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The beauty of an unintelligible world

in Columns/Opinions/Swat Global by

I’ll never forget my first experience abroad, which was this semester. Exiting the plane for the first time, as I stepped into Hanoi, Vietnam, it was as if I had been transported to a whole new universe. Looking around me, I was mesmerized by all the signs in Vietnamese. Continuing on to a restaurant for dinner after the flight, I couldn’t help but notice that, for the first time, English was not the dominant language flooding my ears. Instead, I was in a crowded buffet room with people yelling syllables to me that resembled an old voice-over cartoon. The letters of the signs surrounding me were strung together in indecipherable units, although they were supposed to be words. Clearly, these units did not add any clarity to the situation.

As my time in Vietnam continued, it became clear that communicating with others was not going to hold the same meaning as it did in the United States. The first few days, when I needed to know where to get off the bus, I had to rapidly point at an address I had written and hope that someone would know my destination and nod at me when to get off. During lunch, I could only yell “an chay” (vegetarian) at the street vendor, and wait for my food to arrive with no idea what dish would be placed in front of me.

At first, I was terrified in Vietnam. Since I didn’t know the language, I felt like disaster could happen so easily. All I had to do was take the bus stop one street too far and find myself completely lost. All I had to do was misunderstand a social cue and I would find myself offending someone. If disaster occurred, I would have no idea how to remedy the situation since I had always relied on my voice.

 

But as time continued, I learned to navigate the city and realized just how powerful social connections and interactions could become, even without a common language. There’s something beautiful about living in a place where words suddenly begin to fail and observation becomes the greatest tool for understanding one’s surroundings. It’s as if the pressure of continuously asking questions or searching for a social connection through voice suddenly ceases. Instead of talking and diverting attention away from the physical environment, one is forced to simply observe and take in all that is happening around them.

There is so much beauty that can be missed if one is not paying full attention. For example, watching people on the bus every day, I realized that it is custom for younger people to stand up and give their seats away to elders. Not only did I find this such a beautifully nuanced and important part of the culture, but I also found myself able to replicate this norm on the bus because I had watched others do the same. Through observation in Vietnam, I counterintuitively started to feel more like I belonged. I learned to walk on the side of the road since the sidewalk is needed for motorbike parking and to use chopsticks with my right hand even though I am left-handed, because in Vietnam, using the left hand is just strange.

But beyond creating a new way of belonging, the loss of common language created whole new types of relationships for me, which I had never before had the honor of experiencing. For example, I lived with my host family who could speak limited English. We could not speak deeply about family history, values, or beliefs. Yet my best memories in Vietnam are those with my host mom and sister. I looked forward to meals together every night as  my host mom would prepare an “an chay” dish she’d be excited for us to try, and we’d all enjoy each other’s company at the table, laughing over facial expressions or bonding over how much we truly appreciated the food.

Looking back, it is impossible to capture how strong of a relationship I formed with my host family and how much I learned from Vietnam because of—rather than in spite of— not knowing the language. It is as if a whole new perspective of the world is gained through less talking and more observing, listening, and embracing. And this lesson shapes my view of academics on campus as well.

At Swarthmore, it is easy to get lost in attempting to speak the most in seminars or talking over people who have a different perspective. Yet perhaps the beauty of not communicating verbally is entering what is typically deemed the “introvert” world. As Susan Cain discusses in her book “Quiet,” there is “zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas.” While it can feel natural to want to speak the most or fill the empty spaces in class discussions, space must be made for embracing the silence, observing the dance of everyday life, and listening to the sounds beyond the words. As I have discovered through not having the ability to speak my thoughts, often more can be learned from watching and listening than from anything I could articulate myself.

Now in Buenos Aires for the final aspect of my adventure, I am in a country where I don’t quite understand all of the language, yet I am also not completely lost. While I am happy to be able to communicate with those around me, I think I’ll also continue to embrace the lost part of myself a little more. By listening and observing before speaking, individuals can gain more perspectives and learn new insights.

Order a pizza, and it shall come

in Campus Journal by

Salam sejahtera, saya mampu bertutur dalam pelbagai bahasa dan ia memperkasakan saya — Hi, I speak multiple languages and that empowers me.

As an ethnic Chinese from Malaysia (a country that’s not particularly kind to the children of immigrants), I was brought up to view languages as a currency of sorts, a means to buy your way into another culture’s good graces, be it in pursuit of a higher education, economic gain, or political cooperation. Over the years, my need to learn multiple languages “just in case” seeking prospects overseas became a necessity evolved into a deep respect for and love of the different cultures of which foreign languages are a part. To speak a people’s language well is to gain an understanding of the people themselves, which eases access to their society. It empowers me to know that my multilingualism enables me to connect with an incredibly diverse range of people on opposite sides of the globe.

Well, I’m here now, aren’t I? Twelve time zones apart from (and 20°F colder than) the tropical island I grew up on, there are times when Swarthmore feels so strange to me that it’s like I’m wading through a fever dream. But my command of the English language allows me to reach out to this community, and what better way to connect with people on this campus than by writing for a student publication?

One quote in particular adds to this discussion.

“The most important aspect of knowing another language is that it will permit the speaker entry into a different culture … and in turn the realization of these differences illuminates one’s own cultural suppositions,” said German Professor Hansjakob Werlen.

By unravelling these cultural suppositions, learning another language helps to increase one’s understanding of one’s own culture, and offers a certain insight into the mechanisms of the culture that monolingual individuals in the same society might be less inclined to notice. This is, of course, closely tied up with increased individual growth and wisdom through a developing awareness towards one’s sociocultural environment. Here’s a personal example: there are four different ways to say “you (singular)” in Malay, with varying degrees of formality and familiarity. A greater emphasis is placed on respect for others in Malaysian culture than American culture, and the language reflects that. Yet, there are a stunning number of correlations between both countries. For example, sex and religion are inexplicably invoked whether you’re cursing in English or Malay, one of the countless social phenomena that can be tracked through nuances in speech patterns, turns of phrase or even types of swear words.

This makes me think of another professor’s words.

“The fact [is] that often you’ll discover links that you didn’t expect between your language and the other language … learning a foreign language teaches you ultimately how much more we’re similar, I think, and how much that you just weren’t taught, that you just didn’t learn until you learned [the language],” said Professor and Head of Russian section Sibelan Forrester.

But the pros of multilingualism extend both ways. Whilst language acquisition can empower the speaker, it can also empower those who are spoken to, as it may be seen as a gesture of respect.

“Speaking a foreign language to someone whose language that is, or who also is a speaker of it, indicates your respect for them and their culture, that you’re accommodating them rather than expecting them to accommodate you,”  Forrester said.

 

She continued, “Not only, but especially [with] small languages, languages where there aren’t many opportunities to learn them, if you aren’t in that culture—if you show up speaking it, even not very well, it’s a huge affirmation for the people to whom you’re speaking,” she said.

Swarthmore’s facilitation of foreign language events and student-run cultural organizations may help with that, at least to some extent. Since English is almost always used out of necessity here, hearing someone else make an effort to speak your first language rather than the other way around can really make your day. Or perhaps just a demonstrated willingness to learn someone else’s mother tongue is enough to bring a little positivity into someone’s life: I offered to pick up Bulgarian so my professor would have someone at Swat to talk to, and the smile I received in response was worth every hour I’ll be spending poring over Cyrillic during the summer.

As a linguistics minor, Natalie Flores Semyonova ’19 stressed the importance of language itself.

“I think that languages are the foundation to humanity as this social entity and so being able to harness that in more than one language than your own … just opens you up to so many different experiences and so many different perspectives and feelings and people,” she said.

Werlen agreed, especially with regard to his own personal experiences.

“When traveling as a teenager in Europe, I soon experienced that special empowerment that knowing other languages affords the speaker, whether it was arguing about soccer in Italian or trying to write love letters in French,” he said.

To say that communication is key in the ever-expanding age of globalization is somewhat of an understatement. Here, at our little liberal arts college that emphasizes ethical and social concern, exercises in understanding are especially pertinent in the process of preparing for the “real world” after graduation. But, while learning another language for some global-scale purpose is a noble pursuit, you don’t have to have some cosmically crucial reason to do so.

For example, the reason for Flores’ acquisition of a second language was family.

“My grandma speaks no English, and she’s lived with us since I was born, so I wouldn’t have a relationship with her if I didn’t speak Russian,” Flores said.

We read together and there’s times when we’ll just sit down for three-hour chunks of time and she’ll just talk to me about different grammar rules and read me old stories. Through her and through the fact that we share that, it sort of connects us and also connects me to the culture of Russia.

On the other hand, Werlen cites the ability to read literary texts in a foreign language as a major draw.

“I studied Spanish with my wonderful colleagues here at the college and loved my new power … to read one of my favorite poets, Pablo Neruda, in the original,”  Werlen said.

However, it was his desire to understand the lyrics of the music that he listened to that led Werlen to learn English as a teenager, with a humorous twist.

“I was an exchange student in Wisconsin and I still recall the horror of my very British English teacher when I returned [home] from there with an exaggeratedly pronounced Wisconsin accent,”  Werlen recounted.

Finally, being able to reinvent herself was an added bonus to the study of other languages for Forrester.

“You get to be someone slightly different in the other language. You get be more picky and precise, or you get to be more kind of freewheeling in what you say … so you really gain in richness as a human being,”  Forrester said.

 

In her final comments on why Swatties should pick up another language, Forrester hit the nail on the head with the ultimate motivation.

“Look, you can order a pizza [in a foreign country], and it comes,” she joked.

A Happy Psuedo-Persian New Year

in Campus Journal by

When it comes to observing cultural holidays while at Swat, being away from my home and family has always been a challenge. No matter the occasion, I always find myself defying conventional traditionalism and celebrating a filtered-down, dorm-room-makeshift interpretation of the holiday.

With the vernal equinox comes one of my favorite family holidays: Norooz. Celebrated on the first day of spring, Norooz celebrates nature’s rebirth concurrently with the Persian New Year. It predates Islam, dating back to the ancient monotheistic religion Zoroastrianism in Iran, and is observed across a number of political borders, including Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and of course Iran.

One of the hallmarks of this holiday is the preparation of the Haft-Seen table. President of AMENA (Arab, Middle-Eastern, and North African Cultural Group) Ava Shafiei described this tradition as a “7 item representation of the hopes and values for the new year” in a email sent to the Swarthmore community announcing the implementation of the Haft-Seen on the upper floor of Sharples for the week of March 20.

These components include seer (garlic) for good luck, sumaq (ground berry) for the color of sunrise, seeb (apple) for health and beauty, senjed (sprouted wheat or barley) for rebirth, samanu (sweet pudding) for wealth and affluence, and finally serkeh (vinegar) for patience and old age. For additional ornaments and decor, sometimes a goldfish, a mirror, or the Qur’an are incorporated to represent life and reflection.

Being half-Persian, for the past two years I have implemented my own homespun Haft-Seen in my humble abode in Willets. My mom sent me some of the components in the mail, like the senjed and samanu, but for the most part I was collecting items from the most intimate niches of Swarthmore student life, i.e. I stole an apple from Sharples and put Goldfish crackers that I bought from Essie’s in a jar, like a true Persian.

I can just hear my Persian grandma joyously clapping her hands, her infinite amount of wrist bangles clanging in symphony, as she exclaims, “Afareen, azizam!” (Good job, sweetheart).

Admiring the absurd amalgam of objects scattered across the ornate Persian sofreh in my dorm room, I am perplexed by a shocking, existentialist thought: I, Yasmeen Namazie, am nothing more than this filtered-down, dorm-room-makeshift Haft-Seen, because 2,000 miles away from my home and family, I am hardly Persian at all. I am a messy, fractured, last-minute, sad excuse for a Persian.

I confided with one of the only other people who resonates with my existential anxieties surrounding my cultural and linguistic inadequacies: my beautiful sister Leyla.

My younger sister and I, while very similar in personality, could not be more visibly different. She has big, deep brown eyes that don’t squint when she smiles; she has a paler complexion that burns red and not brown under the Los Angeles sun and she has fuller, thicker eyebrows.

In other words, this girl is a cookie-cutter Persian.

“I have a very Persian-looking face — you know that,” my sister said to me on the phone.

“But what about you looks so Persian, Leyla?” I asked.

“I don’t know, I feel like just my face does,” she said.

I was asking her about the Norooz festivities back home in LA, and she was telling me about how she enjoyed our Persian-side gatherings more over our Chilean-side gatherings. This was her logic:

“While looking at both my Chilean and Persian side, I feel more connected to my Persian side because I look more like them so I don’t feel as out of place as I do when I am at Chilean parties,” she said. “I don’t really feel Chilean when I am at Abuelo and Abuela’s house.”

While I was at first critical of what I assumed was an absurd reason for enjoying one cultural space over another, I thought about how my insecurities with language and my inability to speak Farsi operate under the same assumptions: if I can’t participate in Persianness, I therefore am not Persian.

This has truly been the perennial struggle for my sister and I, identifying as bi-racial. Our lives are spent searching for points of reconciliation between our two cultural origins, to the extent that even something as mundane as a family gathering propels us into existential crisis. Even while we participate in the functions, eat the foods, and sometimes even utter the phrases, we are in a perpetual state of inadequacy, of “not enough.”

Leyla shares the same sentiments regarding linguistic barriers.

“Not speaking Farsi is pretty big barrier during relative gatherings for Norooz. Even though I do understand the gist about the Haft-Seen and the cultural significance of Norooz, I feel like when they are talking about it, especially in Farsi, I just can’t contribute because I have no idea what they are talking about. They usually have to translate it to me in English which makes you feel a little bit disconnected … like you are not a part of something.” she said. “I feel like knowing Farsi would make me feel more Persian.”

Together, we thought about what voids would have to be filled in order for us to “feel more” Persian or “feel more” Chilean. Learning to speak Farsi fluently? Taking up dutar lessons and embracing ancient Iranian folk music? Living in a remote hostel in the high desert of Chile? All this infatuation with justifying our Persianness and Chileanness was draining and picked at our consciousnesses.

“All I know is that I like being able to spend time with my family and being able to set up the table because it’s kind of like a family thing. You go to the market and you go buy fish and all the elements of the Haft-Seen — you do it together,” my sister said.

It was in this intimate conversation with my sister that I started to realize that perhaps my cultural identity isn’t conditional or situational, nor contingent on locale. So what if Goldfish crackers are the staple of my homemade Haft-Seen?

Assumptions of my sister and my cultural essentialism are not conducive to my understanding of myself as a multicultural person. Instead, there should be acknowledgment that sometimes I may have to negotiate and renegotiate the bounds of my racialness. Maybe I will just be perpetually grappling with my “pseudo-ness,” but at least I am the agent of this process of formation and reconstruction. Maybe next Norooz, I can be comfortable with this “new normative,” even if it entails grass plucked from the Scott Arboretum in lieu of sabzee.

I would like to thank Farsheed Shomloo for taking the featured image of the Haft-Seen for this article.

Learning English goodly

in Columns/Opinions by

Learning English is hard. I really started trying to learn the language when I was in 8th grade. When I was growing up in China, I did not go to an international school, and, at the time, my English class was teaching basics of the language that native speakers probably learned in kindergarten. I wanted to learn more English to prepare for the admissions test of one of the top high schools in Shanghai, so that I could have a better chance of getting accepted. I knew it was going to be a challenge, but it was even harder than I thought. You see, I was not just bad at English; I was terrible at it. In retrospect, I can’t believe I even tried. I could barely follow what the teacher was saying in class, and he already gave up on me after I consistently ranked near the bottom of my class in every English exam. It also didn’t help that I didn’t like the teacher, since he wouldn’t allow me to join his soccer team.

If it weren’t for a TV show called “Friends,” I probably would’ve failed in my attempt. Thanks to China’s loose copyrights regulations, I watched the show every day. (I eventually watched all ten seasons 7 times by the time I graduated from middle school – that’s 616 hours, or 25 days, of “Friends.”) For those who are not familiar with the show, it is the story of six New Yorkers and their crazy adventures. (At one point, one of the characters was pregnant with her brother’s triplets.) Because of this show, I became enamored with what I thought was the American life – six close friends, sitting in a coffeehouse all day, telling sometimes risqué jokes, and living in the greatest city on Earth, with the company of each other. I thought to myself that one day, I’ll also live in America, have six American friends, and tell jokes and drink coffee everyday.

I didn’t realize at the time that there was one problem with this plan: it’s hard to tell jokes in English. If you don’t believe me, try telling jokes in Spanish or Arabic or whatever language you are currently learning. It’s also hard to understand jokes in English. I still have no idea why knock knock jokes are funny. These may seem like minor issues, but during my first year at Swarthmore, I had a very difficult time finding friends – after all, would you like a friend who can only nod awkwardly at something hilarious you say? In the end, of course, I learned to fake laugh.

But there is a more serious problem: no matter how perfect my accent is or how hard I try, learning the language does not mean fitting into the culture. People always assure me that I will eventually find my niche here, but I still don’t feel like I have. Fitting in a new community is not just an individual act. It requires acceptance on the part of the community members as well. Ask any recent Chinese immigrant, and he or she will tell you how hard it is to get accepted by “White people.” It is this dimension of “fitting in” where language plays a more insidious role.

One of the most enduring stereotypes of Chinese living in America is that we either don’t know how to speak English, or we talk with a funny accent. Hollywood reinforces such stereotypes by asking actors to exaggerate or fake a “Chinese” accent. Last year, one particularly racist news segment on Fox news made fun of several Chinese-American seniors who did not know how to speak English on national television, after asking their opinion on Trump and not getting any response. Just last week, when I was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a security guard stopped me but refused to explain to me in English what was wrong, or that I forgot to check my bags, because she thought I was just another clueless Chinese tourist. Such stereotypes about immigrants and outsiders are often used to justify xenophobia or racism. According to Adam Cohen, the author of the book “Imbeciles,” supporters of eugenics and immigration restrictions in the early 20th century relied on intelligence tests that favored English speakers to show that immigrants from other countries were genetically and racially inferior to immigrants from England or Scotland. The testimony of one eugenicist in particular, Harry Laughlin, caused one Senator to warn that “[w]e are coming to a pitiful pass in this great country when it is unpopular to speak the English language, the American language.” It’s hard not to see the reflection of these ugly moments of history in contemporary politics.

Xenophobia, understood this way, cannot simply mean fear of foreigners. Laughlin thought the line between acceptable and unacceptable immigrants should be drawn on the basis of whether their racial types are “assimilable.” Again, “assimilable” meant speaking English and being Western European. This is, of course, nonsense. After all, can what he thought were biological features even be described as “assimilable?”  But, by giving his and other eugenicists’ prejudices the credence of a scientific theory, he justified what many Americans already thought was true: these outsiders did not appreciate their language and their culture, these outsiders would contaminate their culture and their blood. As historian Yuval Harari points out in his excellent book  “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind,” hierarchy is often maintained by a primitive fear of pollution, whether by things or by people. It’s telling that Laughlin calls the “racial qualities” or “hereditary traits” of immigrants the “sanitary feature” of these people.

Would the TV show “Friends” have been so successful if it had been one Asian guy and five white people? I’m not sure. But in the course of writing this essay, I have to confront my own bias as well. What made me think that having American friends is so important? Why couldn’t I just drink coffee with friends back home in a Chinese coffee house? Why did I try so hard to learn the language? I do not regret coming to Swarthmore, of course, but motivation matters.

We also need to rethink how familiarity with English is intricately connected with membership in different communities, i.e. studentship at Swarthmore, or citizenship. There are many “radical” suggestions that we can possibly implement to deal with this issue.

First, we should stop requiring international students to take the SAT. It is unreasonable to expect international students whose first language is not English to read or write as fast as native speakers do while still in high school.

Second, Swarthmore should de-emphasize the English language testing requirement for international students. Many Chinese students, for example, score higher than native speakers on the Test of English as a Foreign Language after spending money on private tutoring. Some minimum requirement is necessary, and for students interested in humanities and social science the requirement can be stricter.

Third, we must stop thinking that being able to speak English is normal. Many international students, for example, are offended by people who compliment their English. I worry that their attitude ignores the fact that being able to speak English is itself a kind of privilege in an English-speaking country.

Finally, this should go without saying, but we cannot mock people who have an accent or who speak broken English. A friend of mine at a well-known business school told me once that a group of second-generation Chinese-Americans mocked their professor’s accent behind his back. I hope this doesn’t happen at Swarthmore.

Trump’s Subtle Language of Oppression

in Op-Eds/Opinions by

Cw: xenophobia and homophobia

 

As I watched Donald Trump’s inaugural address, eyes both welling and rolling, a certain section stuck out to me. It occurred early in the speech as Trump was still getting started. After thanking Obama for his gracious support during the transition process, Trump said, “Today’s ceremony, however, has very special meaning because today, we are not merely transferring power from one administration to another or from one party to another, but we are transferring power from Washington, D.C. and giving it back to you, the people.”

Initially, this part of the speech didn’t strike me as any more vitriolic than any other part of the speech. The anti-corruption sentiment certainly wasn’t a surprise — hell, Trump’s entire campaign was built on that message. Additionally, it is nothing new for an “outsider” politician to condemn the nation’s capital as a hotbed of corruption and bureaucracy.

No, it was only after I had heard it a couple of times (usually in the form of Facebook videos comparing Trump to Bane) that I realized what felt so fundamentally wrong about this statement. By placing those represented by “Washington, D.C.” in opposition to “the people,” Trump essentially argued that the political elite are not people.

As I reflected on the 2016 presidential campaign that afternoon, I realized that Trump’s attempt during the inauguration to divorce people from their humanity by using language wasn’t an isolated incident. In fact, this subtle form of dehumanization has been one of his favorite rhetorical devices since his campaign began in June of 2015. Take, for example, the infamous quote from his campaign announcement that set the tone for the remainder of his presidential bid: “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” Before anything else, he classifies immigrants as rapists, only adding as a secondary thought that some of them might be good people.

Trump’s political enemies aren’t the only people to get this treatment. Last June, upon seeing a black man in the audience of one of his rallies, Trump exclaimed, “Look at my African American over here!” MY African American. Yes, it could have just been a poor choice of words, but, to me, that statement is eerily reminiscent of one of the worst institutions of Antebellum America. In another incident this month, CNN journalist Jim Acosta’s request for a follow-up question was met with the bizarre response, “You are fake news.” In addition to being absurd — reporters themselves aren’t the news organizations for which they work— the president-elect reduced a man’s entire identity to one of the most commonly denounced aspects of the media landscape.

I do not mean to say that the President has used inherently offensive words in his speeches. In spite of his off-the-cuff style, Trump has been good about avoiding the use of some of the worst slurs in the dictionary. However, this actually represents the insidious nature of Trump’s word choice. Most Americans would instantly have written-off Trump as a candidate if he used a racially-charged epithet to refer to Mexican immigrants or his African American. Instead, Trump offered the American people a sneaky alternative. He refused to put marginalized groups in human terms, while also evoking the same prejudices as an epithet without being explicit.

If all Americans ignored President Trump’s attempts to dehumanize through language and instead chose to recognize their peers’ basic humanity, this issue would be irrelevant. Sadly, however, the President’s hostile messages have resonated with many Americans. According to a survey conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center, 4 in 10 teachers reported in November 2016 hearing hate speech based on race, religion, immigration status, or sexual orientation in school. Such a high percentage would be indicative of a problem in any segment of society, but it is especially frightening to learn that students are being exposed to, and in some cases expressing, such dehumanizing and hateful words. When a student constantly hears the implicit message that some people are “less than,” it becomes easy to rationalize hatred and forget compassion. How can a man hope to understand and appreciate the struggles another person has experienced if he cannot bring himself to even refer to the other person in human terms?

I know what it’s like to be reduced to a label. Although it didn’t happen often, I remember vividly the mixture of rage and sorrow I felt after being called a “faggot.” It was the feeling that no matter what else I tried to be or do, I couldn’t escape that stereotype-laden box a fellow human had placed me in.

Many of us at Swat understand this feeling. Given the varied cultural and religious backgrounds of the Swarthmore student body, I’m almost certain that many of my peers have experienced this form of oppression, oftentimes more intensely than I have. We know the destructive power of linguistic dehumanization because we have lived it. If we want to make the world a more open and accepting place, it starts with acknowledging the simple, self-evident fact that people deserve to be treated like people.

Revisiting the Social Justice Requirement Debate

in Op-Eds/Opinions by

As a former debater, I am keenly aware of how manipulation of language can shape our perception of arguments. It was Aristotle who identified the three modes of persuasion that are still taught and used in academic debate: ethos, pathos, and logos, or appeal to authority, appeal to emotion, and appeal to logic. The first two, used well, can bolster the credibility of strong arguments. Without logos, however, ethos and pathos alone can sometimes be intellectually dishonest and can even backfire. To demonstrate this point, here I revisit last year’s campus debate on the controversial proposal of a social justice requirement.

Here is my view on the SJR: even though familiarity with social justice issues is really important, the SJR does not necessarily promote its stated goals, and, compared to other options, it restricts our freedom of choice with respect to academic decisions. The SJR is a paternalistic requirement because it forces students, for their own benefit, to take courses that they would not take otherwise. I do not deny that learning about important social issues is a compelling interest both for the school and for students. However, as Gilbert Guerra argues in “Why A Social Justice Requirement Isn’t Right for Swarthmore,” social justice is a “politically charged topic,” and graded social justice courses forced on unwilling students could be “tantamount to indoctrination.” Furthermore, initiatives that attempt to encourage students to take social justice-related courses, such as volunteer programs like Chester Youth Courts and Dare 2 Soar, or participate in protests and political campaigns, may have better outcomes since participation would be voluntary. Even posting on Facebook about your favorite professors is better than requiring anyone to take classes with these same professors.

Many counterarguments can be made. For example, one could question whether students have or should have any freedom of choice with academic decisions. Moreover, one could challenge Guerra’s comparison of the SJR with indoctrination or argue that the SJR is a worthwhile last resort to reach “recalcitrant” students who cannot otherwise be motivated to care about social justice. All of these arguments are worth considering. However, my point is this: even those who care about progressive causes can still make reasonable and valid points against “orthodox” views, and their arguments deserve to be considered in a constructive and analytical fashion.

Consider one op-ed, “The Price of Privilege: Swarthmore and the Social Justice Requirement,” published in the Daily Gazette last year. The author, first affirming the importance to “acknowledge one’s privilege,” goes on to assert that opponents of the SJR are only trying to “make life easier and convenient for people;” they are not defending the students’ freedom of choice over their own academic decisions. The author then states to be “insulted by the argument that we should not inconvenience people …I am insulted by the argument that professors will determine grades based on someone’s opinions or only scheme to indoctrinate people … I am insulted by the argument ‘people who are ignorant of X will be resentful and will dislike being informed [of x].’ ”

Insulted how? Either he feels personally offended by these arguments, or he is intellectually insulted by the arguments’ sheer stupidity. However, as I have demonstrated above, arguments against SJR are not necessarily grounded in offensive or prejudicial assumptions. Nor can these arguments against the SJR be so easily dismissed. Sure, if anyone actually claims the SJR is bad solely because it is “inconvenient” or “rude,” then the author may have reason to feel insulted. However, in three sweeping statements that the author is offended by the ideas that the arguments should not inconvenience people, professors will determine grades based on someone’s opinions, and ignorant people will be resentful,  and plenty of platitudes, the author creates a straw man argument to dismiss the core arguments by opponents of SJR. This is done without offering any cogent counterarguments.

The article also employs jargon that can be inaccessible and confusing for many. For example, one paragraph acknowledging that there are “real concerns and critiques of a social justice requirement,” employs terms that are inaccessible and confusing for many, including “cultural appropriation,” “privilege policing,” and monolithic indoctrination.” These terms would have been utterly incomprehensible for me to read when I first came to Swarthmore.

Jargon, when used indiscriminately, can seem intimidating and insincere for many. Especially outside of academic discourse, it is often used as a shortcut that sacrifices clarity, or even meaning, for mere expediency, and, sometimes, an unearned sense of authority. As Fredrik deBoer of Brooklyn College argues, few people who use the phrase “cultural appropriation” know what it means. Consider the following rewrite of a paragraph that conveys more or less the same message:

“Swatties often respect cultural differences and refrain from making stereotypical judgments. We respect history, and we celebrate diversity. But we need more. A social justice requirement does not dictate what to believe or what to do; it gives us the tools to challenge inequality and deprivations of individual freedom in our society.”

Those unfamiliar with jargon would also feel respected and welcomed to join the discussion. I mention this article because it is symptomatic of a somewhat elitist culture that routinely alienates or intimidates dissenters, skeptics, or those with low level of information or knowledge about certain subjects. If I had read this article a year ago, I would not have had the courage to voice my opposition or ask for clarification since, as an international student who did not know how to use these “buzzwords,” I often felt my opinion would somehow be judged inferior (I still do sometimes). Alternatively, I could even have been tricked into agreeing with the author despite the article’s lack of strong arguments, a phenomenon jokingly known as “proof by intimidation” in mathematics.

What is published in the Phoenix or the Daily Gazette, or even a Facebook post, is read by many, both on campus and off campus, who have not made up their mind about a certain issue or who hold a different view. If the tone is derisive, or the argument is hidden behind too much high-sounding jargon and too many empty words, someone who is not used to terms such as “heteronormativity” or “intersectionality” may be discouraged from voicing their own opinion and having it fairly assessed by peers. Alternatively, miscommunication and distortion could cause people to “talk past each other.” Finally and most importantly, weak arguments may be left unchallenged simply because they “sound about right.” These consequences can be especially detrimental in a college setting where free and informed debate is supposed to be celebrated and promoted. We all need to be mindful of our use of language if we believe that honest and equal discussion among peers is important.

Dept. of Modern Languages celebrates Valentine’s Day with bilingual love poems

in Arts by

Last Thursday evening, a group of mostly faculty members and students gathered into the Scheuer Room to listen to love poems — in multiple different languages. The event, “A Multiple Bilingual Reading of Great Love Poems from Around the World,” was organized in celebration of Valentine’s Day by the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures, though professors and students from other departments attended the reading as well.

The chairs of the room were organized into one large circle, and a table at the back of the room featured handouts with the various poems to be read and their English translations, as well as snacks — heart-shaped cookies and chocolate-dipped pretzel sticks, handmade by the department’s administrative assistant, Bethanne Seufert. After collecting each poem handout and a few treats, attendees sat down in the large circle, chatting excitedly with one another before the reading started.

“I was kind of confused about who was a professor and who wasn’t,” recalled Ye Linn “Robin” Htun ’18, who read for the Japanese department.

An atmosphere of warmth permeated the air despite the below-freezing temperatures outside. Professor Sibelan Forrester from the Russian program hosted the event and introduced the professors and their poems. As professors and students read, she knit, adding to the cozy nature of the event.

“I was knitting so I wouldn’t start crying,” recounted Professor Forrester. “I always tear up when people read!”

Professor Forrester noted that this was the first time the department had held a Valentine’s Day-themed bilingual poetry reading, though there have been other bilingual poetry readings. Each poem was read in both the original language it was written in and English, with most of the professors reading the English versions they had translated themselves.

From the Arabic program, Professor Nesrine Chahine and student Murtaza Khomusi ’17 read a few poems in Arabic. Professor Forrester introduced Professor Chahine as having a specialty in prose, but also a secret passion for Arabic poetry. The poems included classical themes in Arabic poetry about traversing distance through love.

From the Chinese program, Professor Stephan Kory introduced his students—Emma Keefe ’17, Maria Solano ’17, and Lewis Esposito  ’16—who read Chinese love poems from different eras. There was also participation from professors outside the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures. Steven Hopkins, professor of religion and coordinator of Asian studies sang poems relevant to his study of Occitan, Sanskrit, and Tamil poetry. Professor Lilya Yatsunyk of the Chemistry Department also read two poems in Russian.

“I only ever saw her in chemistry lab, so when I saw her name on the list I was pretty excited,” said Htun about Professor Yatsunyk. “I thought ‘oh wow, she is also reading poetry!’ So afterwards, I went and talked to her about just general Russian and Ukrainian poetry.”

From the French and Francophone studies program, Professor Micheline Rice-Maximin read a translation she actually published in a dual language collection of poems by Guy Tirolien.

“I always try to get Micheline Rice-Maximin to read,” said Professor Forrester. “There are times when the whole audience is in tears when she reads… I could listen to her read the phonebook in French.”

Professor Adrián Gras-Velázquez read a contemporary poem about self-love by Ismael Serrano, evoking laughter from the audience and adding to the diverse set of “love” poems. Student Aaron Kroeber ’16 read fragments of Sappho in Greek. The audience collectively sighed in disappointment when the poems were cut short mid-verse, the rest maybe yet to be discovered. Then, Professor Joanna Sturiano from the Japanese program introduced Ye Linn, who read and explained a few Japanese love poems. Finally, Bethanne Seufert and Matt Lake, a friend of Professor Forrester, read poems in English.

“Putting together a reading like this, we were torn between sticking to the theme of poetry in translation and the desire to give you the best selection of love poetry,” said Professor Forrester to the audience. “So, we decided to share some work with you that was originally written in English!”

Lake’s “translation” was a song recording by the Arctic Monkeys, who incorporated elements from the John Cooper Clarke poem he read. As the event ended, individuals in the circle nodded their heads to the song.

Professor Forrester later discussed the importance of such an event at Swarthmore, where students are intensely focused on academics.

“I once heard this student say that there wasn’t enough support here for non-academic interests,” said Professor Forrester. “In a way, she had developed this one side of herself, but still felt that aesthetically, spiritually, and physically — that all of that had been put on hold for a bit… We talk about wellness and we talk about balance, but last [Thursday evening] was unusual. We don’t usually do that often.”

As one of those intensely focused students, Htun found the poetry reading important for similar reasons.

“It was a really fun experience,” said Htun. “Especially for me, because I’m the ‘scientist,’ so I’m not looking at literary pieces most of my day… It was a pretty refreshing experience, but I think even if I was an English major, I still would have gone there to enjoy poems from other cultures in other languages in a setting outside of the classroom. Your grade doesn’t depend on it, and it’s not as stressful… It can be a nice environment to pick up on other things that you might not pick up on in the classroom.”

 

The ties that bind

in Op-Eds/Opinions by

The other day I stopped by a fruit vendor to get some oranges. I was alone, and not in the best of moods, which explained why I was alone and why I wanted to get something sweet inside of my stomach. Recently I’ve been having stomach issues, the likes of which have only seemed to have gotten worse during my time here in Senegal, a reality which has made both my biological mother and my host mother greatly uneasy. As of recently, my diet consists of eating mostly fruits and vegetables, although I do not believe that my previous meat intake is what is causing these issues. I have begun a tentative prohibition of all dairy and gluten products out of fear that anything like that could cause me gastric distress.

Nonetheless, I approached the man and started my negotiations immediately. In hindsight, I did not start off with a friendly “Asalaam Maleekum/Ça va?” combo, a gambit which in Senegal means “I am acknowledging that you are a decent human being with whom I’d like to conduct business.” Wrong decision number one. I ask the vendor, who is chatting with a group of three other men, how much an orange and a grapefruit would cost. The word for grapefruit in French still feels awkward in my mouth, and I am not sure as I am saying it if it’s a masculine or feminine word but, for the most part, I am conducting myself without the usual scorn of perfectionism to which I am rightly accustomed in my French classes at Swarthmore. It’s actually quite refreshing to speak French uninhibited by my own self-imposed judgment. For the most part, life at Swarthmore, whether we discuss it or not, is a constant va-et-vient of being sized up and assessed. This may not be everyone’s experience at all, but it has characterized my time there for the past two and a half years. It isn’t a bad thing, either. I chose to come to Swat in order to give myself a challenge, and the school has been likely the most challenging experience I have ever faced. Yet, in my French classes, I found myself pushing myself even further than I had in my other classes, mostly because I saw French as a means of accurately assessing my skills. It is a somewhat difficult task to determine someone’s ability to analyze a book or delineate an argument, but a person’s ability to speak a language is far easier to quantify and scrutinize. I spent hours in the library in the thin section of books dedicated to French grammar and phonology, learning to perfect my pseudo-French accent from listening carefully to my professors and mimicking them under my breath. When I incorrectly conjugated a word, I felt as if I had betrayed myself and applied an incredible amount of pressure on my psyche to attain unattainable feats of perfectionism.

But here, things are somewhat different.

For one, everyone who sees me, before I even open my mouth, knows that I am not from here. It is the way that I walk, the color of my skin, the kink of my hair—unbeknownst to me, these are signs that read “foreigner” to the Senegalese, a marker I cannot scrub off or cover up. As I walk down the street, my money in my money-belt, talking to my white classmates, it is apparent that I do not belong, that I am a newcomer, that I am American. So when I open my mouth and speak French or speak Wolof, it is a surprise to these Senegalese people that I can carry a conversation with them at all, even if I mess up a conjugation or mispronounce a word. The process of speaking a language is beginning to transition away from being a quantifier of one’s skill and prowess, into a means of communicating ideas from one person to another. Languages are not IQ tests. They are ways of conceptualizing the world.

The fruit vendor smiled at my fumbling, and the men behind him began to say something in Wolof which I did not understand. My program had not taught me many phrases that Wolofs say to themselves about Americans, but I heard two words which perked my ears immediately, the likes of which were clear: Ameriken and Afriken.

While the men went back and forth about me being an American and also being an African, I began to think more about what it meant to be a buffer zone between the white students in my program and the black Senegalese. I am not the typical Senegalese person. Yet, I am not the typical tourist, either. I occupy a liminal space between here and there, between American and African. I rarely resemble the mental images that come to mind when you think of the United States or Africa. When I told my host parents I was African-American, they at first thought I was métis, the word for “mixed.” They asked me where my ancestors came from. When I told them that they were from the Carolinas, they asked where they came from before then, a question to which I responded with just a shrug and a blank expression.

These are the ties that bind me, a line drawn across the Atlantic in my blood, with my heritage, which reaches back to this land of my ancestors. It is like coming back from the world of spirits believed to exist on the other side of the Atlantic, the place to which the lost and the sold were cast away so many years ago in a history which many have attempted to forget. Being in Senegal now, speaking in French, is like coming home to a house occupied by a different family of the same name.

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