Is this ‘Common’ Language?

A College’s Misguided Guide
Amherst College, Amherst, Massachusetts (Daderot / Wikimedia Commons)

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.

 

It perplexes me to see Amherst’s spirited back-and-forth smothered by a moralistic and rigidly prescriptive code for campus discourse.

The Common Language Guide wasn’t on the Amherst website for long. Soon after it appeared, president Carolyn Martin, surely recognizing the potential for calamitous PR, took it down, then hastily called a faculty meeting to express her displeasure at such a document having been made public without her approval. Of course, nothing really disappears from the internet, and it didn’t take long for gloating reactionaries to seize on the guide and indulge their favorite sport of gleefully savaging liberal elitism.

Liberals will dislike being forced into strange bedfellow-ship with rightwing cultural critics. But a document like Amherst's Common Guide may leave them no choice. Despite the sentiment expressed in its introduction, such a document will not serve to encourage discussion, but to stifle it; the goal is not intellectual diversity, but conformity. A professor friend of mine at another college notes ruefully that colleagues who oppose the ideas and language put forth in the Amherst document don’t dare say so publicly. “They’d be ostracized and shamed,” he told me. “You just can’t disagree with this kind of thing.” So much for the idea of tenure as a shield against censorship.

In a statement disavowing the guide, Martin commented that it “runs counter to the core academic values of freedom of thought and expression...[and] cuts against our efforts to foster open exchange and independent thinking.” A few days later, in a second, longer statement, Martin—presumably having taken heat from her faculty—partly walked back her initial criticism, praising “the intentions of those who created the document” and asserting that “they believed creating it would help us come to terms with the experiences and perspectives of marginalized groups and create an environment in which understanding and a sense of community could grow.”

Her words suggest that buried somewhere under the glossary’s avalanche of dogma is a hope for understanding and tolerance. But even if you grant benign intentions, the effect of such a boilerplate document will almost surely be closer to the opposite. The problem lies in the guide’s dismissive simplifications of concepts that deserve nuanced treatment. “Colorblindness,” for instance, is defined as “the ideology that believes the best way to end racial discrimination is through treating individuals the same, regardless of race, culture and ethnicity.” The entry proceeds to inform us that “this belief, however, ignores historical and structural factors that benefit white people and disadvantage indigenous, black and all other people of color,” and emphasizes that it “does nothing to address inequity.” Yet plenty of Americans believe that striving to treat people equally is a sine qua non of good citizenship. Similarly, “cultural appropriation” is denounced as the “theft” of hairstyles, attire, art, etc., committed by those outside “the original culture.” Well, but what about Picasso, or white jazz geniuses, or fusion chefs, or Lil Nas X? Cultural blending and borrowing is a richly complex and challenging subject. But not according to the guide. Again and again the glossary deploys didactic definitions to shut down precisely the kind of discussion that is the bread and butter of a liberal education.

Another basic problem lies in its language. Amherst’s guide defines “social justice” as “a vision of the world where all groups of people can live (and be perceived) as fully human on all levels.” But if this is the vision animating the document, then why does it sound so... non-human? Trapped in its arid jargon, one thirsts for something resembling living language. Instead, what we get is an endless proliferation of bureaucratic dicta and a roster of attitudes ordained by fiat. And so what may have originated in a search for understanding and tolerance devolves into a relentless categorization of human experience, driven by a nearly compulsive preoccupation with the ways people can insult and wound one another.

I treasure the education I got at Amherst decades ago. It fostered curiosity, discovery, and the habit of ideas shaped and tested by an often spirited back-and-forth, both in the classroom and out. It perplexes me to see that spirited back-and-forth smothered by a moralistic and rigidly prescriptive code for campus discourse. Reading the guide page for page frequently feels absurd. But I view its existence as closer to tragic. Where exactly is it trying to guide us to? Not any place I’d want to be; and surely not a place in which I’d want higher education to reside. Yet its values seem increasingly to prevail on America’s elite college campuses. At a time when dark notions of “illiberal democracy” are proliferating on the global right, it makes one wince to see the American left respond with illiberal liberal arts.

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal

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