I’ve written previously (here, here, and here) to express doubt about trends at elite colleges in the United States: the emphasis on students’ emotional “safety” at the cost of their intellectual challenge; the harassment of speakers; the cowing of professors whose views fall outside the progressive norm; the use of identity politics to mark off proprietary experience and deny standing to those who don’t share it. I often wonder: Do these attitudes constitute a kind of exquisite flower, growable only in the hothouse environment of an elite liberal-arts world, or do they signal what’s to come in society at large?
If it is the latter, we’re in for a big mess. Recently I spent a couple of laborious hours plowing through a remarkable document posted on the website of my alma mater, Amherst College. Formulated by the college’s Office of Diversity & Inclusion, and published under the title “Common Language Guide,” the forty-page glossary of terms purports to serve what its two-paragraph introduction calls “a need to come to a common and shared understanding of language...around identity, privilege, oppression and inclusion.”
As a collection of terms intended to structure and referee conversations on campus, the dictionary represents the apotheosis of identity politics, with fully two-thirds of it devoted to matters related to gender identity and sexual orientation. What the glossary contains is not “common” language by any normal reckoning. Its very first entry defines “accomplice” as “a term coined by Indigenous Action Network to critique the ways in which ‘ally’ as an identity term has been deployed absent of action, accountability or risk-taking.” Such definitions signal that we have departed the real world for an alternative progressive universe filled with specialized terminology and in-house references.
Some entries are almost comically tendentious. Here is the guide’s definition of “heterosexuality,” for instance: “A term developed as diagnosis of the hyper-infatuation with a different sex, first used by sexologist Karl-Maria Kertbeny in 1868.... [It] is used today to denote the normalized dominant sexual identity.” And while the guide’s definition of “equality” begins straightforwardly enough—“treating everyone exactly the same”—it quickly takes a sharp left turn, observing that “an equality emphasis often ignores historical and structural factors that benefit some social groups/communities and harm other social groups/communities.” Does that mean that emphasizing equality is not a good thing?
Anything resembling traditional, received notions of gender (and anyone embracing them) receives a bruising definitional wallop from Amherst’s team of language mavens. We learn that “femininity” is “a set of attributes, behaviors, and roles associated with girls and women,” and further that “performing femininity in a culturally established way is expected of people assigned female at birth.” The definition all but dismisses femininity as fraudulent—unless it is the femininity of the marginalized. Thus we encounter “hard femme,” defined as “an identity term for queer women... [who] remind us that femininity and strength can be synonymous.” “Hard femmes,” the entry continues, “are feminists.” But...wait! Can’t straight women remind us that femininity and strength can be synonymous? Can’t they be feminists? Not exactly; at least, not straight white women—since “white feminism,” as we learn, is “a form of feminism that centers the experiences of white (also: cisgender, straight, and upper-class) women...[and] is predicated upon the erasure of women of color and the ways in which racism and sexism converge and compound one another.”
Reading the guide is like stumbling into a trade-journal article, where specialized language demarcates territory and warns off intruders. Bristling with acronyms and niche designations, it elaborates a system of identity via a profusion of phyla: Latinx/o/a/e, QTPOC, AFAB (Assigned Female at Birth), FTM, MX, XTX (“a response by trans folks who reject the terms ‘FTM’ and ‘MTF’”). We wander into internal gender-politics squabbles, as when we learn that “Boi”—“a term describing masculine-presenting queer black women whose gender presentation can be more fluid and/or androgynous than completely masculine”—was “purposely coined to be different from ‘stud’/’AG’ [‘Aggressive Girl’] because of the rigid conformity to masculinity in those communities.” Meanwhile, TERF—Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist—denotes feminists who reject trans women because they were once boys; while this view has been rejected “by most queer and trans communities,” the guide notes that “TERF ideology still does infiltrate many women’s spaces.”
Such infiltrations highlight the guide’s mission to warn about the ubiquitous danger of slipping into benighted behaviors, thoughts, and modes of expression. Here even the liberated are at risk. Thus, “homonormativity,” or “the ever-present phenomenon where members of the LGBTQ+ community subscribe to heteronormative approximations of intimate, romantic and sexual lives that are the product of white, neoliberal (capitalist), sexist, transmisogynistic and cissexist norms.” Presumably, this means gay people acting like straight married people. To help guard against such retrogressions, the guide lists common sins—such as “gender attribution,” defined as “the act of presuming someone else’s gender with or without knowledge of that person’s gender identity”—and dishes out prim scoldings. (“Please do not use the term ‘sex change.’” The proper term is “Gender Affirmation Surgery.”)
Frequently, a definition of one ideological error becomes an omnibus vehicle for multiple, far-flung oppressions—as when, in a definition of “gender binary,” we learn that “the gender binary is weaponized through conquest, colonization and continued occupation of indigenous people’s lands.” The guide proffers awkward coinages, such as “transmisogynoir,” defined as “the marginalization of black trans women and trans feminine people that is inclusive of transphobia, racism, and misogyny, and how all of these intersect.” Elsewhere it swerves into swooning advocacy, as in the definition of “nonbinary” (“a person whose beautiful existence transcends reductive binary constructs and works to annihilate gender and gender-based oppression once and for all.”) Eventually, one’s head begins to spin. Again and again these definitions read like farce—at times I suspected I was reading a malicious right-wing parody.
But the real problems lie deeper. Consider the guide’s definition for “social identity”—“a type of identity based on group membership in relation to institutional power and privilege”—which goes on to state that “(Personal identities are not considered social identities. Personal identities might include Harry Potter enthusiast, political party member, Patriots fan or introvert.)” Thus is personal identity reduced to a literal parenthetical, insignificant against the overriding realities of race, gender, and class. With its bewildering proliferation of categories, rules, acronyms, and designations, the guide puts forth a profoundly bureaucratic vision of the human being and of society. And who will be the bureaucrats in charge? Diversity officers, presumably. Of which there are many; the Amherst website lists a staff of twenty, at a college of 1,800 students.