College Politics and the English Language

On Saturday evening someone drew a swastika and wrote a racial slur near the entrance of Chapman Dorm. Dean of Students Jim Larimore took 465 words to communicate that information in a campus-wide email. He added, using perhaps the maximum number of words possible: “That this incident should occur within hours of the end of the observance of Yom Kippur, a holy day of particular significance for those of the Jewish faith tradition, makes it especially hurtful.” To summarize those 33 words in ten words, it happened the night after Yom Kippur, a Jewish holiday.

The email went out at 12:55 a.m. Sunday morning, meaning it was written as an immediate response to this emergency graffiti incident. Perhaps some will think the response was appropriately prompt and well-communicated. Yet it seems unlikely this email was written with the sole intention of conveying information to students. First, its length precludes the vast majority of students from doing much more than skim it. Second, it is written in such convoluted language that it is occasionally impossible to make sense of. What does it mean to “join [Dean Larimore] in a commitment to redouble the work of ensuring fairness and respect in our community”? The email is administrative, coldly distant and consistently devoid of clear meaning. The sentiments are not wrong or dishonest. Dean Larimore undoubtedly cares about the graffiti — the problem is that his email does not show that.

In his essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell identified a “special connection between politics and the debasement of language.” Dean Larimore exemplifies the debased language of politics in his call for the offending students to “reconcile themselves with the community.” This empty phrase is most simply understood as insincere political chatter. What does it mean to reconcile oneself with a community? Dean Larimore may have something in mind, but his writing opts not to explain. Orwell compares the political use of imprecise language to ink from a cuttlefish. When the situation is bad, our language works to separate us from the problem. This email did not encourage Amherst students to think about the bigotry — instead it made it easier for us to stop thinking about it.

The graffiti included “a vulgar phrase and a racial epithet usually targeted at African-Americans.” Can Dean Larimore not tell us these words? I am sure we have heard them before. Yet, despite his informative tone, he is not interested in informing us about the ugly, bigoted side of the Amherst community. Instead of thoughtfully discussing the issue, Dean Larimore spends his time vaguely condemning the graffiti, listing campus resources for counseling and support and closes with an optimistic note about the community rising above the incident. I am confident this email would get nods of approval from any PR or legal team. I am sure carefulness and political correctness-ad-absurdum make for a strong administrator in the eyes of the Trustees. However, I do not think these are qualities of a strong ally for students. Communication like this will not forge a cooperative relationship between the students and the administration; it will only drive us further apart. The fact that this email seems standard and unremarkable demonstrates just how deep this problem runs. The email was written in the vague platitudes that accompany almost every corporate press release, official government statement or political campaign agenda.

The fundamental problem with the email is that it gives the impression that Dean Larimore spent the early hours of Sunday morning responding to an incident instead of expressing a genuine, considered concern about Amherst College. If his goal is to grow a college community, he should begin by not sounding like he is managing one. This email is only one example of a larger issue. Amherst College could be much improved if the school stopped treating us like political liabilities to be managed, removed the gloves of administrative phrase-ology and began talking to us like competent human beings.