As cars filled with eager first years and their families roll into Quadrangle Drive, our campus community made the first strides into ushering in the much-anticipated school year. Yet, behind the smiling faces of orientation leaders and welcoming speeches made by the administration, our campus hid the hurt and conflict that pervaded our lives last year. As a community, we may have bid farewell to the 2018-2019 school year and all of its controversy, but the start of a new school year cannot and does not wipe the slate clean. We cannot throw the difficult and deeply hurtful developments of the previous year under the rug. To move on, we must recognize the source of conflict that divided us in the first place, reckon with our campus’ vulnerability to the national trend of polarization and bigotry and reflect on what Amherst can do to move forward.
This summer alone, our nation reeled from two horrendous mass shootings that took place in the span of one day in the cities of El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio. The reality of racism and white supremacy reared its ugly head in the gunmen’s hate-filled manifestos back into the public sphere. And then the president of the United States rampaged on social media against four congresswomen of color, demanding that they “go back” to where they came from.
The events of the last year demonstrate clearly that the evils of bigotry and prejudice have pervaded into each and every aspect of our daily lives. Despite the college’s “bubble-like” atmosphere in the idyllic town of Amherst, we, as a broader community, must recognize the vulnerability of our campus in the face of bigotry. The controversial, polarizing and hurtful events of last year — the swastika found crudely drawn on a student’s face at a men’s lacrosse party, the botched release of the Common Language Document and the subsequent transphobic comments made by members of the Amherst College Republicans and, of course, the polarizing lecture given by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions — serve as stark reminders to what can happen on a campus like ours in the face of complacency.
But what was the source of all this conflict? We, the editorial staff of The Amherst Student, cannot explain why any of this happened. What we can speak to, however, is what could have been done to prevent these actions in the first place and what we can do to move forward. In an era when our nation has become so polarized, so divergent, it was inevitable that cracks would appear on our campus. Despite our small size and relative isolation, students from across the ideological spectrum did not have the ability to engage in productive discourse and conversations that would allow us to reflect on our stances, both personal and political.
The sudden release of the Common Language Document did not aid in this polarization. Students backed into their ideological corners and did not engage in productive discourse. Instead, groups of like-minded individuals reinforced sides and labelled dissenters as “others,” ultimately culminating in bigoted language disguised as mere “jokes.” While the student body and the Association of Amherst Students (AAS) took respectable actions in the aftermath of transphobic comments made in the ACR’s GroupMe chat ,there was no conceivable effort to initiate a productive discussion with the parties affected.While swift condemnation by both the student-body at large and the AAS led to sanctions on the ACR and its leadership, it ultimately failed to affect any change in our campus community, much less the ACR members who actually made those comments. Instead, the polarization and tribalism that led to the incident in the first place continued to increase, culminating in division across the spectrum on the night of April 24, when Sessions arrived on campus to speak.
Since the protests, the comments and Session’s speech, our campus has not fully moved on or begun the resolution process. The individual who drew the swastika and the individuals who wrote the comments have not publicly apologized or recognized the gravity of their actions. The ACR continues to remain defunded in the aftermath of its refusal to comply with even a single AAS sanction.
Now, more than ever, the 2019-2020 school year represents an important opportunity for our campus to heal.
What does that look like? We can’t be completely sure. But we are committed to trying to listen more and assume less — to leaving broad labels like Republican or Democrat to the backs of our heads in order to see complexity and nuance. Everyone deserves an opportunity to grow and learn, especially when they’ve made mistakes, and extending that grace to Amherst community members — our own selves included — may just be the first step to healing.