The AC Voice Problem: Activist Olympics and Silent Discourse

AC Voice is the student publication that students love to hate. Depending on who you mention the publication to, you may get everything from encouraging compliments to unenthusiastic sighs and murmurs. Generally, however, campus enthusiasm is low about the publication. Case in point the events of last week. On March 4, AC Voice writer Gina Faldetta ’16, posted an article to the independent publication aptly titled “Amherst College’s Bathroom Problem.” In the article, Faldetta makes a fairly reasonable observation about the gender-bias present in the bathrooms of older buildings on campus. Merrill, Chapin, Frost and Converse have 52 places for men to use, while females have only 22. In response she proposes gender-neutral bathrooms. As many students saw from their Facebook newsfeeds, AC Voice has had tremendous negative feedback in the comments section. As of now, there are 91 mostly damaging and anonymous comments on Faldetta’s article. A few individuals chose to publicize their identities, while many others chose to remain hidden. Some of these individuals included the student body President, George Tepe ’14 and many of the other writers of the publication, who had very little to lose socially for posting their opinions in the comments section. In my opinion, the phenomenon of anonymity is where AC Voice as an “activist” institution finds itself into problems.

In my opinion, AC Voice is not a publication that necessarily promotes meaningful discourse, as its proponents would describe. It is an publication that masquerades under the label of promoting conversation while only perpetuating anonymity through a fear of social backlash. The site does so through the monopolization of a variety of social justice jargon and through the policing of individuals that do not conform to their predetermined definitions. Through this strict monopolization of social justice jargon and their enforcement of this jargon through the “checking of privilege,” the unintended consequence becomes a discourse of silence in the Amherst College community. This silent discourse manifests itself through the anonymity of individuals that do not conform to AC Voice self-defined language of activism. We see it through the language of Liya Rechtman ’14 as she attempts to school the Black Students Union (BSU) on how to be activist about hate-speech (think Oppressive Olympics), Faldetta, as she compares the importance of bathroom gender equality to Rosa Parks and the civil rights movement, and Craig Campbell ’15, as he defines (seemingly using the dictionary of his choice, or in his words “basic dictionary definitions”) what activism, advocacy and agitation are. Frankly, the “one, multivocal Amherst College Voice” that individuals like Campbell and Rechtman purport is a farce. AC Voice has almost transformed “activism” on the campus to a homogenized pulp dominated, unfortunately, by writers such as Rechtman, Faldetta and Campbell. These self-contained definitions of activism, racism, sexism, etc. have obscured many of these writers from recognizing their own privilege. In other words, the “Activist-Olympics” is real and at Amherst College AC Voice has won because of their domination of key social justice jargon.

My problem with AC Voice started with an article that I penned on behalf of the BSU in response to hate speech on campus last semester. Rather than criticize the act of hate speech and the pervasive campus apathy that was present about N-word scrawls outside dorms, Rechtman wrote a tremendously insensitive critique of the language present in the article and not the actual act of hate speech (merely reinforcing some of my above opinions on AC Voice). When I, under the name “Anon,” called out Liya’s insensitivity and privilege I got this response.

I spent a great deal of time and energy trying to edit and bolster your prose so that when the campus read the important things you had to say they would really hear and pay attention to your critique of Amherst as a frequently racist and silencing community. My only major criticism of your argument, as you know by now, was that I hoped you would include some actionable next step or at least target a specific area so that readers could come from you article having a sense of where to direct their anger.

Here Rechtman justifies the police-style monitoring of the words and actions of the BSU, another activist organization on campus. Why, without her explicit direction, could the BSU not express their feelings towards the campus and administration? Here language, both in this response and in the original AC Voice article, was incredibly offensive, silencing and patronizing — almost reflecting a strand of paternalism that insinuates that the organizations response was invalid and that only she knew best. Just to note, in her response to the BSU’s Op-Ed critiquing hate speech, Rechtman superimposes her definition of the organization without doing any prior research on the organization at Amherst College — or even going to a single meeting. In my opinion, the most troubling quote from her article was “Lindsay’s letter plunged us back into the ‘oppression Olympics’” and a self-victimizing rhetoric that I have in the past argued would only lead us to cross-cultural miscommunication, community fatigue and oppressive stasis.” The “Oppression-Olympics” that Rechtman identifies, for those who don’t know, is when people from various groups attempt to win the day by stating that their particular type of oppression is more damaging than another group’s.

There appears to be a growing trend in institutions where the expression of social justice jargon is the norm, a term called the “Activist-Olympics.” In the white social justice “activist” community there seems to be tremendous competition to prove who the most “activist” is. This generally equates to who is the most politically correct, the person who has “checked their the privilege” the most regularly and the individual who has the loudest voice in declaring their (insert privilege here). Womanist Musings writer Renee Martin states it more aptly.

It seems like there are dozens of responses from white people about what the person did wrong, how offended POC should be by this particular person or brand of activism, and how the activist is ‘showing their privilege.’ And when the “white anti-racists” are done with their critiques of the person who performed the activist work in question, they retreat into their corners, read a book, write a blog and do nothing to promote justice in any concrete way.

AC Voice because of their monopolization of social justice jargon is essentially immune from constructive criticism. In one of my criticisms of Faldetta’s article, again under the title “Anon” I highlight some of the problems that I had with Faldetta (and Rechtman in a past article tilted “Desegregate”) comparing the issues that they raised to the civil rights movement and Jim Crow. One of my criticisms stemmed from this comment that Faldetta made in defense of her article.

NOT to appropriate the racial oppression historically and currently experienced by black Americans, but there is a very similar line of logic that one can draw here. It’s easy, from a position of privilege, to view such an issue as bathrooms on campus as trivial, but I’d like to think that commenters here would not also say that ‘the extra twenty steps and extra thirty seconds’ it takes to get to the back of the bus is not a big deal and should not be complained about.

Rechtman, in support of Faldetta’s comparison of bathroom inequality at Amherst to a period in history where African-Americans were killed because of their skin color responding in another section in the comments says:

Just because two things are not similar in all ways does not mean that there is no similarity between them. Let me give you a non-political example of this: if I were to say that lava and water were alike in that they were both liquid, and fluid, would not mean that I think lava is as harmless as lava or that lava is easy to drink, like water.

Problematic logic like Faldetta’s and Rechtman’s is left unchecked because of the monopolization of social justice jargon that they maintain in the Amherst College community, and if this monopolization of jargon is challenged, one gets repressed, such as what happened with the Black Student Union last semester.

Faldetta’s article last semester titled, “’Cold’ is a Relative Term” is perhaps a better representation of what AC Voice functionally represents to many at Amherst College, as opposed to the multifocal voice that the site purports. Faldetta begins, “If your activism makes your oppressor feel comfortable than maybe you should reevaluate your activism.” In the second paragraph she calls out a guest writer for equating his feelings of being left out in the cold for not having anyone educate him about cultural appropriation to the “historical and systematic oppression suffered by two Jamaican women …allow[ing] him to criticize these women for lashing out at him without having to actually acknowledge that he comes from a place of privilege.” This line is in direct contrast to the quote I laid out earlier where she compares the Amherst bathroom problem to the historical oppression of African-Americans. However, this is not the crux of the issue. She continues:

I’ve thought about based on countless interactions with people at Amherst, is of silencing the voice and expression of the oppressed simply because they might hurt someone’s feelings. This lack of distinction between being unpleasant and perpetuating an oppressive social dynamic is essentially privilege denial, and is extremely detrimental to the creation of a community of social equality[…] So, the question remains: do individuals attempting to enact social change and overthrow social systems that oppress them have to do so by communicating nicely to people who are subjugating them? My answer, right now, is no. I understand that it is most effective to communicate in a collaborative manner when trying to explain social issues to people who could use some enlightenment, but under a circumstance in which someone is directly perpetuating your oppression, it is well within your right to approach them with whatever tone you see fit.

When taken to the degree that we see from many of the its writers, the contents of this article are a metaphor for the type of discourse that AC Voice perpetuates on this campus. The publication (at least in the case of the more prominent authors) promotes a discourse of silence predicated by not only by the off-hand, often satirical and anonymous responses from critics (such as myself), but the cowardly and silent challenges to AC Voice’s control of “activist” language in and out of classroom. People at Amherst College are scared of publicized dissent because of the “’Cold’ is a Relative Term” mentality from many individuals like Faldetta and Rechtman.

When professors and students observe offensive language in classroom, many don’t respond because of this silent discourse. These problems spill out of the classroom into “Politically Correct” everyday life with ones peers on and off campus. This defeats the purpose of the liberal arts education that we are encouraged to partake in while being here. The only way Amherst College can move forward into more tangible equality and dialogue is to have more meaningful conversations, and this can only happen if institutions like AC Voice stop monopolizing social justice terminology, accept meaningful criticism and become more introspective. We need to encourage more dialogue, however offensive it may appear to be on the surface. If we don’t see these microaggressions how can we combat them if people are too reluctant to express their opinions? The discourse of silence has to stop, only then can Amherst College move forward.