Epictitus Shows us How to Stand Up to Hate Speech Without Compromising our Resilience to Insults

IMAGE DESCRIPTION: Two mouths - one slightly-above to the right, and one slightly-below to the left. From the mouth on the left come a few straight lines representing honest speech. From the mouth on the right come a few crooked lines representing deceptive speech. Behind the honest mouth (the one on the left) burns the flame which represents the Logos. This image is for articles in this blog (virtualstoa.org) which deal with cases in which the true words of the philosopher meet with untrue words of baser society.
While the Stoic advice to embrace insults may seem at times to put us in conflict with our obligation to stand up to societal injustice, Epictetus gives us a great way to resolve this dilemma.
One thing is abundantly clear from the ancient Stoic texts. The writers did not believe that the wise response to someone speaking badly of you was to defend yourself. In modern culture, people tend to think that the most admirable way to respond to an insult is with a good “comeback” – that is, to respond to someone who insults you with an even harsher insult – preferably with a witty punch below the belt. The ancient Stoics, however, would advise against this – as they would see this behavior as the immature pettiness that it is.

How did the ancient Stoics advise responding to insults? If possible, by letting it blow over and saying nothing. In cases when that is not feasible, they would suggest responding with an even worse insult – only unlike with the “comeback”, that even worse insult would not be directed against the person who had insult you, but rather, against yourself. This is a powerful way of responding – which shows not only to the one who insulted you, but even more importantly, to yourself, that you are not afraid of being insulted.

However – as powerful a way of addressing insults as this is, there are situations in which this strategy can be potentially problematic. When an insult is truly and at every level directed only against you, responding by insulting yourself even worse is not problematic at all. But what if an insult that is ostensibly addressed specifically at you is one that is in actually an attack on an entire marginalized community of which you are but one member?

For example – let’s assume that I, as a trans-woman, am told that I’m mentally deranged for seeing myself as a woman when the doctors at the time of my birth thought I was a boy. Or what if I am simply called a freak for being trans? When such things happen, it is not just I that is being defamed. These disparaging statements are against all trans-women everywhere – and I am merely the proxy of the insult. I can not treat it as an insult that is personally mine.

Of course – even if someone other than myself is insulted, even physically attacked, I must accept that certain things are outside of my control. I certainly can’t correct the whole world and make transphobic people disappear, never to voice their transphobia again. That’s just wasteful fantasy.

That said, I can not allow myself to be complicit in the defamation of trans-women. Complicit is exactly what I will be if there is a response that I can make which I can reasonably expect to make plain what’s wrong with the disparaging statement – and I choose not to for the sake of embracing some notion of Stoic insult-pacifism. Furthermore, if I respond with an even worse insult to myself in that situation – I might not even be merely complicit in the defamation of trans-women everywhere, but actively a participant in that aggression.

Yet still – I have to show at least to myself that insults can’t scathe me. What’s a Stoic to do in this corner? I’m pretty sure Marcus Aurelius never had to deal with a quandary of this nature.

People who just don’t understand the dynamics of certain patterns of defamatory speech will often, in turn, not understand this dilemma. William Irvine, for example, thinks that we have [sic] “defined down what counted as an insult” and that we have [sic] “become hypersensitive to insults, meaning that just about anything could count as one”. It is, therefore, no surprise that he advocates that these defamations be met, both internally and externally, with the same exercise of resilience as with any kind of insult.

However, while some instances of this “defining down” may indeed be exactly as Irvine characterizes it – a lot of it is merely an effort to accord to marginalized groups dignities that people of privilege have always taken for granted. If you take speech patterns that truly can come even close to having the comparable effect on the lives of people of privilege as these speech patterns have on the lives of marginalized groups, you will find that those speech patterns tend to be things that have long-since been uncontroversially seen as exceeding the limits of free speech. I am certain that Irvine means well – but his solution fails to take such key factors into account. Therefore, he has clearly failed to resolve this quandary.

And amidst the failures to resolve this apparent conflict, I can just imagine Stoicism’s foremost modern detractors coming at me, smiling with glee, hailing this as proof that Stoicism is [sic] “an evasion that aims to keep both master and slave in their places”.

But hold your horses there! It may appear that there is a serious issue here – but in actuality, there is a perfect solution right out of the pages of the Enchiridion. You see – the notion that I am at an impasse hinges on the premise that a Stoic’s outward and inward reaction to a situation must be the same. But is that what Stoicism teaches? Let’s check what Epictetus has to say on that matter.

When you see any one weeping for grief, either that his son has gone abroad, or that he has suffered in his affairs, take care not to be overcome by the apparent evil; but discriminate, and be ready to say, “What hurts this man is not this occurrence itself, — for another man might not be hurt by it, — but the view he chooses to take of it.” As far as conversation goes, however, do not disdain to accommodate yourself to him, and if need be, to groan with him. Take heed, however, not to groan inwardly too.
Enchiridion of Epictetus – Part 16 – Higginson translation

So clearly – there are indeed times when the outward reaction that Stoicism advises us to do is different from the inward reaction. Specifically, it is in situations in which insisting that we keep the two consistent would cause a dilemma that otherwise wouldn’t exist. In the example given by Epictetus, insisting that the two be kept consistent would put the philosopher in a position in which practicing inward magnanimity would conflict with the obligation to provide signs of commiseration that might help a friend cope with an external loss. However, the same principle applies when keeping outward and inward reactions consistent with each other might create a conflict between my practice of resilience to insults on one hand and my obligation to do my part to redress societal injustice in the other.

Does this mean that as long as inwardly we practice Stoic resilience to insult, and even to outright defamation – there is nothing potentially problematic with outwardly honing and practicing baser society’s Art of the “Comeback”? Not at all! It just means that we are not obligated to automatically have to practice outwardly the resilience to insult just because we need to practice it inwardly. Instead, we are free to objectively analyze the situation in the same way that Stoic magnanimity frees us to do in any other kind of situation – and to do whatever outward action logic dictates is best to do in the current situation.

I can’t think of any situation in which a “comeback” is warranted – but there can be situations in which the appropriate thing to do may involve a slightly more civilized manner of calling out the inappropriate behavior – or any of a number of other options that don’t involve any outward embrace of the defamatory remark.

And there may indeed be situations in which refusing to respond to the insult, or even trying to insult yourself worse, might actually be the most likely-effective way to counter hate speech. But we don’t have to automatically assume that just because it best mirrors how we should internally process it.

Really, the point is that if the situation is one that happens to impose a Cosmopolitan obligation to outwardly address rather than embrace an insult – that does not put you in conflict with any inward resilience practice that Stoicism teaches us all to do.

Leave a Reply