Since the release of its first issue earlier this semester, The Amherst Contra — an anonymous weekly publication founded by Ross Kilpatrick ’24E — has sparked a variety of reactions across campus. Designed to provide students with a platform to voice controversial or unpopular opinions, The Contra has fittingly become something of a controversial topic in itself, with some students expressing concern regarding the publication’s anonymity and possible subject matter, while others commend the prospect of fresh conversations and a renewed interest in public discussion.
Each issue of The Contra takes the form of a single double-sided broadsheet, featuring an anonymous article on one side and responses to previous weeks’ articles on the other. The publication’s first three issues have explored topics such as the validity of democracy, the Israel-Palestine conflict, and the ethics of student-athlete admissions. Contributors can choose to either express their own opinion or attempt to rebut the opinion written in a previous issue.
The first issue, entitled “Would We Be Better Off Without Democracy?,” included a letter from Kilpatrick, who serves as editor-in-chief of the publication, outlining the motivations and principles of The Contra. “It can feel, sometimes, that everyone at Amherst agrees on almost everything, or perhaps that everyone who disagrees has gotten very good at keeping quiet. … That’s unfortunate. College is a place where we should encounter new and challenging ideas, where we should be forced to look critically at our preconceived notions of the world and revise them or at least clarify for ourselves why those notions are good and true,” he wrote.
In an interview with The Student, Kilpatrick further clarified The Contra’s mission: “We’re not just unpopular opinions … it’s also voices that are not often heard on the campus.” He expressed that without having something like The Contra on campus, “the danger is that we’re just not going to be living up to the kind of academic potential of a place like Amherst.”
Many students agreed with Kilpatrick’s diagnosis of Amherst’s campus community and The Contra’s necessity. For some, the thought-provoking articles correct a campus-wide tendency toward conformity and agreement in opinion, while also affirming freedom of expression as a value.
Charlie Clary ’24 felt that, without The Contra, “campus discourse turns into an echo chamber, in which popular ideas are never challenged, and those who have dissenting opinions don't have a forum to express their views.”
Sika Essegbey ’23 expressed that The Contra “force[s] people to consider different perspectives.”
“For example,” she said, “the recent article about athletic admissions, regardless of whether I agreed with what was written, prompted a couple of my friends and I to have a pretty interesting conversation, and it forced many athletes I know to consider the nature of the team and the culture it forms.”
However, views such as these were not ubiquitous. Some argued that while there is value in debate and discussion, such a platform can promote both abrasive and problematic political stances and spur a skepticism that can actually stifle discussions on more pressing issues.
Henry Buren ’22 worried that The Contra may showcase and thus validate dangerous opinions. “Ideally, I think that The Contra would be able to illuminate flaws within some of the basic views in society that we take for granted, but only if the unpopular opinion is well researched and well-argued,” he said. “In actuality, it’s just people arguing to argue or voicing certain opinions to stir controversy.”
In addition, Buren scrutinized the form of The Contra. “I think it’s set up in a way that invites very poor arguments that can basically be, in my opinion, propaganda,” he said. “Arguments are going to be surface-level because you’re only allowed 600-1,000 words and 300-400 words for responses,” he said.
Buren added that he felt The Contra’s first two articles were not researched or argued well. “If you took a look at basic facts for more than 30 seconds, you would realize that they were wrong,” he said. “So it [The Contra] just seems like it’s propaganda, or just dangerous.”
The differing opinions over the Contra evokes similar debates going on across the country regarding freedom of speech and censorship on college campuses.
This is not the first time Amherst has been embroiled in such debates.
In 2019, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions spoke in Johnson Chapel for an event sponsored by the Amherst College Republicans. Minutes into Sessions’ talk, students walked out in protest, which garnered national attention.
Also in 2019, the release of Amherst’s Common Language Document was said to have precipitated a “community-wide fallout” and scrutiny from Conservative publications such as The Daily Wire (founded by Ben Shapiro) and The Boston Herald.
When asked about the possible connection to such events, Kilpatrick answered: “Yeah, I mean, [it’s] certainly linked to that kind of thing. I think that increasingly college campuses, especially on the East Coast, have become less ideologically diverse. I think this is a problem because I think it makes learning and holding different kinds of opinions about politics and the world harder … a lot of free speech stuff has been co-opted by right wing figures, like Ben Shapiro, as a way to sneak in right-wing rhetoric. But that’s not what we’re trying to do. We’re genuinely trying to start conversations about these interesting topics.”
While these debates rage on, Kilpatrick guarantees students that the Contra is merely here to foster a “healthy ecosystem” where discussions may be held freely and where we may come to truly substantiate our own beliefs.