Stoicism, Insults, and Political Correctness
What Stoic Philosophy Would Say About Offensive Behaviour
Recently I’ve been thinking more about insults and what Stoicism might tell us about how to view them. That’s been prompted by some articles by William Irvine and Eric O. Scott about insults, social justice, and political correctness, following Irvine’s recent publication of the book A Slap in the Face: Why Insults Hurt and Why They Shouldn’t. Their discussion does a good job of applying Stoic philosophy to a specific dilemma that’s topical at the moment. There’s been a lot of reference in the media recently to “microaggression”, “safe spaces”, and “trigger warnings”, particularly on US college campuses.
I’m not attempting in this post to provide a comprehensive overview of these issues. I mainly want to contribute a few observations from my perspective as a cognitive-behavioural therapist and to point out some relevant passages in the ancient Stoic literature that I feel may have been overlooked.
Let’s start with microaggressions. I was a psychotherapist for many years, so this dilemma is pretty familiar to me because it frequently comes up in therapy sessions, particularly in the context of treating social anxiety and providing what therapists call social-skills training. Psychological literature on dealing with insults, or put-downs, goes back, in particular, to the 1970s, the heyday of what used to be called “assertiveness training”. So I feel that when considering some of these issues it’s helpful to bring in elements of that perspective, as well as some of the insights Stoic philosophy has to offer. Psychotherapy, of course, speaks mainly to the psychological issues at stake in these debates, but it also has something to say about the ethical and political dimension because those are dilemmas that any therapist working in this area, over the last forty or fifty years, will have had to wrestle with in discussions with their clients, as well as in clinical supervision.
William Irvine’s article cites a recent article, which quotes, Sheree Marlowe, the chief diversity officer at Clark University, giving the following advice to incoming students in her presentation on microaggressions:
Don’t ask an Asian student you don’t know for help on your math homework or randomly ask a black student if he plays basketball. Both questions make assumptions based on stereotypes. And don’t say “you guys.” It could be interpreted as leaving out women, said Ms. Marlowe, who realized it was offensive only when someone confronted her for saying it during a presentation.
Irvine claims that much of this advice is further sensitizing students to insults, whereas the ancient Stoics would have recommended that they be desensitized to them, i.e., that they learn to “shrug off insults”.
The Stoics, after devoting considerable thought to how best to respond to insults, concluded that we would do well to become insult pacifists. When insulted, we should not insult back in return; we should instead carry on as if nothing had happened. It is, I have found, a very effective way to deal with many insults. On failing to provoke a rise in his target, an insulter is likely to feel foolish.
In relation to some of the most serious kinds of insults, “hate speech”, Irvine’s advice is as follows:
What about hate speech, though? Should we remain silent in the face of a racist insult? It depends on the situation. But the one thing we should not do is take the insult personally. We should instead dismiss hate speech, in much the same way as we should dismiss the barking of an angry dog. We should keep in mind that the dog, not being fully rational, cannot help itself. The Stoics would add that if we let ourselves get angered or upset by a barking dog, we have only ourselves to blame.
Eric O. Scott’s response to William Irvine’s book, and his presentation on this subject at Stoicon, raises the concern that Stoicism might be misinterpreted by some as advocating an overly-passive attitude toward social injustices, because of the the emphasis it places on acceptance. He writes:
If people find modern Stoicism’s advice for victims of injustice off-putting, it may have more to do with the choices we make about how to go about presenting that advice than with what the ancients have said. Being resilient to insults and being an active agent for Justice are not inimical objectives, and while I accept Irvine’s call to the former, I would caution him that he has gone too far in his neglect of the latter.
Many people today appear to read the Stoics as advising that we should be in some sense indifferent to the suffering of others. I think Scott does a good job of forcefully arguing against this, putting forward the case that Stoicism has always emphasized the virtue of justice, and an ethical concern for the common welfare of mankind. Irvine then replied to this article, as follows:
But besides being concerned with their own well being, Stoics felt a social duty to make their world a better place. This could be done, they knew, by introducing other people to Stoicism, but it could also involve helping extract non-Stoics from the trouble they got themselves into as a result of their misguided views regarding what in life is valuable. Marcus Aurelius is a prime example of a Stoic who took his social duty very seriously, but despite being the emperor, he failed to bring about a just society. The Rome that he ruled still allowed or even encouraged slavery and acts of human cruelty.
As an aside, we do know that Marcus passed several laws that improved the situation for slaves under his rule. I’ll discuss the notion that he and other Stoics are to blame for failing to openly oppose the institution of slavery in a separate section below. In any case, Irvine agrees with Scott here that Stoics do have a social duty to help others, which must be reconciled with their emotional acceptance of external events.
What the Stoics Really Said
Stoicism differs from its predecessor, Cynicism, which encouraged plain speaking (parrhesia) in a manner that was more indifferent toward the feelings of others. The Stoics also advocated plain speaking, but in a more moderate form that took account of the vulnerabilities and needs of others. I believe there’s a crucial, and actually fairly well-known passage, that may help clarify the psychological aspect of the Stoic position. In the Encheiridion, Epictetus is quoted as teaching his students:
When you see a man shedding tears in sorrow for a child abroad or dead, or for loss of property, beware that you are not carried away by the impression that it is outward ills that make him miserable. Keep this thought by you: ‘What distresses him is not the event, for that does not distress another, but his judgement on the event.’ Therefore do not hesitate to sympathize with him so far as words go, and if it so chance, even to groan with him; but take heed that you do not also groan in your inner being. (Handbook, 17)
Does Epictetus advise his students to ignore the man in distress? Does he suggest that they should simply challenge him for being overly-sensitive or tell him to “suck it up, buttercup”? No. Does he suggest delivering a lecture on Stoic Ethics to the person in distress? No. What Epictetus actually advised his students was that they should express outward sympathy, without hesitation. And to groan along with him, in certain situations, showing commiseration. His only caveat is that we should not ourselves become upset at the same external things: groan along outwardly, by all means, but not inwardly.
Why does Epictetus say this? Well, first of all, it’s clearly an important passage. Arrian selected it for the Handbook, which is a highly condensed summary of Epictetus’ Stoic teachings. So it’s not a throwaway remark. It’s presumably a central component of his teaching, and something it was considered important for all of his students to remember in daily life, hence its inclusion in the Encheiridion. Epictetus must have encountered similar misinterpretations of Stoicism to the ones we hear today: that it encourages us to be callous toward the suffering of others. That’s not consistent with Stoic Ethics, though. We have a duty to care for other rational beings, and to wish them well, Fate permitting.
We should desire to alleviate the suffering of others, where possible, although doing so is outside of our direct control and must therefore be pursued “lightly” as Epictetus put it. That doesn’t mean abandoning the goal of helping other people altogether, though. It means balancing the desire to help others overcome their suffering with acceptance of the fact that they have minds of their own. You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. We can and should try to help others, nevertheless.
Sometimes people rightly detect that the Stoics think the best thing we can do for others is to educate them if we believe they’re mistaken, which would include with regard to the things that upset them. Sure. But what people often miss is that the Stoics also recognize that when someone is in the grip of a passion they’re not thinking straight so it’s not the best time to reason with them. Seneca says that if you tell someone who is in the throes of anger to calm down, it will just make them worse. That tends to apply to anxiety and other emotions as well. The Stoics knew that over 2,000 years ago. Cognitive therapists arrived at the same conclusion, based on their experience. People find it difficult to think objectively when they’re upset so there’s no point trying to lecture them. We should treat them with kindness and empathy, wait for their passions to naturally abate, and then perhaps talk to them about things if the opportunity arises, but in a sensitive manner rather than in a hectoring or condescending way.
I think it’s extremely helpful to dwell on the passage above for a moment and consider how it would apply to some of the modern examples being discussed. One of the typical examples of a microaggression given on university campuses is asking foreign students “Where are you from?” It’s considered to be potentially offensive to pose this question. I’m Scottish but I live in Nova Scotia, in Canada. About once a month, I reckon, someone asks me what part of Ireland I’m from — it’s mainly taxi drivers. (I’m totally serious.) Is that a microaggression? I don’t know. It would probably offend some people. It just makes me laugh. I think my Canadian girlfriend gets more annoyed about it than I do. Several British people in Canada have told me that they actually felt quite offended by similar remarks, though.
What advice should a Stoic give to people genuinely offended by these sort of comments? Should we say: “It’s not events that upset us, but our judgement about events.” Should I tell them to cultivate indifference toward external things? No. That would obviously be flippant and insensitive. It wouldn’t normally be very helpful. Why? Precisely because their passions, being external to my volition, are not under my direct control. In other words, merely telling them “what not to think” is unlikely to transform them into Stoic Sages. That’s something that seems trivial when it’s said to me but at which other people do sometimes take offence.
Here’s a more sensitive example… The bars in North America often sell a cocktail called an “Irish car bomb”. The first time I noticed that my jaw hit the floor because it seemed to be making light of atrocities such as the 1998 Omagh bombing, which killed 29 civilians, including several young children and a pregnant woman. It’s a pretty common drink, though. Would a typical Canadian bar serve a cocktail called an “Iraqi car bomb” or one (hypothetically) called an “Ottawa shooter”? Probably not. So that’s technically a double-standard and morally hypocritical, right? Although, notice that some of these are empirical questions… For all I know there are bars in Ontario that do a roaring trade in Ottawa shooters.
What if someone’s maiden aunt lost a close friend in the Omagh bombing and then walked into a bar in Canada to be greeted by a massive blackboard on the wall saying “Irish car bombs half-price on St. Paddy’s Day”? Is it offensive? Yes. Is it worth being upset about. No. Should we be surprised if some people are upset by it? No. Should we tell them to “get over themselves” and not take things so personally. No. What would Epictetus and the other Stoics actually advise us to do? Well, as we’ve just seen, according to Arrian, they’d say that if someone is genuinely upset we should express outward sympathy, and act sensitively. They’d say that we should be more concerned, though, about remaining inwardly detached ourselves and not joining in their distress — not allowing ourselves to be triggered. We should also behave sympathetically, though.
Stoicism is Actually a More Nuanced Philosophy
You see, what Stoicism has to say about this is actually very insightful, complex, and interesting… because it asks us to strike a careful balance. Often people in these debates about political correctness, and so on, go to one extreme or the other. They focus either on the notion that people are emotionally overreacting to things that others see as trivial (“liberal snowflakes”). Or they focus on the fact that people are being insensitive to the inevitable distress caused by certain triggers (“right-wing bigots”). I like to say that Stoicism is all about striking a delicate balance between “acceptance and action” or between emotional indifference and ethical concern. That’s the whole point of the philosophy really.
We all know the Stoic Sage is unperturbed by Irish car bomb cocktails and “sticks and stones may break his bones but words will never hurt him.” Sure but the Sage is a hypothetical ideal: the individual equivalent of a Utopian society. Or at least, he’s as “rare as the Ethiopian phoenix” as the Stoics put it — and that was born every 500 years, according to legend. Most of us — including Zeno, Chrysippus, and Epictetus — are classed as fools by the Stoics. Everyone is flawed. We’re all FINE — fucked up, insecure, neurotic, and emotional. It’s unrealistic, un-Stoic, and unphilosophical, to act surprised when other people are upset by external events, as Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius repeatedly point out. It would also be morally vicious to completely disregard their distress.
What do therapists who work with clients on a daily basis, dealing with these issues, actually do? Well, they have the whole “armamentarium” of psychological techniques at their disposal. For example, clients may learn to employ cognitive distancing strategies to moderate the distress caused by certain insults. Alternatively, they may employ “fogging”, from assertiveness training, the subtle art of agreeing with someone without really agreeing with them. Or they might employ repeated imaginal exposure to the upsetting event until their anxiety has naturally abated.
But should the therapist be shocked if their client is initially offended by insults? Or should they join with the client in their judgement that the events are “awful”, or offensive enough to be upsetting? Well, modern cognitive therapists face this dilemma every day. They all know that they have to walk a thin line between empathy and agreement. It’s understandable that the client is upset by insults but it’s also true that they don’t really need to feel deeply hurt by words — they could learn to view them in a more detached way.
What about trigger warnings? Massimo Pigliucci has written an excellent article on “trigger warnings” in academia. These are warnings given to students in advance that a lecture may contain material that could be upsetting, especially to sufferers of PTSD. Now, the concern you’ll hear most therapists express about this issue is that the main treatment for anxiety, including PTSD, is repeated exposure to the feared event, and that avoidance is symptomatic and a maintaining factor in anxiety disorders. So the very idea of giving trigger warnings seems to fly completely in the face of what psychological research tells us about best practice in the treatment of PTSD.
If I am “triggered” by conversations about sex then avoiding those conversations is probably not going to help me in the long-term, it will potentially backfire by maintaining or even increasing my sensitivity. That said, exposure in therapy is usually following a graduated hierarchy, prolonged sufficiently for habituation to occur, and carried out in a safe environment under controlled conditions. It may be unhelpful for people to be caught off guard by experiences that trigger their anxiety. However, if we simply eliminated these exposure experiences, by never mentioning sex or whatever triggers are a concern, that would definitely reduce the chances of natural habituation taking place, and the anxiety or distress abating naturally — the vulnerable students would potentially get worse rather than better in the long-run.
For example, in an article entitled “HAZARDS AHEAD: The Problem with Trigger Warnings, According to the Research”, Richard J. McNally, a Professor of Psychology at Harvard, writes:
Trigger warnings are designed to help survivors avoid reminders of their trauma, thereby preventing emotional discomfort. Yet avoidance reinforces PTSD. Conversely, systematic exposure to triggers and the memories they provoke is the most effective means of overcoming the disorder.
Also, warning a group of students about quite specific triggers carries the risk of unintentional disclosure by alerting some students to the fact that others have a specific form of anxiety. The lecturer says, “Oh, by the way, we’re going to be talking about alien abductions today, in case anyone’s concerned by that…” Student x gets up and leaves the room, looking flustered. So everyone else in the class now basically knows that student x has anxiety that’s triggered by discussions of alien abductions. The cat is out of the bag. So that can now be spread around as gossip, etc. (The lecturer could warn students beforehand by email, etc., but the mere absence of particular students would still potentially lead to unintentional disclosure in this way.)
So are philosophers clouding the issue by speaking outside their sphere of competence and trespassing on the professional domain of psychologists? One of the things I notice about these debates is that they often turn on questions that are empirical rather than purely ethical. For example, whether or not we warn students in advance about a possible trigger word is probably going to depend on our appraisal of the probability and severity of the distress caused. That’s not really an ethical question, though. I noticed when reading the arguments around this topic that one side would often focus on examples of obvious overreactions to seemingly trivial triggers — such as someone seemingly choosing to take offence at a particular word — whereas the other side would focus on more serious, pathological, and even dangerous psychological conditions — such as someone with severe PTSD, perhaps a rape victim or war veteran, being re-traumatized.
If I was talking to vulnerable group of female refugees from a war-torn country where sexual abuse is common, I might think that it’s tactless to bring up the subject of rape without some kind of preliminary remark. Most of us would probably agree on that, probably even Epictetus. At the other end of the scale, some people have clown or belly-button phobias but they’re not so common that you’d expect to find one in every lecture room, and they’re not usually severe enough that they induce full-blown panic attacks at the mere mention of the word. (Although there’s always the exception that proves the rule.)
So if the majority of us, even the Stoics, agree that sometimes it makes sense to warn people in advance then the disagreement seems mainly to be over where to draw the line. Again, that seems to be an empirical question for psychology, not a purely philosophical question. We might want to consider what the actual prevalence of sexual trauma or other potential issues is among the population we’re addressing, for example. We should also distinguish between different forms of anxiety. Phobic anxiety can be severe but isn’t usually overwhelming or traumatizing unless it’s accompanied by what psychologists technically refer to as “panic attacks”, a term that has a very specific meaning in psychopathology. PTSD, by contrast, is often more severe and frequently accompanied by panic attacks, in which anxiety feels completely overwhelming. That can lead to a phenomenon called re-traumatization, in which anxiety being triggered can cause a relapse into PTSD symptoms, especially if experienced in a public setting, such as a lecture theatre. Once again, though, these are empirical questions about psychopathology.
We all agree (or most of us do) that we shouldn’t knowingly harm other people, which is the ethical component. The disagreements often turn on where the line should be drawn dividing acceptable from unacceptable levels of risk. Perhaps that’s really a question for psychologists, though, which would help explain why philosophers have struggled to agree on an answer, especially if they’re just engaged in armchair speculation without reference to scientific data. Perhaps they’re simply not the best people to answer the question.
Some Comments on Stoicism and Slavery
Perhaps this is a little bit of a digression but I think it may be of interest… In his article, Scott writes:
Moreover, there are well-founded reasons for being concerned that the ancients themselves failed to emphasize Justice as much as they should have. “About the institution of slavery,” say the authors of the introduction to the Chicago University Press’s series of Seneca translations, “there is silence, and worse than silence: Seneca argues that true freedom is internal freedom, so the external sort does not really matter.”
I agree with the fundamental point he is making here. However, I feel that the quote about Seneca is misleading, if it implies that Stoicism in general didn’t question the institution of slavery.
For a while, I did assume that the Stoics said virtually nothing about the institution slavery. In many ways, it would be unrealistic to have expected them to condemn it very forcefully or openly. It may even be that they simply thought it would be unrealistic to try to oppose it. Marcus Aurelius’ armies, for example, probably captured hundreds of thousands of barbarians during the major wars of his reign. Should they have been executed? Released to regroup and attack again? In fact, Marcus tried to resettle many inside the empire, in Italy, although I think some then engaged in an uprising. So apart from the fact that the Roman economy was entirely dependant on slavery, in the ancient world abolition perhaps posed other problems, such as what else could be done with hundreds of thousands of hostile foreign captives. That’s not a “justification” of slavery, just an attempt to explain why the Stoics may not have been in a position to speak out effectively against the entire institution.
However, I feel it’s only fair to say that, contrary to the book cited above, Seneca did go a little further than mere silence on the matter. In fact, he dedicated the whole of letter 47 to the topic of a master’s relationship with his slaves. There he argues that a master has a duty to treat his slaves with respect and affection, as fellow human beings, and friends. Although he certainly doesn’t question the institution of slavery as a whole, Seneca does forcefully argue that slaves should be treated with equal respect to free men: “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.” He condemns those who abuse their slaves or see them as inferiors. The kernel of his advice, as he puts it, is this: “Treat your inferiors as you would be treated by your betters.”
Nevertheless, Seneca does not go so far as to say that people should cease to own other people, as their slaves. I used to think that’s as far as the Stoic critique of slavery went but then I noticed the following passage in Diogenes Laertius’ overview of early Stoic philosophy, part of his chapter on Zeno of Citium:
They [the Stoics] declare that he [the Sage] alone is free and bad men are slaves, freedom being power of independent action, whereas slavery is privation of the same; though indeed there is also a second form of slavery consisting in subordination, and a third which implies possession of the slave as well as his subordination; the correlative of such servitude being slave-ownership; and this too is evil.
According to Diogenes Laertius, therefore, it appears that the early Stoics did indeed condemn the institution of slavery as evil.
I suspect he is probably referring either to Zeno’s Republic or to one of the many writings of Chrysippus. It’s not surprising that the Stoics may have said this, of course, because as many people today note their concept of brotherly-love for the rest of mankind on the basis of us all being citizens of the same cosmos, appears very much at odds with the notion of slave-ownership. Moreover, Zeno’s Republic, perhaps the founding text of Stoicism, apparently portrayed a Utopian vision of the ideal Stoic society, in which all men and women were wise and equal. It’s therefore difficult to imagine how the institution of slavery could possibly be part of the ideal Stoic society- a sage would have to own another sage but, in any case, we’re told all property is to be held in common. So slavery must surely have also been abolished, along with law-courts, property, currency, etc., in Zeno’s Republic.