Release of language guide roils Amherst College campus

  • The cover of a "Common Language Guide" that Amherst College released, and later retracted after some of the document's definitions caused controversy on campus. SCREENSHOT/AMHERST COLLEGE

  • Amherst College President Carolyn "Biddy" Martin GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • GAZETTE FILE PHOTO Amherst College

Staff Writer
Published: 3/29/2019 12:26:25 PM

AMHERST — In 2001, the late author and Amherst College alum David Foster Wallace wrote about the political battles that take place in an unlikely place: dictionaries.

“Did you know that probing the seamy underbelly of U.S. lexicography reveals ideological strife and controversy and intrigue and nastiness and fervor on a nearly hanging-chad scale?” he wrote in his Harper’s Magazine essay “Tense Present: Democracy, English, and the Wars over Usage.”

Last week, Foster Wallace’s alma mater stepped right into that controversy when the Office of Diversity and Inclusion released, and soon after retracted, a “Common Language Guide” featuring definitions of “key diversity and inclusion terms” that disturbed some on campus.  

The document, which can still be found online (a college employee confirmed that it is the same version), emerged from a need to “come to a common and shared understanding of language in order to foster opportunities for community building and effective communication within and across difference,” according to its creators. But others took issue with the glossary of terms spanning a wide range of topics, including race, gender, sexual identity, class, global power and inequality. 

Capitalism, for instance, is defined in the guide as “an economic and political system in which a country’s trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit, rather than by the state. This system leads to exploitative labor practices, which affect marginalized groups disproportionately.” Another term is “white savior complex,” defined as “an attitude or posture of condescending benevolence based on the idea that white people inherently should, are in a position to and are qualified to ‘save’ people of color.” And fragile masculinity is “a state of requiring affirmation of one’s masculinity and manhood in order to feel power and dominance … For example, men being hesitant to cry is an example of fragile masculinity.”

The Office of Diversity and Inclusion characterized the guide as a living document full of language that is “always changing, evolving and expanding.” But the fact that it was sent as a PDF featuring the Amherst College logo gave many the impression that it represented the college’s official stance on the included words, many of which have definitions that are contested.

Norm Jones, Amherst’s chief diversity officer, wrote in a note to the campus that his office created the 40-page document because some on campus had asked for definitions of words related to identity, diversity and inclusion. The goal, he said, was to foster greater awareness of the ways in which people understand their own identities. 

Immediately following its release, the guide spread across conservative news media outlets after the Amherst College Republicans delivered it to the website The Daily Wire. College leadership quickly responded, with President Carolyn “Biddy” Martin issuing a statement saying that she “was not aware that the document was being produced” and “did not approve its circulation.”

“When the approach assumes campus-wide agreement about the meaning of terms and about social, economic, and political matters, it runs counter to the core academic values of freedom of thought and expression,” Martin wrote. “It cuts against our efforts to foster open exchange and independent thinking.”

Jones said he believes it was a mistake to send the document from his office to the entire community “because of the implication that the guide is meant to dictate speech and expression or ideology on campus.” 

“It does not represent an official position of the College or an expectation that everyone on campus should use any particular language or share a point of view,” he wrote. 

Students and faculty react

The controversy elicited strong reactions across campus. Some defended the Common Language Guide as a good-faith effort to spark conversation and mutual understanding about difficult topics, while many derided the effort as misguided. 

At the center of the controversy were the Amherst College Republicans, who were quoted in much of the press coverage of the episode. “It wasn’t the college’s place to tell us what these things meant,” Brantley Mayers, a member of the Amherst College Republicans, told the Boston Herald. “They were establishing the parameters of speech.”  

Plenty of faculty members took issue with the document, too.

“I think that if the document had sort of laid out the context, so to speak, on the sides of how these terms are contested and who contests them, it would have been much more helpful,” philosophy professor Nishi Shah said. “Even if I agree with everything in the document … I would still have a problem with the document because it’s taking sides on contested issues.”

“These guidelines pretend to freeze, in definitional ways, concepts that are so complex and so fluid and so rich that they made a mockery of such matters, and make conversations about them more difficult,” history professor Francis Couvares said. “I think what’s going to promote some useful conversation is the rejection of these guidelines and the opening up of the conversation that we should have been having.” 

Couvares added that he is aware of some faculty who have expressed support of the language guide. 

In an interview with the Gazette, Rob Barasch, the Amherst College Republicans club president, said members were “fairly hurt” and “kind of offended” by the document, which he said was not inclusive of those on the ideological right. He said Republicans on campus have felt “marginalized” for a while, adding that his members don’t have any conservative faculty or “resource center” that they can rely on. 

“With this history, it wasn’t like this was a one-time thing and my club was like, ‘What’s this?’” Barasch said. 

But some have taken issue with that stance — particularly after the college’s student newspaper, The Amherst Student, published part of a group chat between members of the Amherst College Republicans. In the messages on the app GroupMe, some mocked gender-noncomforming people, as well as a group of students who met to discuss the document in Robert Frost Library.

When asked about the group chat, Barasch said his club did not intend to make people feel uncomfortable.

“I’m sorry if anybody felt offended by that,” he said. “In terms of people posting that, that’s not an official stance of the Amherst College Republicans at all.”

Huey Hewitt, a black transgender student at the college, described the College Republicans — in this case and in other previous controversies on campus — as “playing the victim” with talk of free speech. 

“It’s a weaponization of rhetoric that most people are otherwise receptive to, to make the debate seem to be about people being able to freely express themselves in good faith, rather than people wanting to be able to hold onto the power that they’ve held for hundreds of years,” Hewitt said.

Hewitt added that conservatives are “upset” that students of color and queer students have increasing power and resource centers on campus. For that reason, he said, they are closely watching the Office of Inclusion and Diversity for anything that can be misconstrued “so as to coerce the college to decrease the power that offices like that have at the school.”

Michaela Brangan, a visiting professor of law, said it was problematic that faculty had no part to play in the crafting of the document. She described the guide as a good-faith effort, but one that resulted in a finished product that was “Orwellian.” 

But Brangan also said that the coverage of the episode in the conservative press is part of a larger effort to wield the “ideology of free speech against unsuspecting and vulnerable people.”

“I believe that some of these people would like to see the liberal arts model fail,” Brangan said. “We should be helping each other and protecting each other instead.”

This article was updated Sunday, March 31, 2019.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.


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