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To apologize in advance

When I first came across Cory Booker’s Daily columns, part of me was prepared to be disillusioned by yet another politician. I came across the columns through a recent Daily article titled “Presidential hopeful’s intimate columns about race, homosexuality and groping incident resurface.” With such a title, given the current political environment, his collegiate writing seemed liable to incriminate him in more than angsty musings on California weather or dining hall food.

Upon reading his columns, however, I had to reconsider. For one thing, his writing is riddled with first-person admissions delivered in urgent stream of consciousness prose. Also, it did not quite offend, despite its offensive content and my belief that college students are not naïve children who are exempt from moral responsibility for the offense they cause.

Among other things, Booker’s columns see him admit to groping a female friend and to holding homophobic views. However, reading his work in its entirety reveals that his views changed. Over five years at Stanford, his conversations with peers and critical self-reflection about his own prejudices reconfigured his views on sex, sexuality and race. The Daily reporters that dug up Booker’s columns aptly characterized them as “frank,” “intimate” and, most normatively, “apologetic.”

By serendipity or The Daily’s acuity, Booker’s columns “resurfaced” at a moment when many other Democratic presidential nominees were coming forth with their own apologies for their behavior in college and beyond. Some lamented the Democrats’ onslaught of remorse as a disappointing deferral to political correctness. Personally, I questioned whether apologies of this sort constitute morally worthwhile remorse. Admittedly, I also wondered if I need to tread more carefully than I do at present, more carefully than my default moral compass demands — just in case.

Against this context, I read Booker’s articles differently to how I would have read them in a different political moment. In particular, I pondered why these columns, though apologetic, did not seem conveniently apologetic and hollow.

For starters, his disclosures were unprompted by media scrutiny. Beyond this, more importantly, they were robust and urgent defenses — they evoked the idea of apologia, not just apology.  

Apologia is a formal written defense of one’s position. As I understand it, apologia is distinct from apology, despite their similar etymology and conflation in some contexts. To me, this distinction boils down to how apologia seemingly involves taking ownership of our convictions prior to consulting external influences. Meanwhile, apology seemingly involves retrospectively taking ownership of our convictions in a social setting, in the face of external pressure. This does not necessarily make the former more sincere than the latter, or more morally valuable. However, apologia seems to run more coherently— and does not risk curtailing — the academic and ideological freedom of expression that we also want to preserve in our practice of college journalism.

Writing that embodies apologia seems apt for college journalism because it can uphold moral regard for different identities and communities, without demanding self-censorship out of fear of future repercussions, putting aside any question of whether such fear is well-founded or not.

As writers of apologia, college journalists would think of our publications not only as places to propound our views, but to scrutinize and then defend them from our unique, most sincere perspectives. Instead of deferring to political correctness, we could take a few well-defended “risks,” if that is what our beliefs and experiences demand. Instead of implicating our future selves in expedient apology — if by chance public opinion disavows us — we can rest assured that our convictions came from a place of real depth. When prefaced with an explanation of where we’re coming from, we are well situated to test out new modes of thinking and to issue challenges and praise to the status quo without opening ourselves up to (valid) condemnation.

Speaking of potential condemnation, apologia is not conducted in a void. Like literature, journalism (especially vulnerable op-eds) involves a degree of co-creation between audience and writer. Audience attitudes towards people’s intimate musings matter, so I contend that we should read each other’s work with a spirit of charity and empathy, therein building reciprocal respect in discourse. I reckon Booker enjoyed a charitable audience to his columns as a student, or believed he did, given the many and varied experiments his journalism undertook.

My worry is that I have waxed poetic about something people see as an unobtainable and perhaps ideologically confused. I persist in writing this piece because I think pondering what kind of writers and readers we want to be — at this time and place — is the best step we can take to embrace a future that will for better or worse conceive of our collegiate existence as contiguous with our ‘real world’ existence. In light of this, consider this column an apologia for the writing I want to do as a college student whose words will linger in Daily archives for the foreseeable future.

 

Contact Megha Parwani at mparwani ‘at’ stanford.edu. 

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