At the contemporary American university, fairness is the highest virtue. We take for granted that the end-goal of our actions is, in some vague sense, “justice,” defined as unmitigated fairness. Whenever someone feels uncomfortable, or whenever someone feels excluded, many in the student body decry Yale’s treatment of “marginalized” communities. The solution is easy, and it has been the University’s priority since I have been here: Give people what they want, and make sure everyone feels like he or she belongs.
This political discourse undertakes, in many ways, Socrates’ task in Plato’s Republic, written two-and-a-half millennia ago. In aiming to build the perfectly just society, called Kallipolis, Socrates proposes a set of remarkably progressive policies, such as gender equality and collective ownership. He meticulously details economic and governmental structures that will lead to an egalitarian society. At first, Kallipolis seems like a harmonious, desirable state — preferable, in some ways, to the one in which we live.
As the political dialogue unfolds, however, this perfectly just society grows increasingly dystopian. Socrates advocates for, among other things, the dissolution of the nuclear family, the abolition of the institution of marriage and censorship of art that does not inculcate good values.
Most contemporary readers would flatly reject Kallipolis as the model nation-state. Socrates’ ideal polity destroys basic human emotions and impulses. Ultimately, Plato tells us, we must stamp out our deepest interpersonal connections and creative passions if we want to ensure complete societal harmony.
To this day, scholars disagree about whether we should take the Republic as an earnest attempt to delineate justice or as an ironic display of the limits of fairness. It is not difficult to take the latter view. Drew Hyland, one of the many academics to examine the role of irony in the Republic, highlights how the form of Plato’s dialogue demonstrates its ironic intent. If he truly believed in censorship as a means of eradicating “imitative” works of art, it would be contrary to his own concept of justice to write a distinctly imitative, dramatic dialogue such as the Republic.
The dialogue demonstrates, therefore, the danger of making justice the cardinal value of society. When taken to its logical extreme, fairness becomes oppressive.
Take the push against microaggressions, for example. Columbia University psychology professor Derald Wing Sue defines microaggressions as, “the everyday verbal, nonverbal and environmental slights, snubs or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership.”
In a just society, the thinking goes, our differences should never make us feel uncomfortable. Thus, when a professor at UCLA edited poor grammar in a group of graduate students’ dissertation proposals, they charged that his corrections amounted to an imposition of his white, cisgender patriarchal culture on them. In staged protests, they called for professors to stop creating hostile environments by imposing their pedagogical methods on marginalized students.
One wonders why they enrolled at the university in the first place.
In aiming to assure that everyone is treated fairly, those fighting microaggressions contribute to a discourse in which people fear expressing their ideas. I routinely hear students chastised simply for referring to others as “black” or “gay.” In the perfectly just society, pointing out a personal characteristic amounts to an act of aggression.
The same logic applies to the exclusion of comedians that offend certain students. Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld and Anthony Jeselnik, among many others, no longer perform at colleges due to the negative reactions they have received from easily offended students. The best comedy tends to be transgressive and offensive. But, under the conception of justice advanced by so many at this University, the raw, visceral enjoyment of comedy must be curtailed, because a joke might be unfair to certain people.
Justice is certainly a laudable aim for society. However, what current campus debates forget is that it is one competing value among many. If we want a thriving discourse, an expressive student body, and — most of all — a genuine human life, we have to accept some injustice. When students decry the Western tradition for not including “minority perspectives,” when we try to protect ourselves against “triggers” and when we police people’s everyday language, we create a society of socially just robots.
Perhaps those clamoring for reform would benefit from reading Plato.
Daniel Tenreiro-Braschi is a freshman in Ezra Stiles College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .