Not that long ago, I received an email from a colleague who is my college’s Vice President for Public Affairs and Community Relations. We don’t know each other well, but he knows that I have many years of administrative experience, first chairing my department, then directing our signature interdisciplinary program required of all Freshmen and Sophomores, he knows that I share his passion for the Friars and the Red Sox, and he also reads this blog. So he is familiar with me both as a professional and with me as me.
In his email, my colleague asked me for some advice. “What would you say in response to this parent of a prospective student?” he asked. Below his request was an email that one of the women who works in his area had received. Knowing that I both had dealt with difficult parents before, and also write frequently about the dangers of religious orthodoxy, he thought I might have some suggestions.
The parent in question began his lengthy email by identifying himself as “a Catholic parent doing research about Catholic universities on the east coast that offer a quality education.” So far so good, I thought—until the parent indicated that he was pleased that our college is run by the Dominican Catholic order of priests; he had started his Catholic university search for his children by crossing off Jesuit schools such as Georgetown and Boston College because of the Jesuits’ well-known reputation for “emphasizing pluralism, multiculturalism and social justice, rather than promoting and defending Catholic doctrine and spirituality.”
Trouble on three fronts, I thought. First, although I am not Catholic, I came to love the Jesuits at Marquette University where I did my doctoral work in philosophy three decades ago. Don’t diss my people, dude. Second, we are a college, not a seminary. Third, our Dominican-run campus at Providence College has, over the past several years, made a concerted effort to pay close attention to the very matters that this parent was criticizing the Jesuits for—something he discovered in short order as he looked more carefully at our college website. He was sure to let us know about it.
Today I visited your web site’s home page to be greeted by a picture of three young women with a tag reading: “For the first time in PC history, the leaders of three top student organizations are women of color. Learn how they’re leading by example.”
“Good for us!” I thought . . . but he continued.
I have to tell you: I was a bit put off by this. The wording of this statement and its prominent placement on your web site just reeks of social-justice progressivism and feminism.
God forbid that these young women actually earned their positions of influence, and God forbid that such a “first” should be favorably noted.
“But wait,” as the saying goes—“There’s more!” As it turned out, there were many “isms” that this parent was on the lookout for, including, but not limited to, progressivism, feminism, multiculturalism, pluralism, and Marxism. He regularly used the vocabulary of an ideologue who is very afraid of those who do not agree with him, assuming that they are also ideologues, just of a different stripe. But he saved his sharpest criticism for a certain type of person who, he assumed, had infiltrated our faculty: The Social Justice Warrior.
As I read through the very lengthy email, I made comments and included reactions within the body of the text for my colleague to consider. I wondered, for instance, why a person clearly seeking to be “more Catholic than you” would be opposed on principle to “social justice.”
- The rather shocking lack of respect for commitment to social justice is striking, to say the least. I am not Catholic for many reasons, so I won’t comment on his “more Catholic than you” perspective. But I have worked successfully in Catholic higher education for three decades, and can honestly say that if I ever did become Catholic, it would be because of Catholicism’s principled stand on and commitment to social justice.
I am fully aware, though, that calling someone a “Social Justice Warrior” in today’s polarized world is neither a compliment nor about social justice. In common conservative parlance, “Social Justice Warrior” is the moral equivalent of “Socialist,” something you call someone who is just too liberal and progressive to remain in the same room with. The Urban Dictionary defines “Social Justice Warrior” as
A pejorative term for an individual who repeatedly and vehemently engages in arguments on social justice on the Internet, often in a shallow or not well-thought-out way, for the purpose of raising their own personal reputation.
On the basis of our college website, this prospective parent had concluded that Providence College, as virtually every other Catholic college or university he had investigated, had turned a blind eye to the Social Justice Warriors’ “venomous ideas that are poisoning our youth.”
Not one committed to brevity, the parent then proceeded to list a number of these “venomous ideas,” including the belief that human beings are basically good, promoting an entitlement mentality by overemphasizing basic equality, too much concern for making this world better rather than focusing one’s attention on the next world, too much concer for diversity and multiculturalism, and insufficient emphasis on the obvious superiority of Western culture and capitalism. Rather than a point-by-point assessment of what, in truth, was a rather defensive and worn-out screed, I wrote to my colleague that
- I find the email writer’s tirade against “social justice warriors” to be both amusing and disturbing. If there’s anything I would like to be known as, in addition to a good teacher, it would be as a warrior for social justice. That’s at the heart of the gospels and my Christian faith. Jesus makes it clear in the gospels that the one thing guaranteed to make God angry is to ignore the least among us—the widows, orphans, homeless, disenfranchised, and those who have fallen through the cracks. To turn a commitment to such persons into something to be ashamed of made me ill.
My wife Jeanne has been a college admissions professional for many years; I’m grateful that there are people whose job it is to admit students and to deal with emails such as this parent’s far more often than I have to. It’s the admissions folks’ job to get the students on campus, and it’s mine to teach them once they get there. And, of course, to indoctrinate them into my favorite “isms” and turn them into social justice warriors. Because that’s what I do.