Short Take: Can Free Speech and Social Justice Co-Exist?

As part of the “Unsafe Spaces” tour being run by Spiked, a panel discussion will be held at New York Law School on November 2d, with former president of the ACLU, Nadine Strossen, as moderator. The title of the panel is provocative: Is the left eating itself?

The panel will consist of Northwestern prof Laura Kipnis, Evergreen College’s Bret Weinstein, Spiked’s Brendan O’Neill and “student social justice activist” academic, Angus Johnson*. Kipnis promoted the panel on the twitters:

Having recently endured a panel of erstwhile academic dissenters that included Strossen, whose argument in favor of free speech is that it will enable social justice warriors to more persuasively spread their message, thus bringing about the social justice Utopia more quickly, I responded to Kipnis’ twit, “With a moderator whose reason to believe in free speech is to more persuasively spread the gospel of social justice, you will be tested.”

Kipnis’ reply was, well, surprising.


Among academics burned at the stake, over and over in her case, Kipnis looms large. But much as she may be despised by the forces of social justice for her heresy, she is still a social justice warrior? How is that possible?

The foundational question is how one defines “social justice.” Despite the phrase being pervasively used, defining it seems to vary from source to source, person to person.

While it’s definition varies depending on the source common themes that exist across them all are the ideas of: human rights; dignity; political, economical, social, and other equality; equal distribution of resources; justice; use of policy and laws; removing inequality; societal participation in change; personal responsibility; and creating access to opportunity and chance through action.

Unfortunately, the definition does little to illuminate, as the words used are as vague as the phrase being defined. And the use of the word “equality” is particularly problematic, as everything about social justice militates against equality in favor of special treatment for the “marginalized and vulnerable,” which becomes a duty of its “privileged” warriors to enforce. Is this Kipnis’ definition? Who knows?

Then again, in considering the make-up of the panel, and the title of the presentation, there might be an answer: Is the left eating its own? Both Kipnis and Weinstein were dedicated to the left, but each for their own reason strayed slightly from the orthodoxy. In Kipnis’ case, she failed to adhere to the rape culture narrative with respect to professors having sex with students. In Weinstein’s case, it was his dispute with black students demanding that white students stay home from college one day to prove they were sufficiently woke allies.

Both, and Strossen as well, take the view that censoring speech is not the way to accomplish social justice goals, but is this an intellectually sound, principled position? Can one be in favor of allowing “hate speech” to infiltrate the dialogue if it’s “violence” and promotes illegitimate ideas? Is there a way in which one can simultaneously be a social justice warrior, for whom the ends justify the means because the ends are more important than the non-existent rights of the evil opposition, and a believer in free speech?

Perhaps like a lapsed Pastafarian, one need not believe in some, or even most, tenets of the social justice religion and still believe in spreading the social justice gospel. But then, people seem capable of believing that inherently unequal rights can be embraced in the name of equality without suffering cognitive dissonance.

My surreply to Kipnis accepted her premise, though it made no sense to me.

Maybe I’m missing something here, but I fail to see how it’s possible to simultaneously embrace a philosophy that demands silencing ideas that are contrary to social justice and believe in free speech.

*I’m not a fan of Angus, who is not only a radical hypocrite, but the sort of academic who encourages students to engage in physical violence against “fascists” from his safe space on social media.

26 thoughts on “Short Take: Can Free Speech and Social Justice Co-Exist?

  1. Paul

    Really taking shots at pastafarians lately. Is it their veneration of pirates you cannot stand? That would make sense coming from an admiral.

  2. DaveL

    As you point out, the problem is one of definition. If “social justice” is to co-exist with freedom of speech, then clearly the former cannot include the right of some designated group to punish every perceived insult towards it, either by force or through state power. It’s not as if, among the various vague attempts to define the term “social justice”, there has not been sufficient leeway to allow such a version. It’s more a matter of whether those who view themselves as its champions will be willing to accept it.

    1. PseudonymousKid

      This is it. Not all the warriors are fighting the same battles. The kiddies think they are in the trenches fighting the good fight by policing “microaggressions,” but others like the speakers our host mentioned likely see it differently. The nuance they could bring to the table won’t be as appealing as advocating righteous violence against the biggest bad, though. A better tactic, like Kipnis mentioned, might be thinking bigger than day-to-day vocabulary.

      If the left is eating itself, I hope it ejects the waste that is the most extreme of “intersectionality.” There’s still some hope that the left will be reborn more in line with its history than its present. The fight for 8 hour workdays will always be more convincing than the fight against words. God bless Eugene Debs.

      Whether the progressive woke will listen to advice even from their left is another story. They’d likely see it as patronizing coming from cisgendered white boy, and I’d like to keep all my teeth thanks. I’ve heard dentists can be expensive, painful, and scary.

      1. SHG Post author

        There seems to be huge issue you’re ignoring: both Kapnis and Weinstein (the Bret one, not the Harvey one) have already been subject to the Spanish Inquisition for their heresy. They tried. They lost. They got burned. So will “the progressive woke” listen? That bridge has been crossed.

        A point I’ve made here many times is that old-school liberals are conservatives, if not plain vanilla racists and misogynists, in the eyes of the unduly passionate. We’re left with two choices, come to grips with reality or succumb to the need for social justice approval. To each his (or her) own.

        1. PseudonymousKid

          I’m trying not to be a cynic all of the time. I still have some hope that woke can be turned to principled leftists. It hasn’t happened yet, but it might. Don’t pop the bubble.

          The reality is the woke are doing nothing of importance besides alienating potential allies in fights that will result in measurable gains. Their approval is meaningless. Their name-calling is immature. They are discrediting anything of value the left has to offer and giving its opponents powerful ammunition in the war of words. We’d call that bad praxis.

          If old school liberals are conservatives, then what the hell are progressives? They aren’t old-school commies or socialists by what they say and what they think is important. It’s just weird.

          1. SHG Post author

            You’re beginning to understand. Mom would be so proud of you. You know what you call “rational progressives”? Liberals. You know what progressives call liberals? Conservatives. See the problem?

            Unless we’re to have Trump (or some facsimile) elected for the next generation, the woke will have to wake up. But they show no inclination of doing so, and instead believe (as in, “strenuously object”) that if they only shriek louder, then everyone will realize they’re right and succumb to their moral righteousness.

            1. Pedantic Grammar Police

              But shrieking has been such a successful strategy. Parents, teachers and school admins rush to console and coddle the shrieking child. Who is to blame if the child continues the use of this successful strategy into adulthood?

    2. SHG Post author

      I don’t see that as a possible definition under any principled view. One of the core tenets of social justice is to use one’s privilege to eradicate racism, sexism, etc., from society. Eradication of ideas can’t co-exist with tolerance of ideas.

      1. DaveL

        That may depend on how literal we insist on being concerning the term “eradication”.There are, after all, certain ideas that have been, if not completely eradicated, at least completely marginalized and deprived of any effective political or social power in the Western world – ideas like a flat earth or illness caused by witchcraft. This was managed not by the beating of dissenters but by the persuasive force of arguments for a round earth and the Germ Theory of disease. Perhaps one of the more distressing (to a liberal) things about SJW agitation against free speech is that it suggests they have no faith in the persuasive power of their own ideas.

        1. Sacho

          Belief in a flat earth is not nearly as close to eradication as they would like. There are more flat earthers than Naxos, and the progressives don’t just want them silenced, they want them dead.

        2. Pedantic Grammar Police

          If you think that the “flat earth” hypothesis has been eradicated, then you haven’t googled “flat earth” recently. It is actually pretty popular, and they have excellent explanations for every objection that you might raise. Why does the earth look round from a plane? Well that is why airplane windows are so thick. They are lenses that make the earth appear round, to trick you!

  3. Elpey P.

    It’s the smart play on her part – to outflank the opposition rather than just play defense. There’s plenty of room in these soggy terms for her to align with those aspects of the “social justice gospel” that actually are authentically liberal, and then call out those who reject those aspects and embrace other aspects that aren’t not just for their illiberalism but for their counter-productivity. These are important arguments, but from a purely rhetorical perspective it also makes it more difficult for the other side to convince the audience that she can be dismissed as “alt-right.”

    “In Weinstein’s case, it was his dispute with black students demanding…”

    This lets a whole lot of other students off the hook. Race may be the motivating factor for these shenanigans, but it is not a good predictor of who is perpetrating them.

    1. SHG Post author

      Or is in Gertruding, Stockholm Syndrome, ignorance of what social justice means, or some combination thereof. As a tactic, to “outflank” the opposition, it’s an extremely poor one. There is no reasoning with the outraged mob. The nature of religion is belief. Her claim to being “one of them” never saved her (or any number of other old-school feminists) from being burned at the stake.

      1. Elpey P.

        The point isn’t to reason with the outraged mob, it’s to discredit it and do so in a productive manner. (Not a Milo manner.) There is a larger audience watching and responding. Kipnis and Weinstein have only “lost” from a narrow perspective that centers the mob’s feelings. When looking at the larger picture, they have increased their influence and had considerable positive impact.

        1. SHG Post author

          Have they increased their influence, or have they merely become the pet darlings of everyone other than progressives because they’re examples of how heretics are burned at the stake?

          1. Elpey P.

            Tomato, tomahto. Old school heretics never had to worry about the tax implications of being burned at the stake.

  4. Pedantic Grammar Police

    I suspect that some of the “adults” in the SJW movement would like to see it get back to the meaning of the words. When I look in the dictionary at these two words, I don’t see anything about silencing the speech of others. The movement has lost its way, and people like Kipnis are trying to help them find the path. It will be a thankless task.

    1. SHG Post author

      You’re generous, but you’ve chosen a flawed metric. Justice is the biggest bullshit word ever invented. Whatever outcome anyone wants is “justice.” It’s a pleasant but meaningless word. There never was an “adult” social justice movement. It never happened. It never existed. There can be no “lost it’s way” because there was never a “way.”

      1. Pedantic Grammar Police

        Justice is not a bullshit word; it has a meaning. My favorite definition is “the quality of being fair and reasonable.” When I was an idealistic college student, we talked about social justice, and to us it meant things like police and politicians obeying the law like everyone else, and courts treating people of different means similarly. Ideas like these can legitimately be called “social justice.”

        1. SHG Post author

          It’s comments like this that make me want to quit writing and spend my dotage banging my head against the wall.

  5. Pedantic Grammar Police

    Very disturbing to see that the official definition of Social Justice (how official can you get… this definition is written by a Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW) with a Masters in Social Welfare and is posted on the official website of Social Justice Solutions) violates my pet peeve. Twice. I guess social justice is not for me.

    Can’t wait to read the 6 part series: ” What Is Social Justice” (without a question mark)

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