social justice warriors
© Yana Paskova/Bloomberg News
Demonstrators at the March for Racial Justice in New York, Oct. 1, 2017.
It would be charming for advocates of social-justice ideology to say, "We need to have a conversation," were they not almost uniformly such dreadful conversationalists. If they'll converse with you at all, you might hear that any disagreement with them is a sign of your inherent weakness ("white fragility," Robin DiAngelo), of your intentional refusal to engage honestly ("pernicious ignorance," Kristie Dotson), or of your unreasonable expectation that someone do your homework for you ("epistemic exploitation," Nora Berenstain). You might find yourself accused of complicity in white supremacy (Barbara Applebaum) or misogyny (Kate Manne), both understood in an obscure "systemic" sense, though of course the words retain the damning connotations rightly associated with their literal meanings.

In short, social-justice ideologues have a stock of concepts to protect themselves from listening to inconvenient facts or reasonable criticisms. This can make conversations with them impossible. They don't want to talk with you; they want to talk at you. You're supposed to shut up, listen and believe, because, according to their underlying theory, any story that isn't consistent with their approved discourse has "already been told" and "upholds unjust power dynamics." Chances are, you'll be insulted and accused of moral failures — participation in systems of oppression, racism or sexism — and the conversation will go nowhere.

What can you do? Listen and learn. Ask questions to try to understand exactly what these quasi-religious ideologues are saying. Then, rather than disagreeing with them, arguing with them, or trying to get them to change their minds, do something truly radical. Believe them.

We don't mean you should assent to the content of what they're saying. Rather you should believe the intention behind what they're saying. When they tell you they believe capitalism is a system that needs to be overthrown, credit their belief. When they tell you they believe liberalism is designed to support and maintain white supremacy, accept the sincerity of that dogma.

When they tell you that science is merely one way of knowing among many, and that it's used to uphold dominance and oppression, believe them — not the content of their doctrine but the earnest feeling behind it. When they tell you our systems and institutions should be radically reorganized in the service of social justice, regard that conviction as authentic. When they tell you that everyone is a racist — including themselves — believe they mean it.

In these cases, they're telling you what they really think, and yet our overwhelming experience has been that, when confronted with raw social-justice ideology, almost no one takes it seriously. Almost no one takes the ideology at face value and accepts the sincerity behind its expression. Almost no one believes that social-justice ideologues really believe what they repeatedly claim to believe.

Most people hear more pleasant versions of the ideology, discounting whatever sounds extreme or bizarre. They think it's about "creating more fairness," "treating people with respect," or "being a good person" who wants to be "on the right side of history." That's certainly how the ideologues see it, yet there's more to the story.

When they tell you they're racist, they probably are. When they tell you they want to reorder society in line with their beliefs, and to make sure others comply, they probably do. Listen to them. You are under no obligation to believe that what they say is applicable to you or true in general, but only after you understand what they really mean can you appreciate that what they believe isn't anything like the sugarcoating they also put on it — or that goodwilled people put on it for them.

What most people don't realize about conversations like these is that it's always possible to default to a position of listening and learning. Adopt a position of genuine curiosity; seek to explore what others believe and how they came to believe it. This gives you an opportunity to understand another perspective, even when your interlocutor has no interest in hearing yours.

Then, you'll be better positioned to report on it, discuss it with others and attack it at its roots. Think of these conversations as an opportunity to distill a vaccine from these beliefs, one that you can then administer to others. All it takes is to recognize the other person's sincerity, ask questions, and trade "argue and persuade" for "listen and learn." You can reason afterward.


Mr. Boghossian is an assistant professor of philosophy at Portland State University. Mr. Lindsay is a writer and researcher. They are the co-authors of "How to Have Impossible Conversations."