Last week, the college experienced somewhat unprecedented turmoil following the release of the Common Language Document (CLD) by the Office of Diversity and Inclusion. Later that same day, President Biddy Martin retracted the published document under the guise of protecting free speech and thought at Amherst. The Common Language Document aimed to foster community by increasing awareness of certain terms used by a variety of marginalized groups in our society. Although it was clearly not a document endorsed by the administration or Amherst College in general, it was quickly denounced as a mistake and made inaccessible to the student body. We believe this was not an appropriate or productive reaction.
The introduction of the CLD was not perfect. Without warning, students, faculty and staff were sent a document filled with unfamiliar terms that people may have been uncomfortable with. To many people, the rollout was too sudden, too jarring. Furthermore, the document included some definitions that many on campus found questionable or just plain wrong. Many students on campus questioned the document on definitions like capitalism, which was said to foster “exploitative labor practices.”
In her second statement emailed to the Amherst community, President Martin claimed that the document, despite its noble goals, had infringed on the freedom of expression of those who opposed the document and its goals. It was this reasoning, she claimed, that led the administration and the Office of Diversity and Inclusion to remove the document from the college’s website. To the college, the freedom of expression was absolute and the CLD infringed on this right.
It must be made clear, however, that there was no attack on free speech within the CLD. There was no clause indicating that students were required to adhere to the language and definitions presented. Furthermore, the Common Language Guide itself insisted that it was not a “comprehensive document” and that it was susceptible to change pending input from the student body. Members of Amherst’s community clearly had the option to submit revisions so that the CLD itself could cater to the needs of the community. In no way was it an absolute document, as many “free speech” advocates claimed.
Instead of using this opportunity to foster dialogue within the community, the administration shut down the CLD, using freedom of expression as a simple scapegoat. The claims made by opponents of the Common Language Document, who stated that it was policing language, were unfounded and wrong. The fact that our own president invoked similar rhetoric at the expense of marginalized groups on campus clearly sent the wrong message to our student body.
It was clear to the majority of the student body that President Martin’s actions set a terrible example of what Amherst values in its community. To the delight of the conservative media, our administration has decided to take the side of proponents of “free speech” and threw the most vulnerable members of our campus under the bus. While trying to reduce blowback from many of the more privileged members of the Amherst community, the administration sent the wrong message to those who continue to face barriers on campus.
President Martin’s letter incorrectly assumed that the Amherst community is a paradise of diversity. A recent series written by Shawna Chen ’20, titled “A Flawed System,” has shown that faculty of color continue to face systemic barriers on campus, including roadblocks to tenure approval. It can be hard to share about one’s experience as a socioeconomically disadvantaged student to a peer who has a substantial amount of economic privilege. Amherst’s campus till bears major barriers to becoming the “paradise” that our administration claims exists. President Martin’s letter, however, only served to cater to the privileged members of our campus while ignoring the experiences of the marginalized.
Diversity brings with it many burdens that fall upon the most marginalized members of our campus. The Common Language Document attempted to increase a greater awareness and understanding of our collective differences, and the administration’s actions sent a clear and unproductive message. Amherst must rethink their actions against the Common Language Document and make it accessible again.
Unsigned editorials represent the Editorial Board (assenting: 9; dissenting: 0; abstaining: 5)