The Lack of Leftist Discourse

There is a crucial, worrying and endemic lack of leftist discourse at Amherst College.

I’m assuming — and I beg your pardon if I am wrong — that if you’re the typical Amherst student (and I beg your pardon again for generalizing), this statement has thrown you into dizzy confusion, if not outright outrage — Amherst College? Not leftist enough?! We’re a bunch of self-righteous liberals that shun any conservative voices that dare use racial slurs or tell us we can’t abort what we like! If anything is the problem, it’s that we’re too liberal. Too leftist. Jeez, we even have a Multicultural Resource Center that’s not in the basement now, what more do you want?

You wouldn’t be entirely wrong to say that, because it’s true — we are, in general, a college of self-righteous liberals. But therein lies the entire problem — the conflation of liberalism with leftism, the idea of a political spectrum that begins with conservatism and ends with liberalism, or, at most, an idea of social democratism that sits comfortably within the liberal paradigm of thought. There seems to be an inability to think outside this narrow framework, to conceive of a “left of liberal” that’s not just an extension of liberalism itself; a taboo to any sort of belief system that involves radicalism, Marxism, structural or post-structural frameworks of thought. It’s symptomatic in a lot of ways the debates around campus are structured: for example, I’ve heard “but that sounds awfully socialist of you!” as a legitimate argument last year about some of the debates around the MRC. Not —”that sounds awfully socialist of you, and that’s bad because [x],” but “that sounds awfully socialist of you, and that should be enough for you to discard your argument,” because we’re all in a consensus that we hate socialism, right? I’ve also heard Ethan Corey, who — as much as I do not want to speak for him, I can say expresses pretty radically left beliefs in the articles he writes for ACVoice — being described as “an extreme liberal”: because people at this college do not have the vocabulary to conceive of someone having a position expressed opposed to liberalism that is not conservatism and cannot, again, understand a left of liberal that isn’t just “extreme liberalism.” I’ve heard arguments in class where people have said, “that’s not democratic!” keeping in mind only the liberal-capitalist view of democracy as if it were the only one that existed, and nobody thought much of it. These incidents aren’t meant as conclusive proof of the lack of discourse I am describing: they are mere concrete examples of something I feel runs much deeper in the way we think and we’re taught to think and the way we talk and act at Amherst (an institution that, we must remember, produces and prides itself on producing several people who go into mainstream American politics, law or bureaucracy, or into corporations, businesses, consulting, finance and other institutions of liberalism and capitalism).

This close-mindedness works in more insidious ways as well — not just an outright fundamental confusion with regards to leftism, but also a visceral outrage at anything that shakes this belief system of liberalism. Take, for example, two articles that appeared in The Student last year. The first was one by Salena Budinger and Maia Mares, on Feb. 2, 2012, entitled “The Fundamental Right to Choice.” It was in response to a piece on abortion by Andrew Kaake that fostered a lot of debate, but it went beyond just positing a pro-choice stance to Kaake’s anti-choice one: it said — and this seemed to disturb people more than the contents of the original anti-choice article itself — “You don’t need to respect an opinion if it continues the systemic oppression of every person capable of being pregnant.” Immediate angry responses called the authors “illiberal” (and thus implicitly, wrong), and against the “civil discourse of liberal society.” The consensus seemed to be that “yes, you’re right in saying women have the right to choose what to do with their bodies, but you’re wrong to say that we shouldn’t honor and respect the opinions of those who disagree. They deserve the ‘right’ to speak out.” This is liberalism — that radically different opinions can and should coexist, even if one destroys the other; even if speech and belief are forms of action and structural violence. We can all think differently but should not and cannot act according to these beliefs ­— there should be a dissonance in ideas and acting upon these ideas. Praxis is immaterial; tone and form and the liberal notion of respect triumphs over content, substance, critique and truth. These were the same kinds of oppositions that were popularly posed against the protests that occurred during last year’s contentious (and contentiously titled) “Day of Dialogue”: maybe you have a point, but did you really have to protest? Did you really have to break the order, the liberal notions of civility and politeness, the status quo set by higher authorities of how the day should progress (liberalism, in my view, is fundamentally connected to an unquestioning respect for authority)? Fundamentally: did you really have to act on your beliefs? Did you really dare to act against the code of conduct dictated to us by liberal society?

The second article I wish to speak about that is symptomatic of this pervasive liberalism in the response that it received is Professor Thomas Dumm’s highly controversial piece entitled “The Elephant in the Room.” First of all, I find it hilarious — and by hilarious, I mean troubling and sad — that the article was met with much more vocal outrage than any statistics about rape, any racial slurs scribbled loudly and proudly over the campus at varying points this and last year, indeed, more vocal outrage than literally anything else that has happened over the course of my Amherst college career (excluding, perhaps, Angie Epifano’s original article on rape at Amherst itself). Now, I want to disclaim that I know nothing, nor wish to assert anything, about Professor Dumm or his political leanings. But I feel that what he does in his article uproots some fundamental tenets of liberalism, and that is perhaps what drove the outrage against it. Professor Dumm dared to question the vested interests of the sexual respect committee with respect to athletics, given the alumni connections and monetary benefits sports gives to the college. The response to him from members of the sexual assault task force was “how dare you question our intentions, we’re good people that genuinely want to end sexual assault!” Again this is liberalism in operation. Take people’s opinions — take the work of Amherst committees — as divorced from the contexts and structures they emerge from, as able to exist in a void where material conditions don’t determine the modes of thought that emerge. That is, that it would be fundamentally wrong to investigate any links between funding, alumni, material and vested interests of those that keep the business that is Amherst College going, in investigating how it responds to its internal crises. Don’t ever dig deeper into structural violence: question everything but Amherst itself, but liberalism itself, Professor Dumm! After all, it’s only with a persistent ignorance of material conditions of human existence and deeper structural issues of society, that someone can, with a straight face, tell Professor Dumm that his alleged stereotyping of athletes (which, incidentally, he did not do) is similar to the discrimination of people of color in America. It’s only someone who cannot think beyond liberalism and equality asserted without structural context, who can compare Professor Dumm’s article to the myth of the black rapist. In short, the only context where an article that does no more than beg a more critical investigation into subcultures possibly perpetuating sexual assault can incite such an angry mob of responses, is a context where liberalism suffocatingly overpowers the discourse.

To sum up, then: there is a worrying lack of leftist vocabulary, consciousness, discourse and praxis on this campus. It is not because of the lack of specific beliefs as much as it is because the entire framework within which we act and speak is a liberal one: exemplified in our agreeing-to-disagree, in what we consider valid and invalid debate, in what outrages us and what doesn’t, in what we are allowed to believe and what we believe is “just common sense” and what is radically insensible to us. And this is worrying for its larger implications: its implications in how we think, how we debate, how we criticize the institutions about us, what sort of questions we ask to ourselves and to the college that we form a part of. The lack of leftist discourse, for example, allows questions of treatment of staff or payment of staff at Amherst, or our treatment of adjunct faculty, or our support or funding of or investment in certain companies and industries, to go unquestioned and uninvestigated by all our main campus publications. It allows us to feel enraged at Professor Dumm or student activists for questioning the status quo, but never feel enraged at the status quo itself. It allows us to be subsumed by, instead of critical of, the larger stifling of political debate in America, where the false dichotomies of Republicans and Democrats, the Wall Street Journal and New York Times, conservatives and liberals, captures public debate. It allows Amherst College to be a place that oils the neoliberal machine of America instead of being subversive to it, and above all — it undermines, to repeat a phrase I used two weeks ago, our education, by making it a (liberal) indoctrination.