The controversy that arose at Amherst College after it issued—and then withdrew—a politically correct “Common Language Guide” continues to reverberate across the Massachusetts campus weeks after its release.
On March 20, an email from Amherst Office of Diversity and Inclusion, which was obtained by The Daily Signal, explained to the student body of 1,792 that the Common Language Guide “emerged out of 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.”
The email continued:
It is a living document and by no means a comprehensive list, but it is a good place for us to start.
We understand that language around identity, privilege, oppression, and inclusion is always changing, evolving, and expanding.
After the document was reported on by the conservative website The Daily Wire—which had been tipped off by the Amherst College Republicans—it was removed from the school’s website with a statement from the school’s chief diversity and inclusion officer, Norm Jones, who said the language guide was “a mistake … 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.
The goal was to help create greater awareness of the ways many people at Amherst and beyond understand their own identities.
The guide, which The Daily Signal obtained, had included a list of terms and definitions related to race, sexual identity, and politics. Among them:
ANTI-BLACKNESS: Behaviors, attitudes, and practices of people and institutions that work to dehumanize black people in order to maintain white supremacy. Anti-blackness can also be internalized and might show up in black people or black communities in the form of colorism, an elevation of white culture, or attempts to separate oneself from black cultural norms.
CAPITALISM: 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.
MYTH OF SCARCITY: Used to pit people against each other, this is the fostering of the belief that resources are limited and the blaming of members of the marginalized group for using up too much of the limited resources available.
However, the controversy did not end with the guide’s withdrawal from Amherst’s website. Some students and faculty were upset that the college decided to take it down.
“People started printing the document … put them around the school. In the freshman dorms, in the cafeteria, in the library, everywhere,” said Robert Barasch, the president of the Amherst College Republicans, in an interview with The Daily Signal. Barasch added that they paired the document “with the printed copies of the president’s statement, as well as the diversity and inclusion officer’s statement apologizing for it … [They] crossed out those statements, and some of them wrote … hashtag ‘not my president.’”
But, Barasch added, “it’s important to understand that the school did a bad thing. It doesn’t mean the school is bad.”
“All the ‘free speech’ and ‘free exchange of ideas’ stuff are non-sequiturs and poison the well,” John Drabinski, professor of black studies and of film and media studies, told the school newspaper The Amherst Student. “That reaction, if I can be honest, is a symptom of race and sex panic.”
“Freedom of expression, research, and teaching has no relationship to the Common Language document … . Casting it in those terms is paranoid and diverts us from the real hard work of being a respectful community of difference,” Drabinski said.
Jonathan Butcher, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Education Policy at The Heritage Foundation, took strong exception to Drabinski’s view of the controversy.
Colleges need to return to the idea that it is not their responsibility to protect students from new ideas—something the University of Chicago has articulated so well in their position statements on free speech.
Students need to learn how to have civil discussions, especially on hot-button issues. Their success in the future in the workplace and with friends and other relationships may depend on it.
Amherst College did not respond to a request for comment.
The original photo accompanying this article has been replaced since it showed University of Massachusetts at Amherst, not Amherst College.