanding. But it is rewarding. Moreover, it is not at all clear to me why practicing endurance is somehow equivalent to engaging in a quietist philosophy, as some of our critics have misguidedly maintained.

The broader issue of identity politics is far more complex. The idea has a long and convoluted history, and it is actively debated in moral and political philosophy. My take on it is that there is nothing wrong with identity politics if it is understood as a temporary focus on groups (women, blacks, gays, transgender, and so forth) who have been historically, and currently still are, discriminated against. If there is a problem, one concentrates one’s resources and attention on the problem, not on whatever else may be going well, or at least not as badly.

But if identity politics is used as a way to shield anyone, belonging to any group, from reasoned criticism, then that’s when I get off the boat. Moreover, my goal as a Stoic is that of achieving a truly cosmopolitan society, one that is color-, gender-, etc. blind. A society where we are truly each other’s brothers and sisters, regardless of our cultural and/or biological identity.

Let me be clear about what I mean here. By color blind I do NOT mean a society where everyone conforms to the norm and cultural differences are squashed. Cultural differences are the lifeblood of human creativity, they need to be nurtured and protected, not eliminated or neutered. I DO mean, however, a society where nobody has special privileges or protections, because everyone has the same rights and opportunities. The first model (the one I reject) may be summarized by the American phrase “melting pot,” which conjures up the image of a place where diverse people all get assimilated into the same featureless soup. A Borg version of the American dream, if you will. The second model (the one I support) is best thought of — to stay with food analogies — as a tossed salad. What makes a great tossed salad is precisely the fact that there are varied and contrasting ingredients, each retaining its own identity, and yet all contributing to the delicious flavor of the full ensemble.

Of course, none of the above ought to be interpreted as “the” Stoic take on these issues. There is no such thing. Stoicism is an evolving philosophy, and just as Posidonius disagreed with Chrysippus, I expect plenty of prokoptontes of the Fifth Stoa to disagree with me on any or all of what I wrote here (or elsewhere, for that matter). But so long as this disagreement is civil and constructive, we will all be better off for it:

“Associate with those who will make a better person of you. Welcome those whom you yourself can improve. The process is mutual; for people learn while they teach.” (Seneca, Letter VII. On Crowds, 8)

41 thoughts on “Stoicism and politics: between the Scylla of the New Left and the Charybdis of the alt-right

  1. Roberto Sans

    Dear Prof
    I congratulate you on your moderate and very reasonable comments. I think that Stoicism should be a wide tent as you say so it should be open to all sorts of people, within limits. Completely unreasonable sort of people like those groups that you mention on the extreme right or left cannot be compatible with a way of life that strives to put Reason as the principle towards all moves.
    Basically science tell us that the human species has a very limited biological diversity, so this idea of races is obsolete and has proved to be toxic by history. On the same way there are no clear differences in mental abilities between men and women so most of these men movements are incarnations of irrational thoughts gone large by the way of not thinking them through. Identity politics can be argued against by following similar principles, as these claims have little or no rational basis whatsoever.
    However, I might say that I think that Stoicism is more attractive to people in the moderate- conservative spectrum of politics rather than on the liberal – socialist side, at least judging from what I see around in forums. My take on the subject is that the marxist influenced ways of thinking have an idealised conception of human nature, too keen on seen (too optimistically) as a blank slate open for complete refurbishment in order to comply with an ideal society, while a conservative way of thinking is more skeptical about how malleable are humans and much more inclined towards the individual as a moral subject rather than society as a whole. As Stoicism in our days is largely a moral philosophy focused on giving the maximum moral value to our right thoughts and actions, I believe it is more compatible with an individualistic take on how society can be better organised. But as this is my take, I do not deny for a second that left leaning Stoics are possible , in fact I might be wrong and they can be a majority.
    Anyway thanks again for this very interesting entry in your excellent blog.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Jaycel Adkins

    I would include on the Against Stoicism column of the ledger: Tyranny (in any form). Not just Fascists. Timothy Synder’s recent book, ‘On Tyranny’ is a virtual handbook of Stoic Spiritual Exercises when it comes to politics, I think.

    Great piece, will definitely have to follow all the links this evening, fate permitting.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Julie Nantais (@jn_galaxynerd)

    I see the men’s rights movement as, at best, rooted in a misunderstanding of what feminism is really about. Several of the concerns they bring up, such as low male educational completion rates, high male suicide rates, lack of support for male victims of domestic abuse and sexual assault, and lack of support for men interested in primary caregiving roles in their family lives, are not things that feminism doesn’t care about. They are part of feminism’s unfinished business: making men’s social roles as flexible as women’s, so that people’s actions and options in life are based truly on their unique needs and gifts and not on arbitrary accidents of their biology. Of course, a lot of these people do turn to sexism, perhaps because they think all feminism (not just the most extremist, New Left-type versions) wants to rob them of the opportunity to be soldiers, policemen, construction workers, craftsmen, or otherwise choose more traditional masculine behaviors. The only traditional masculine behavior that all feminism is against is discriminating against women.

    I also think the New Left has some valid points, mainly in terms of acknowledging the role of fortune – including historical oppression against certain groups – in people’s external conditions such as career, wealth, and health. Where it goes wrong is its dependence on a quasi-Epicurean view of the good life: freedom from pain is the goal, and external conditions at the society level are key. This view is unrealistic and exhausting to even try to implement, reminding me of an old fairytale I heard when studying Western Buddhism of how shoes were invented. A princess hurt her foot, and so asked for the whole kingdom to be paved with leather, but the king (like any good parent teaching a child to fend for him or herself) had shoes made for her.

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  4. jbonnicerenoreg

    I see the political spectrum a little differently. There are virtuous and non virtuous folks in each political group. e.g. the men’s rights movement as a response to feminism says you can’t expect to change the whole dynamic of male female relationships and expect men to be crash dummies for your experiments with life. Conservatives have David Brooks and Rush Limbaugh. Etc.

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  5. E. O. Scott

    Massimo,

    “I don’t see why one couldn’t be a mainstream libertarian and a Stoic (indeed, an interesting little know fact is that the libertarian Cato Institute is named after Cato the Younger…)”

    You may be interested to learn that a libertarian state representative in West Virginia has in fact just published a book reflecting on how Stoicism (and especially the example of Cato) informs his political career: https://www.amazon.com/Stoicism-Statehouse-Philosophy-Serving-Idea/dp/0990738612/ref=pd_zg_rss_nr_b_11065_4

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Daniel Raida 🇪🇺 (@DanielRaida)

    Great article!
    As a political science major I was curious about the political aspects of Stoicism shortly after beign introduced to the philosophy, especially its (in)compatibility with mainstream European political ideologies After reading the Stoics for myself I arrived at a simillar conclusion as prof. Pigliucci, seeing Stoicism as a sort of big tent around the political centre, while rejecting both the nationalistic right (for the reasons mentioned in the article) and socialism/communism of the hard left (for the reasons mentioned by Roberto above).

    I had very limited knowledge about the “new left” and the “alt right” in the USA (and I was not not at all familliar with the Men’s rights stuff) as these positions are not mainstream in continental Europe, but they seem to fit the same dichotomy of nationalism/internationalism and individualism/collectivism.

    Anyway, thanks to prof Pigliucci for writing this article, I very much appreciate it!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Massimo Post author

    Roberto,

    “I might say that I think that Stoicism is more attractive to people in the moderate- conservative spectrum of politics rather than on the liberal – socialist side”

    Perhaps, I’d honestly like to see systematic surveys about this. I am, as I said in the OP, definitely on the left side of the political spectrum, and I sense that so is a good number of people who frequent the Modern Stoicism Facebook group. But, again, hard numbers would be interesting to have.

    “As Stoicism in our days is largely a moral philosophy focused on giving the maximum moral value to our right thoughts and actions, I believe it is more compatible with an individualistic take on how society can be better organised”

    As I mention in my book, How to Be a Stoic, it is highly unfortunate that character and virtue have become a province of the Right and are being rejected as an instrument of oppression by much of the Left. There is nothing inherently contradictory on working for social justice and protection of the rights of minorities while at the same time cultivating one’s character and strengthening one’s resilience.

    Julie,

    you are right about some misunderstanding of feminism on the part of the men’s rights movement, civil and working rights aren’t a zero-sum game. But there is a significant amount of sexism, if not downright misogyny, in the mix.

    “the New Left has some valid points, mainly in terms of acknowledging the role of fortune – including historical oppression against certain groups – in people’s external conditions such as career, wealth, and health”

    The NL has a lot of good points, and has contributed much to the advancement of civil rights in the past, that’s why I focused on a small number of current issues, like trigger warnings, safe spaces, and an increasingly fractious (even internally so) approach to identity politics.

    Jbonn,

    “the men’s rights movement as a response to feminism says you can’t expect to change the whole dynamic of male female relationships and expect men to be crash dummies for your experiments with life.”

    But no serious feminist expects that at all. And I count myself in that group. That’s a caricature put forth by some in the men’s rights movement.

    “Conservatives have David Brooks and Rush Limbaugh”

    Agreed on Brooks, I read him often, though I almost invariably disagree with him. Limbaugh? I don’t see any virtue whatsoever there.

    Liked by 3 people

  8. Julie Nantais (@jn_galaxynerd)

    My charitable view of (some) men’s rights activists as misunderstanding feminism rather than being all-out misogynists was based on commentary I’d seen on a documentary called “The Red Pill,” in which a former New-Left feminist filmmaker ends up renouncing feminism after interviewing some of the more articulate and sensible MRAs in real life. Of course, that doesn’t change the harsh reality that the movement’s dominant face is still the trollish sexist underbelly seen in the comments section on Jules Evans’ article, but I try to do my best not to completely dismiss one side or the other of a debate because that tends to defeat any noble purpose of debate. Like Seneca recommends, I strive to replace anger with pity in such matters. I find that harder to do with the alt-right, including the more trollish MRAs, than with others I might disagree with, although still easier than dealing with more personal struggles like status-seeking, and I try to set good examples when I can.

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  9. Tito Almendrades (@titoescrito)

    Your essay speaks to the immense narrowness that exists in current political discourse; i.e. the Overton Window, or the range of “acceptable” opinion, often arranged to reinforce the status quo instead of challenge it.

    Mainstream criticism of “political correctness” and its cousin “identity politics” is largely the tendency to highlight only the silliest (and often anecdotal) extremes of “PC-culture”. These cherry-picked criticisms, usually found in the mainstream press (i.e. the Atlantic, NYT, WaPo, Vox, Fox News, and others), are typically made by pundits that already have preexisting grievances with “PC-culture” (and who often tend to be so-called “centrists”). Like anything cherry-picked, they often ignore the nuance that exists in each case, and instead generalize it to create a knee-jerk, rhetorical barrier to any criticism.

    I think your position on identity politics used as a shield against reasoned criticism is fine, but at its best it is also perfect ideological cover for people who insist on maintaining the status quo based on a false sense of “balance”. At its worst it offers an avenue for reactionary/right-wing/white supremacist forces to silence the grievances of vulnerable populations.

    My own position is that these things can only be discussed on a case-by-case basis, and often the scariest headlines about PC-culture are way more overblown when you read the story itself. Political correctness, for all of its faults, has still resulted in allowing others to enter the discourse, and to humanize vulnerable and marginalized communities. This is a good thing.

    So yes, there may be extreme cases, but overall it seems like a net good.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Massimo Post author

    Tito,

    “These cherry-picked criticisms”

    I wonder how you know they are cherry-picked rather than representative. I actually work on a university campus, have a daughter enrolled at another one, and visit a good number of others every year. I think the trigger warnings/safe spaces issue is a real one, though not in the same league as the men’s rights and alt-right movements.

    “I think your position on identity politics used as a shield against reasoned criticism is fine, but at its best it is also perfect ideological cover for people who insist on maintaining the status quo based on a false sense of “balance”.”

    Every position can be distorted and used for nefarious aims. But that’s not what I’m doing here, and I’m responsible only for what I write, not for what others do with my writings.

    “My own position is that these things can only be discussed on a case-by-case basis, and often the scariest headlines about PC-culture are way more overblown when you read the story itself.”

    Yes and no. Sure, every case needs to be analyzed on its own. But there is a questionable leftist culture out there, and it’s not new either. I’ve experienced exactly the same atmosphere of intolerance back in high school in Rome, in the mid-’70s. And I say this, again, as a progressive leftist.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Sam Argiro

    To begin, I am currently reading ‘How To Be A Stoic’ and find the systematic and historical approach enlightening and practically beneficial. I would encourage anyone reading this and new to Stoic thought to make Dr. Pigliucci’s book their first stop.

    My aim here (the port) is ask Dr. Pigliucci to reconsider the validity of this statement, “The alt-right is, among other things, a white supremacist and anti-immigration movement, while the men’s rights stuff is inherently sexist. If you disagree with either of these characterizations, I can’t help you, they seem to me both crystal clear and undeniable…”

    I am a white male, of 1st generation Italian-American (central and southern Italian) stock, born and raised in NY. I don’t know if I’m “alt-right” or not, but I have certainly been influenced by writers and thinkers who are described with this moniker. What has resonated with me in the alt-right group is certainly not “white supremacism” or “anti-immigration.” Most members of my family (immigrants, men and women) also express a kinship with thoughts and ideas in the “alt-right.”

    My, anecdotal, experience is that the bulk of person’s drawn to these ideas are, like me, not drawn to white supremacy, anti-immigration, nor male privilege. Although, of course, there are those of that ilk who would like to claim “alt-right.” But, there are feminists who advocate for the extinction of men. It’s not fair to label all feminists as misanthropic, nor to deny the positive qualities of feminism because some members have malignant ideas.

    I can only speak for myself, and what draws me to the “alt-right.” It is not a reaction against people of other colors, genders, sexual orientations & etc. It is a reaction against an ever increasing Leviathan of centralized power in the State. A Leviathan that utilizes identity politics (and security) to expand its tentacles. I remember as a youngster the frequent refrain, “it’s a free country,” whenever anyone tried to tell someone else they couldn’t speak. Children would even dare say it to authority/teachers with some effect! Can you imagine that today? Is it a free country?

    I take alt-right to mean a renewed interest in the founding ideals of this country. And, in that sense, conservative/right. Although Thomas Jefferson or George Washington behaved in ways that were incommensurate with their ideals, they did attempt to learn from and promote those ideals. And their ideals were most certainly influenced by the Stoics. I’d suggest that this is the sentiment of the “alt-right,” and that something like this sentiment is what inspires whatever movement it is.

    Finally, wouldn’t the inquiry of physics demand a more well-rounded investigation of the movement before coming to any conclusions? I believe you will find men, women, immigrants, and people of every stripe who make up the bulk of the the alt-right.

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  12. Yilmaz Rona

    I see the men’s rights movement as, at best, rooted in a misunderstanding of what feminism is really about. Several of the concerns they bring up, such as low male educational completion rates, high male suicide rates, lack of support for male victims of domestic abuse and sexual assault, and lack of support for men interested in primary caregiving roles in their family lives, are not things that feminism doesn’t care about. They are part of feminism’s unfinished business: making men’s social roles as flexible as women’s, so that people’s actions and options in life are based truly on their unique needs and gifts and not on arbitrary accidents of their biology.

    I think this sentiment, as lovely and honorable as it is, is utterly disconnected from reality. I cite two examples that leapt immediately to mind as I read your comment.

    1) The ostracism and attempts to prevent people from seeing Cassie Jaye’s the Red Pill, a documentary about the MRA movement – primarily led by feminists. At the time she started the project, she considered herself a feminist, and she said:

    I began this film project identifying as a feminist. I was astonished and intrigued to learn about these men’s issues that I hadn’t heard much of and yet seemed like huge issues. As I dug deeper, I found that these are issues that need to be more widely addressed, but I was experiencing first-hand the push back about even mentioning men’s rights or men’s issues. “Why is this?” I asked myself.
    My initial goal was to make a film about the Men’s Rights Activists: who they are, where are they from, and see if they are truly the misogynists everyone was saying they were. However in my journey, I realized my own strong-held beliefs where starting to be challenged and I began to see signs that I was changing. I began recording ‘video diaries’ so I could document my own evolving thoughts and emotions to use as research for when I was going to compile the story in the editing room. While I was recording my video diaries and reflecting on my interviews with MRAs I realized that I wasn’t being a very good ‘devil’s advocate’ anymore in my interviews and I was forgetting what the feminist rebuttal would be. That’s when I decided to bring feminists into the film.
    My goal NOW is to show the honest journey I went on (and it was a windy road) in hopes of dispelling the misinformation about men’s issues and to encourage dialogue based on facts rather than fear.
    I don’t want to live in a society where ideas are censored, and hopefully others will stand with me on that.

    2) I can’t think of a single prominent feminist other than Camille Paglia who has spoken out against the sexist terrorism that was unleashed with the infamous “Dear Colleague” letter. Conversely many feminists who do take up the subject do argue that allowing accused males some degree of due process (eg. the right to know the evidence against them and to confront witnesses) is “rape enabling”.

    I am a libertarian in large part because I believe people should be treated as individuals and not be repressed for being born in the wrong place, to the wrong parents, having the wrong genitalia, vel cetera. I have both been harmed and benefited unjustly at various points in my lifetime thanks to sex discrimination on the part of people I’m dealing with. And, in my opinion in none of those circumstances would the situation have been bettered by introducing a counterbalancing and opposing sexual discrimination. In my opinion, the only remedy is to not sexually discriminate unless its warranted – i.e. for us to act justly. All too often for people engaging in identity politics, the goal is to get the state to remedy one form of discrimination with a similar type of discrimination intended to counteract the original discrimination; the opposite of justice. And in my experience, feminists almost universally disagree with me utterly; they hope that if they add the right sort of “wrong” to an existing “wrong” they can make it “right”.

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  13. Julie Nantais (@jn_galaxynerd)

    Regarding the point about anti-“Red Pill” protests, see Mark Manson’s distinction between philosophical and tribal feminism, the latter largely consisting of the New Left: https://markmanson.net/whats-the-problem-with-feminism

    It’s the tribal feminism that led to the anti-Red Pill protests and to the filmmaker formally renouncing feminism, but philosophical feminism still has room to attempt to address the issues of men in terms of how “patriarchy” is not only harmful to women, but also harmful to men who don’t manage to achieve full-blown “patriarch” status.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Massimo Post author

    Sam,

    You seem precisely the kind of person I’d hate to lose to Stoicism because of ideological issues. Honestly, from what you describe, you seem to fit much more the libertarian than the alt-right mold. Alt-right seems to be inextricably connected to various degrees of racism, xenophobia and sexism, and you probably want to distance yourself from that.

    I highly recommend Jules Evan’s essay on this topic linked to in my OP.

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  15. Yilmaz Rona

    Alt-right seems to be inextricably connected to various degrees of racism, xenophobia and sexism, and you probably want to distance yourself from that.

    I think that statement’s really missing what makes the alt-right a poor fit for the stoic; it’s unconvincint because it’s fairly easy to point to much or the progressive left, for example, as also being racist and sexist and yet the Daily Stoic a couple of days ago was publishing a paean to Barack Obama.

    Jeffrey Tucker has been studying the alt right and writing about it as right wing populism reappeared on the scene over the past few years. In one of those essays, Five Differences Between the Alt-Right and Libertarianism he writes that the alt right:
    1) Sees history as being a conflict between groups, and that to advance one’s own interests, one must join a group with a strong leader who will advance their goals.
    2) Sees our social worth as being based on our skill in conflict rather than in our ability to cooperate with each other.
    3) Believes that without a leader to advance it and those of us who form the masses subsuming our desires and goals to those that the leaders impose, society degenerates into disorder, and does not believe that in the absence of strong leaders people can spontaneously and in a decentralized manner produce order and peace.
    4) Perceives group interactions as zero-sum (i.e. if one group benefits, it must come at the expense of another).

    Put like that, the conflict between stoicism and the alt-right pops out quite clearly. The modern concept of identity politics reminds me strongly of the conflicts created by ancient Rome’s system of gens and classes; and the conflict that the groups wage with each other creates and strengthens the turmoil and chaos very much like that which the Roman stoics struggled to survive and overcome.

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  16. Yilmaz Rona

    In this day and age, the epithet “racist” is thrown around so trivially that merely calling something racist is no longer, in my opinion, very persuasive. Especially in relation to the alt-right, since most of the people I know flirting with the alt-right are reacting to having essentially spent more than a decade being prejudged in pop culture and in the mass media as being racist and sexist because they are white and male; it comes across as more of the same.

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  17. Tito Almendrades (@titoescrito)

    Massimo,

    As you know, most people are not in the academy. Their perception of “PC culture” is informed by what they read and what they watch – and often what is read is far from their own lived experience. (This is where media criticism is of utmost importance. I have sources if you would like them)

    I guess I view handwringing about superficial campus behaviour as particularly unhelpful or insignificant. Who are you trying to help in these critiques (I ask the faceless, probably establishment journalist)? When the reality is that we still arrest black and brown people for petty offenses, bomb countless black and brown countries, deport millions of people (mostly Latinos, Latinas and Latinxs) for the crime of searching for a better life, ignore the humanity of trans people and Muslims, and blame them for their problems. Everything else seems smaller than that.

    I understand your use of the Greek mythology metaphor, and that they are both “evils” that should ultimately be avoided in the abstract sense (and one being obviously the better option). What I dislike in this modern discourse is the fetishizing of tone and politeness (aka “respectability politics”) over the rights of marginalized communities. People don’t need to be polite in order to be deserving of rights, to not be seen as dangerous criminals, for example.

    Political correctness is supposed to be uncomfortable – as part of creating a more inclusive and humanizing discourse. Of course it will create some strange situations (and I find this seems to happen in more privileged cirles than others), but the reality is that we are better for it when we work to find everyone’s humanity, and make positions like the alt-right unacceptable.

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  18. Massimo Post author

    Yilmaz,

    “the epithet “racist” is thrown around so trivially that merely calling something racist is no longer, in my opinion, very persuasive.”

    The first part is true, but I disagree on the second. Its persuaseviness depends on the accuracy with which it is thrown around. In the case of the alt-right, it applies.

    “most of the people I know flirting with the alt-right are reacting to having essentially spent more than a decade being prejudged in pop culture and in the mass media as being racist and sexist because they are white and male; it comes across as more of the same.”

    But there is good anecdotal as well as systematic evidence that many of those people are, indeed, racist. Often without realizing it. (Indeed, there is evidence that we are all a bit racists, but some of us are trying to keep that natural tendency in check.)

    I understand these people have good reasons to be aggravated at certain sectors of the political establishment that should have done much more for them over the past several decades. But turning on other disadvantaged people simply makes the game easier for the plutocrats in charge of it.

    Tito,

    “I guess I view handwringing about superficial campus behaviour as particularly unhelpful or insignificant.”

    I think some people on the left have an understandable tendency to downplay those episodes and the culture that fosters them. I’ve seen this happening on Italian campuses and high schools in the ’70s. It led to political consequences, and even violence.

    “the reality is that we still arrest black and brown people for petty offenses, bomb countless black and brown countries, deport millions of people”

    All of that is true, and I do my little part there too (mostly contributing to organizations that work on those issues, marching, and coordinating a local activist cell in New York). But I simply don’t accept the “there is a bigger problem here” logic. If you follow it, then you would have to conclude that even the things you mention are irrelevant compared to the likely irreversible destruction of the planet’s environment that we are perpetrating at increasing speed. Should we then focus only on one big problem at a time?

    “What I dislike in this modern discourse is the fetishizing of tone and politeness (aka “respectability politics”) over the rights of marginalized communities”

    What I dislike is the idea that the rights of marginalized communities somehow depend on shutting down critics or creating artificial “safe” spaces that certainly don’t exist in the real world outside university campuses.

    “Political correctness is supposed to be uncomfortable – as part of creating a more inclusive and humanizing discourse.”

    It goes both ways: part of growing up includes being comfortable with the idea that there are racists, xenophobes and sexists out there. And that we have to somehow live with them.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. E. O. Scott

    Tito,

    As someone who largely agrees with your position (racial inequitable mass incarceration easily looms an order of magnitude larger on my radar than any degree of campus drama), I’m curious whether you think it’s possible, under the right conditions, to “have your cake and eat it too” when it comes to what we normally dismiss as “respectability politics.”

    Often we feel that there is sort of a zero sum game between “tone” and “protest.” Either we can talk critically about what constitutes good or bad tone (or resilience, or virtue, etc), or we can advocate for justice. The assumption is that if we do one, we necessarily draw vital resources away from the other.

    Tone policing certainly can be a tool of oppression.
    People certainly don’t need to be polite to be deserving of rights. And I’ve advocated pretty strongly for the idea that Stoics, for instance (who reject anger itself as fundamentally irrational and vicious), need to be very careful about going around offering advice to oppressed people about “how to run their movement” (ex.
    https://ericsiggyscott.wordpress.com/2016/05/24/how-a-stoic-can-ally-with-angry-birds/)

    But I’ve also seen cases where people have had robust conversations about virtue, resilience, non-anger, and even tone without undermining efforts toward justice at all, and in fact while maintaining a very strong case for sharp social criticism, and an appropriate sense of proportion.

    I would place Martha Nussbaum in this category, for her “Anger and Forgiveness” as well as Scott Aikin and Robert Talisse’s book “The Reasonable Atheist.” Massimo always seem to straddle this line very admirably as well. And of course, plenty of conversations within black churches, for instance, strike a good balance between narratives of social justice and personal excelence (even if some veer too far toward respectability politics at times).

    Liked by 1 person

  20. E. O. Scott

    “Indeed, there is evidence that we are all a bit racists, but some of us are trying to keep that natural tendency in check.”

    Just to underscore that point, I’m fond of some advice I picked up from Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s famous book “Racism without Racists:” even for a decidedly liberal-leaning person like myself, it arguably makes more sense to self-identify as “anti-racist” than “not-racist.” I can never be sure that I have eliminated all my implicit racial biases—I can only be sure that I am attempting to do so!

    This is much akin to how the Stoics advice us to call ourselves “Progressors” instead of “Stoics.”

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  21. Massimo Post author

    I second pretty much everything E.O. has written. I really don’t see why this should be a zero sum game.

    Moreover, this is hardly an issue of the oppressed being asked to be polite. It is rather an issue of not shielding oneself from unpleasant opinions and encounters.

    Finally, please remember that this is within the context of Stoicism. I’m not about to go to someone who does not practice Stoicism and tell them how to behave like a Stoic. But there are alt-right and NL people who are claiming the mantle of Stoicism, and those are fair targets of criticism.

    Liked by 1 person

  22. Tito Almendrades (@titoescrito)

    Massimo,

    I’m not arguing that the fight for environmental justice, economic and labour work, and migrant/racial justice are mutually exclusive – they aren’t, and they can be shown to intersect with plenty other values.

    (As an aside: in my own experience, organizing with both labour unions and migrant justice organizations, an intersectional approach truly is the only way forward. It also goes without saying that when one organizes they do so WITH the community as part of the movement, not FOR them)

    You pointed to some egregious examples of, what I’ve simplified as, “PC-culture”. As not everyone goes to university campuses, thus they are informed of these cases through major media organizations. For the most part the same people who report these criticisms are typical of the establishment press in that they represent the “respectable” (and well-paid) opinion. Their approach is to look at these issues as “distractions” or “boutique issues”, that supposedly alienate people and as partially responsible for the election of Trump, for example. In other words, as mutually exclusive to what they deem as important.
    I simply can’t assume good faith in those criticisms, because their intent is to protect the powerful and reinforce the status quo, by reducing “the Left” to behaviors found on otherwise obscure college campuses.

    To your point about “artificial safe spaces”, that is certainly a value judgment – what you may deem as “artificial” may not be to the another person – and that tension should (in ideal cases) resolve itself in a way that satisfies all or most parties. But it’s tough to speak generally about it.

    E.O.,

    In my experience, it can be a sort of a zero-sum game. Those with more privilege tend to be able to occupy both spaces, whereas those with less tend to have to make a choice between local organizing (or working to create alternative structures, spaces, etc.)‎, and engaging in partisan politics, for example.

    I mean, we’re having an abstract discussion about it, so yes I do think it’s possible to have ones cake and eat it too. The reality is obviously more complicated.

    Liked by 1 person

  23. Massimo Post author

    Tito,

    “For the most part the same people who report these criticisms are typical of the establishment press in that they represent the “respectable” (and well-paid) opinion”

    I don’t know man, I have a number of journalist friends, and they are anything but well paid, or part of the establishment in any meaningful sense. Besides, one of the links in the OP is by a number of faculty who themselves belong to minority groups, and are still worried about campus culture.

    “supposedly alienate people and as partially responsible for the election of Trump”

    I’m pretty sure that at this point that’s more than just a supposition. Which makes the point that what happens on campus doesn’t stay on campus. Besides, we are raising the next generation of middle class there, I would think the ability to tolerate ideas they don’t like is a fundamental aspect of their education, no?

    “their intent is to protect the powerful and reinforce the status quo, by reducing “the Left” to behaviors found on otherwise obscure college campuses”

    I’m sure there is some truth in that, but many of those campuses are not at all obscure, and we need to be careful to avoid rationalizing criticism away by chalking it up to the nefarious plans of the elite.

    “To your point about “artificial safe spaces”, that is certainly a value judgment – what you may deem as “artificial” may not be to the another person”

    No, sorry, that’s a fact of life, not a value judgment: once outside campus these students will not have access to protected zones of speech or any other kind of safe space. Which is why they would be better off preparing themselves for endurance rather than creating an artificial reality on campus.

    “it can be a sort of a zero-sum game. Those with more privilege tend to be able to occupy both spaces, whereas those with less tend to have to make a choice between local organizing (or working to create alternative structures, spaces, etc.)‎, and engaging in partisan politics, for example”

    I still don’t see why that choice translates into trigger warnings, safe spaces, deplatforming, and all the rest.

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  24. Stewart Slater

    I might be barking completely up the wrong tree here, but one of the issues with Identity Politics seems to be how reductive it is. As I understand it, the idea is that race or sex or sexual orientation explains the majority (at least) of an individual’s personality, beliefs and actions which seems (to be charitable) highly contentious. As a political commentator asked last year “Why should an African-American unemployed steel worker vote differently to a white unemployed steel worker?”
    I’m not aware of any work on the Stoic theory of personal identity if they had one (and I’d be grateful for any suggestions), but given that Marcus in particular seems very clear on the need for a complete understanding of an individual’s motivations, it strikes me that the approach of Identity Politics would not find favour.

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  25. Massimo Post author

    Stewart,

    Actually, I think you are barking up exactly the right tree. That’s why I wrote that it is fine to focus on groups (not necessarily “minorities,” since women are no such thing) being discriminated against by the current system. If that’s what one means by identity politics, there is no problem.

    But if one means more, for instance that those identities are somehow fundamental, or should be given uncritical acceptance regardless of circumstances (e.g., the example of “native science” being pushed in Canadian universities), then that seems both non-rational and to go against the idea of cosmopolitanism. And since both the latter and the notion of applying reason to social issues are fundamental in Stoicism…

    In terms of Stoic theory of personal identity, my recent series on Epictetus’ role ethics is pertinent, though not exchaustive (http://tinyurl.com/ydcofdnr). Yes, we have roles (and identities), some of which are “natural” (we didn’t choose them) and other are acquired (by choice). But for Epictetus the most fundamental role/identity is simply that of a human being, and it trumps everything else.

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  26. Tito Almendrades (@titoescrito)

    Massimo,

    I’m struck with the surprising lack of nuance in your comments. It exemplifies the level of discourse I often find with similar critics: a lack of consideration in each case, and glibly overgeneralizing extreme cases as indicative of the whole. (i.e. a hasty generalization)

    Your discussion of “native science” is particularly disappointing. One, for suggesting that it’s a pervasive phenomenon in universities in Canada, which as any First Nations and non-indigenous Canadian will tell you, is far from the truth; and Two, it ignores completely the context that brought it into being. Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK), what you glibly called “native science”, has to do with ‎how indigenous people view(ed) the land and their position within it, seeing as how they viewed the state’s position on resource extraction as harmful to the local ecology. This is knowledge that is passed on typically orally (though now studied and published in academic publications), but is adaptive to changing realities on the ground. There are several territories that the government allows development on that were never ceded nor surrendered through a treaty (traditional native land, like the Algonquins in Ontario). TEK is also a response to the state’s paternalistic (IMO short-sighted) view towards stewardship of this land, informed by the “rational” vision of environmental management and the push of extractive industry, that historically developed and destroyed the local ecology in the interest of “progress” (for the developers, not the First Nations)
    Free of context, asserting that “native science” is “pushed” on Canadians sounds pretty scary; with context, there is clearly more to it than that.

    Instead of looking critically at these scenarios, what you seem to encourage is blanketing it all with the rhetorical “identity politics” label and dismissing it out of hand – a common practice with the journalists that criticize it as well.

    (Adam Johnson from Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, or FAIR, demonstrated how journalists follow this same pattern in relation to Trump’s election:
    http://fair.org/home/lashing-out-at-identity-politics-pundits-blame-trump-on-those-most-vulnerable-to-trump/)

    “once outside campus these students will not have access to protected zones of speech or any other kind of safe space”

    Do this also preclude working towards making their workplace or future spaces livable (or respectful, or understanding, or free from danger)?

    “I still don’t see why that choice translates into trigger warnings, safe spaces, deplatforming, and all the rest.”

    Those are tactics, and as such cannot be judged by themselves. They all have different aims, results, targets, scope, demands, and more importantly, CONTEXTS. If something like that happens on a campus, there was probably a reason for it (though one will never know unless they investigate).

    “An identity politics that would have me shut up and stay out is utterly antithetical to my Stoic identity as a reasoning social animal”

    Likewise, any politics that would have me accept racism, xenophobia, transphobia and classism as a given (and to dismiss criticisms of them) is clearly not for me (or many human beings). Treating those things as normal/healthy (and ignorable) should never be on the table.

    ***Funny enough, this reminds me of an episode of Jimmy Kimmel Live where he was criticized for not showing “both sides” of the anti-vaccination and autism “debate”, and he said he wouldn’t “for the same reason I wouldn’t present both sides if a group of people decided that pancakes make you gay. They don’t. And there’s no point in discussing it”

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  27. Massimo Post author

    Tito,

    It’s interesting that you proceed to provide a lecture on Canada and indigenous issues, simply assuming I had read nothing about it.

    As it happens, I recently participated to a conference on the topic, presented a paper, discussed it with First Nation scholars, and am now gearing up to write said paper for an edited volume: http://tinyurl.com/ycmageqr

    I am perfectly aware of the context you refer to, but my opinion — based on my readings — is that you grossly underestimate the problem. It is certainly true that local populations, in Canada and elsewhere, have invaluable knowledge of the flora and fauna with which they have been in contact for millennia. It is however utterly false that this somehow represents a different kind of science, as a number of prominent native Canadians want to convince their government and university administrators of, apparently succeeding.

    I am also aware of the history of paternalism toward native populations in Canada, which is awful. But the logic I’m rejecting is precisely the one you laid out so clearly: since group X has been / is been subjected to unfair treatment A, therefore group X is justified in creating a special status for themselves which puts them outside the reach of criticism.

    “Those are tactics, and as such cannot be judged by themselves. They all have different aims, results, targets, scope, demands, and more importantly, CONTEXTS.”

    Sorry, I don’t buy it. I’ve read a lot about this, and am aware of the contexts you refer to, but there is no context I can think of in which a right-wing speaker, duly and properly invited by an official campus group, should be deplatformed. If one doesn’t like what the speaker is going to say, then the proper reactions vary from simply not attending the event (no speaker likes an empty room), to staging a counter-event, to engaging in civil criticism (as opposed to yelling at and shutting down the speaker) at the event itself. Everything else is not constructive, and indeed is damaging to the particular cause as well as to human well being more broadly.

    “any politics that would have me accept racism, xenophobia, transphobia and classism as a given (and to dismiss criticisms of them) is clearly not for me (or many human beings).”

    I have no idea who or what you are referring to. There is, as it ought to be obvious, no place for racism, xenophobia, etc. in Stoicism. But there is also no place for shutting down discourse that one does not agree with.

    “Treating those things as normal/healthy (and ignorable) should never be on the table.”

    What are “those things,” exactly? If you are talking about the KKK or the Nazi we agree, though I will let you know that I contribute regularly to the ACLU, which defends also the right of the KKK to march. (And yes, I participated in very effective counter-rallies when I was living in TN, which dwarfed the ones put up by the KKK.)

    But the very distinct sense that I get from a lot of campus activism these days (and that includes, but is not limited to, my stint in Canada) is that anyone who disagrees with certain positions is automatically labeled a racist, xenophobe, etc. Which ends up excluding those people from public debate without any possible recourse. Which, ironically, is precisely what the minorities in question (rightly) complain about.

    Liked by 1 person

  28. Tito Almendrades (@titoescrito)

    “Sorry, I don’t buy it. I’ve read a lot about this, and am aware of the contexts you refer to, but there is no context I can think of in which a right-wing speaker, duly and properly invited by an official campus group, should be deplatformed.”

    Milo Yiannopolous at Berkeley would be a pretty understandable context in which de-platforming would be appropriate. Without going into too much detail, there was good evidence that the subject of his talk would have been on “sanctuary cities” and undocumented migrants. He has, in previous talks on the same subject, called on his listeners to contact immigration enforcement on anyone they believe are suspected of being without status, even going as far as displaying the phone number on the screen (“If you see something, say something”).

    In the context on recent issues surrounding undocumented migrants and their families, this is dangerous. I agree physical harm is counterproductive and generally stupid, but non-violent deplatforming to remove an element that would harm others seems pretty understandable.

    I understand that deplatforming as a tactic can be very controversial and problematic (who decides what’s dangerous to another?), but entertaining someone who was likely to advocate harm to others sounds like a risk that the Berkeley students did not want to take. (There was also evidence that student activists had gone thru all the proper civil channels to block the event, to no avail, so there was really no other option than staging a no-platform protest)

    Again, context is needed, and multiple perspectives considered, not blanket condemnations.

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