Arguably, to constructively engage in an argument, one must assume that the people we are arguing with possess some level of reasonableness. Those with the better argument, the better reasons, sway the crowd, consensus is reached, and we solve some seemingly intractable problem like climate change. Without this baseline expectation of mutual regard, deliberative democracy wobbles on its axis, and I don’t have to tell you that there is an awful lot of wobbling going on right now. When a school principal is forced to resign because the kids got a glimpse of the stone genitals hanging off Michelangelo’s David, reason is quickly packing its bag for a holiday on the far side of the universe.
Political progressives like to think they have the advantage of reason over their right-wing counterparts, who often don’t seem to know what the hell they are talking about. Ask someone on the radical right to define wokeness or critical race theory or white privilege, or democracy for that matter, and all you are likely to get is a steaming pile of verbal mush dumped on social justice issues one would have thought long settled. It’s as though they think that line in the Pledge of Allegiance about “liberty and justice for all” was written by a socialist. (Well, in fact it was written by a socialist.) But progressives, too, can be mealy-mouthed when it comes to articulating the concepts held dear to their cause; they are no less prone to fumbling the reasons that make their cause the right cause for everyone and the only cause for democracy.
Which brings me to “Arguing for a Better World: How Philosophy Can Help Us Fight for Social Justice,” by British ethicist and philosopher Arianne Shahvisi. Shahvisi’s book serves as a primer for those searching for the better arguments when it comes to countering right-wing moral panic and rabid anti-“wokeness.” Pulling no punches (“I am vehemently opposed to capitalism,” she writes), Shahvisi systematically unpacks in concrete and accessible language just about all the social justice concepts currently under attack by the radical right. Oppression, she helps us understand, is a “collective harm” that causes “long-term, widespread, predictable suffering, which, crucially, is preventable.” Privilege is “advantage experienced by a set of people because of some feature of their identity that they have in common.” Not sure how to respond to the cis, able-bodied, upper-middle-class white man spouting off about “reverse racism” and the endangered male as he insists that “all lives matter”? Then look to Shahvisi, who knocks down with the skill of a prizefighter the arguments against critical race theory, Black Lives Matter and the #MeToo movement. She also deftly deconstructs right-wing rhetorical assaults on so-called cancel culture and political correctness. Shahvisi even takes on mansplaining. And what about calling obnoxious white women who play the race card “Karen”? Isn’t such name-calling itself oppressive? “To call someone a ‘Karen’ is to point out her racism,” notes Shahvisi, and does not involve “any capacity to cause real harm; ‘reverse-oppression’ is not oppression.”
Early in the book, Shahvisi frames her arguments in terms of the “philosophy of social justice.” This shouldn’t be understood to mean the classical philosophy we associate with dusty togas. Rather, I took her invocation to mean that taking the time to fully understand the concepts and practices we associate with social justice—to commit to praxis—is to embrace wisdom, a word that springs from the Proto-Indo-European root meaning “to see.” To see, one must, of course, be awake. And what about the “us” in her title? Shahvisi writes that her book “should be seen as a spur for discussion.” But a discussion among whom? The “us” who pick up her book will likely be predisposed to buy into her arguments and adopt her reasoning. That’s a pity, as those people most in need of hearing the arguments Shahvisi so expertly constructs aren’t inclined to listen. Oh, well. When reason fails, the “us” can always mount the barricades.
“Arguing for a Better World: How Philosophy Can Help Us Fight for Social Justice”
By Arianne Shahvisi
Penguin Books, 304 pages