Revisiting the Social Justice Requirement Debate

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.

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