Release of Common Language Document Leads to Community-Wide Fallout
The college was embroiled in controversy last week after the Office of Diversity and Inclusion (ODI) released the Common Language Document (CLD) in a community-wide email. Reactions to the document, which outlined and defined terms related to diversity and inclusion, were wide-ranging across the college.
On Wednesday, March 20, all students, faculty and staff received an email from the ODI in which Associate Dean of Diversity and Inclusion Angie Tissi-Gassoway wrote that she was excited to share the CLD, a new resource “created and written by the Resource Center Team within the Office of Diversity and Inclusion and in collaboration with various campus partners.”
The document begins with an “About” section that introduces the CLD and explains that it “emerged out of a need to come to a common and shared understanding of language in order to foster opportunities for community building and effective communication within and across difference.”
The rest of the document is divided into sections, containing and defining words associated with race and ethnicity, gender and gender identity, sexual and romantic identity, class, politics and policy, global power and inequality and disability. According to Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer Norm Jones, the resource team had been collecting terms and definitions for the last two and a half years; they did not work directly with students so as to prevent imposing additional workloads on students who often face “the burden of having to represent various identities and experiences.”
The document, Tissi-Gassoway wrote in her email, would be available on the ODI’s website and in print. Intended to help facilitate conversations across difference, “it is a living document and by no means a comprehensive list, but it is a good place for us to start,” she said. “We understand that language around identity, privilege, oppression and inclusion is always changing, evolving and expanding.”
Later that day, The Daily Wire published an article titled “Amherst College Releases Insane ‘Common Language Document.’” The article quoted a statement from the Amherst College Republicans (ACR). “While we appreciate the Office of Diversity and Inclusion’s efforts to make all feel comfortable on campus, we believe they failed to reach their lofty goals today,” the statement said. “The statement upon release claims that the office put together this list, ‘in collaboration with various campus partners,’ yet we were never consulted, and have serious problems with some of the ‘definitions’ provided.”
The Daily Wire also noted that AC Republicans “took issue” particularly with the document’s definitions of “capitalism” and “American exceptionalism.”
“We believe in capitalism and we believe in American exceptionalism, yet, on the school’s website, these terms are attacked with derision. We believe in the sanctity of the rule of law, yet, on the school’s website, we are told this is ‘highly racialized’,” their statement said.
Boston Herald later published a similar article calling the document a “PC language guide” on Thursday, March 21.
Following the publication of The Daily Wire article, Jones sent a community-wide email, writing that sending the document from his office to the entire community was “a mistake … because of the implication that the guide is meant to dictate speech and expression or ideology on campus.”
“It does not represent an official position of the college or an expectation that everyone on campus should use any particular language or share a point of view,” Jones added. “The goal was to help create greater awareness of the ways many people at Amherst and beyond understand their own identities.”
The document was taken down from the college website later on Wednesday and replaced with a statement from President Biddy Martin calling the document “a very problematic approach” to creating a sense of belonging on campus. Though she acknowledged the “understandable” motivations of those involved, “when the approach assumes campus-wide agreement about the meaning of terms and about social, economic, and political matters, it runs counter to the core academic values of freedom of thought and expression,” she wrote. “I was not aware that the document was being produced and I did not approve its circulation. It cuts against our efforts to foster open exchange and independent thinking. It is not a formal college document and will not be used as one.”
“Awareness and understanding of backgrounds and experiences other than one’s own are vital,” she added. “Using language that conveys respect for those differences is part of building community. But prescribing a particular language and point of view is anathema.” The word anathema, according to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, means something “intensely disliked or loathed.”
Immediate Aftermath Students quickly responded. On Thursday, March 21, a group of 30 to 40 students organized in Frost Library to discuss the document.
Isiaha Price ’21 and Tejia Pavao ’21, who led the initiative to meet, began by talking about their own opinions on the CLD. A Kentucky native, Price said he found the guide helpful in providing language for discourse. He was disappointed by how quickly the administration moved to distance itself from the document.
Pavao acknowledged that the method of distribution was maybe not the best, but they took issue with Martin’s response. “She said it was ‘a very problematic approach,’ … [which] completely goes against what the guide is for,” Pavao said. “[ODI] said it was something for reference; for Biddy to say that it was a violation of expression is not true.”
One student also questioned whose speech the college was protecting. “What are the bounds of these core values she’s talking about?” they said. “How do we create that balance? If we’re going to uphold freedom of speech, how will you deny one group and allow another?”
Other students felt that the document was an educational resource — many commended the ODI’s efforts to put together the terminologies — and that Martin’s response was a denial of the identities represented in the CLD. The group decided to post copies of the document around campus and online as a way to protest Martin’s initial statement. They also posted copies of Martin’s statement with a red X drawn over it.
By midday the next day, unknown people had torn down some of the posters in Keefe Campus Center, the Science Center and buildings in the first-year quad.
ACR Vice President Brantley Mayers ’19 said that to his knowledge, his group was not involved in tearing down the posters or writing on the whiteboard.
When he received Tissi-Gassoway’s email, Mayers initially didn’t understand what the document was supposed to represent. “I perceived it as a guide to discourse on campus and I took issue on that,” he said. Mayers’ friend is a reporter for The Daily Wire, and he reached out to her with the AC Republicans’ statement. Other news outlets contacted him after the story was released.
After conversations with Chief Student Affairs Officer Karu Kozuma, other students and statements from Martin, however, he changed his perceptions of the document.
“I understand that the [CLD] is supposed to serve as a resource, not an end-all-be-all set of definitions,” Mayers said. “I see some value in it as a resource for people to come together and discuss certain things. If someone wanted to learn about gender or sexual orientations, there could be value in that.”
He subsequently reached out to The Daily Wire, and an update was added to the article stating that Amherst did not police speech and that that was not the purpose of the CLD.
Screenshots of the AC Republicans’ GroupMe, however, show a number of comments ridiculing the student movement in Frost Library and mocking gender-nonconforming people.
“Are they all planning on ‘packing’ in order to raise awareness?” says one comment. The CLD defines packing as “the act of wearing padding or a prosthesis to give the appearance of having a penis.”
When the CLD was first released, comments in the GroupMe showed disbelief and outrage. “You’re allowed to think what you want so long as it follows their religious law Or what they are calling ‘common terms’ prescribing to the terms that they are sensible and reasonable, when in fact a majority of them require any sound sane person must suspend reality to believe them,” one comment said.
“Fuck an oped, we should publish our own definitions of this words. Half of which would be ‘Not a real word or phenomenon,’” the same user wrote at a different point in time.
At another point, a user writes, “How would the definition of ‘packing’ aid dialogue on campus? The only thing the document did was inspire dialogue about how idiotic it was.”
“I found a bulk order prosthetic penis outlet DM me if you’re in on the order,” another user writes later on, appearing to refer to the term “packing.”
An unknown member of the AC Republicans seemingly attended the meeting in Frost with Price and Pavao, messaging updates to the GroupMe as it progressed.
In response, a user wrote, “The QRC employees have arrived. It’s officially bananaland.”
A later thread makes light of those questioning their gender.
“Can someone confirm that they have a copy of the common language guide or do I need to go convince the QRC that I’m questioning my gender choice to get access?” says one comment.
Another user replies, “Regardless, I believe if you emphasize that you believe you have a ‘choice’ of gender that should pass their entrance exam.”
The student group borne of the Frost meeting brought copies of the GroupMe to administrators, but it is unclear if any action was taken.
When asked about the GroupMe comments, Mayers said that he did not remember individuals mocking anyone’s gender or sexuality. “I don’t think that occurred,” he said. “It’s possible that it could have happened … and if it did, it should not have. If it did happen — and I know the individual who I’ll have a conversation with — it’s counterproductive and illogical.”
“We came out against the guide for questioning our belief in capitalism, so why would we then come out against these people for what makes them uncomfortable?” he added. “We will talk about it in our next meeting. Attacking someone’s identity is not acceptable.”
On Friday, March 22, tour guides were asked in an email from the Office of Admissions to “share your thoughts in a way that does not undermine the official stance of the college” if anyone asked about the CLD.
Throughout the day, Martin, Jones, Tissi-Gassoway and Kozuma met with various student groups.
According to Price, Martin emphasized in their meeting that the removal of the CLD was because of a procedural error, not an ideological one.
“On one hand, I feel like certain people who work for the school are in a very tight position,” Pavao said. “When you are part of the institution, you can only speak from that perspective and not what you think is right or wrong. That goes for everyone, including Biddy. We definitely commented on the language of the document and what we wanted moving forward. The question I have is what happens to the document in the future?”
ACR had also been in close communication with Martin through email but did not have an in-person meeting. “Communication with Biddy was through Rob Barasch ’19 — one of the two presidents of ACR,” Mayers said. “They have always had a good relationship, so he reached out to her.”
What Martin told Barasch closely resembled her first statement: it is not the college’s role to police speech on campus and that she had been unaware of the release of the CLD.
On Friday, March 22, Martin released a second statement in a community-wide email. She restated that the motivations behind the creation of the CLD was to “come to terms with the experiences and perspectives of marginalized groups and create an environment in which understanding and a sense of community could grow.”
Maintaining that she “did what [she] considered to be right on the basis of [her] understanding of principle and protocol,” she acknowledged that “mistakes will be made, as they are made everywhere — on campuses and off. All we can do is acknowledge missteps and work to do better.”
Reactions from the Community At an impromptu faculty meeting held on Thursday, March 21, faculty members displayed a range of reactions, according to Professor of Law, Jurisprudence and Social Thought Michaela Brangan.
Some faculty members didn’t see the big deal surrounding the document. Others pointed out that maybe the incident was necessary for people to care about the issues and identities represented in the document. Brangan, among others, thought the distribution of the document was “Orwellian.”
Brangan didn’t read the document when it was originally sent, but when she received the subsequent statements from Jones and Martin, “I wondered, ‘Hmm, I wonder what the controversy is.’ I thought it was the right wing blowing it up and weaponizing speech,” she said. “But when I read it, I was like, ‘Wow, there are a lot of problems with this document.’ Part of it was that it was framed as a dictionary, a genre … I found it to be really conclusory. A lot of the definitions were in my view inaccurate.”
The document, she said, was an attempt to encompass a wide-ranging number of ideas and issues in a “definitive way.” There is a lot more to power or imperialism, she said, than four or five lines. Similar documents at other colleges have included extensive citations and footnotes.
“For me, as someone who does teach in the humanities at the intersection of politics, law and literature, I deal with these subjects all the time and they’re very intertwined,” she said. “They can’t be pulled apart at all. I know from the research that I engage in that these things can’t be pulled apart in this way.”
“One of the main things that I thought here were, ‘Why weren’t faculty consulted?’, especially because the materials that are in there are things that a lot of faculty both teach on and also known for doing research about,” Brangan added.
A diverse range of faculty contested the CLD, Brangan said. Some called it “anti-intellectual” while others deemed it “dehistoricized.” These were not comments on the ODI staff — those in the ODI are experts in their field, she later added — but rather a remark on the scope and collaboration needed when addressing complex terms.
To Professor of Philosophy Nishiten Shah, many — “although certainly not all” — of the CLD’s definitions “take stands on controversial issues, and by stating these positions as declarations, the authors imply that these are not to be contested, but merely accepted as true.”
“Put simply, we are in the business of teaching students how to think, not what to think,” Shah wrote in an email interview. “Framing controversial positions as definitions of common terms forecloses, or at least makes it more difficult, for students to freely discuss these issues and come to their own opinions about them. Even if all of the positions taken in this document are correct, by framing them as definitions of common terms they block students from discovering these important truths for themselves.”
Professor of Black Studies and Film and Media Studies John Drabinski, however, said that “all the ‘free speech’ and ‘free exchange of ideas’ stuff are non-sequiturs and poison the well.”
“That reaction, if I can be honest, is a symptom of race and sex panic,” he said an in email interview. “Freedom of expression, research, and teaching has no relationship to the common language document. It’s just not there and no one has shown me how it is there … Casting it in those terms is paranoid and diverts us from the real hard work of being a respectful community of difference.”
If we are working toward a “respectful community of difference,” Drabinski said, then “the individuals who ran to The Daily Wire with this guide need to think about their actions and how inviting right-wing trolls to harass students, staff and faculty of color and LGBTQ+ is so very destructive to whatever accomplishments we’ve made as an inclusive community. The administration’s silence on that has been very strange and disconcerting. Real harm as been done without even aspiration to exchange of ideas.”
While Professor of History, American Studies and Film and Media Studies Frank Couvares also felt that the CLD was a mistake, he emphasized that last week’s events could serve as a good thing for the college. “It’s inaugurating in a somewhat higgledy-piggledy way, inaugurating the kinds of conversations we will inevitably have in a decade where identities are so fluid and so different than the kinds of identities we’ve been used to in the past,” he said. “This was not in the best way imaginable, but we can look at this as not such a terrible thing.”
Though Brangan acknowledged that she and others may appear overly critical of ODI, she emphasized that “I actually believe they were trying to do what they believe their charge was. By the end of the [faculty] meeting, I think it was clear that faculty and the ODI need to work more closely together.”
Rachel Kang ’21, however, questioned the reasons for ODI’s existence if it isn’t allowed to carry out its work of educating. “Then what is the purpose of ODI practically, from the day to day?” Kang said. “Is it a separate part of the college that we put in the backroom and cover from the media outlets and pretend it doesn’t exist? That’s just stupid.”
A student staff member in the Center for International Student Engagement (CISE), Kang said she has never questioned the definition of “American exceptionalism” at Amherst; it’s why she was surprised when she read that AC Republicans had problems with the term. “If that fundamental ideology that justifies the foundation of CISE is gone, then I don’t know why I have my job,” Kang added. “I don’t know what CISE can reasonably accomplish on campus anyway.”
Eden Charles ’19, president of the Council of Amherst College Student-Athletes of Color, was also disappointed with the way the document was handled. “I thought that Biddy’s statement did invalidate a lot of identities,” she said. Martin’s second statement, Charles added, “didn’t add to anything.”
The document is especially important, Charles said, because it helps provide people from low-income or marginalized backgrounds with working language in discussions about diversity and inclusion. “In my first sociology class, people would throw around words and I wouldn’t know what they meant,” Charles said. “[The CLD] evens the playing field for people coming in.”
Nathaniel Ashley ’22 also saw the CLD as an educational resource. “One reason it’s important is that a lot of people growing up where I am from, rural Tennessee, didn’t have access to words like ‘packing’ and other words relating to sexuality and gender,” Ashley said. “We didn’t have sex-ed in school, so we never heard about stuff like that. Having a resource for that is very helpful to learn about the terms and acknowledging that they exist.”
Contrary to Martin’s statements on free speech, Charles felt that the document was “really critical for freedom of speech.” “When you don’t know the language people are using, it makes you almost unable to respond to free speech,” Charles added. “If they don’t know these definitions, it really limits people’s speech.”
Pavao noted that it is difficult to “force a department that’s really political” to be apolitical. “This work can’t be apolitical — it never will be,” they said. “Allow [ODI staff] the freedom to do and move what needs to be done, especially uplifting the resource centers. They’re one part of the institution that I feel supports me the most, and for them to not be a thing or struggle a lot when the budget be tight — I really hope this college better supports people of marginalized backgrounds.”
Constructive dialogue is needed, Charles said. “I’d really like to figure out why people were really upset with the definitions they saw,” she said. “I think engaging with dialogue would make it easier to find some common ground, and I would hope that Biddy does validate identities and come out with a response that more people are looking for.”
Because ACR promotes free speech on campus, Mayers said, they would be willing to work with the ODI and with other students to revise the terms in the document. “We have always said that we want dialogue. At the end of the day, that’s why we’re all here. We want to learn from each other and have a constructive middle ground,” he said.
Ashley, however, does not agree that ACR should be consulted.
“I don’t think their opinion really matters. Sure, if they’re queer, they can consult on the queer stuff,” Ashley said. “But this document is to correct the dominant narrative that they have been pushing. For example, they say capitalism is good and racism is over. They have already had their share for thousands of years. I don’t think they should have any more.”
The Association of Amherst Students held an open meeting on the CLD on Monday night. Student groups are still meeting with Jones and Kozuma.
The college has not yet released concrete next steps.