By Richard Bernstein, RealClearInvestigations
April 23, 2019
Sometimes in the culture wars, the identity-politics camp leans so far to a politically correct extreme that liberals and conservatives alike reject it. Or so it would seem. A recent episode at Amherst College is worth examining less as a defeat for political correctness than a tactical retreat illustrating that the cult of identity politics on campus shows little sign of weakening.
What happened is this: Last month Amherst’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion sent all 1,850 or so students at the elite western Massachusetts school an attractively produced 36-page brochure called the Amherst Common Language Guide, with definitions of “key diversity and inclusion terms.” Its clear emphasis: “Marginalized groups” were being oppressed by what the document called the “cisheteropatriarchy” -- a system of domination by straight white men – through racism, sexism, oppression, hegemony, and exploitation.
Within hours of the guide’s release, a member of the Amherst College Republicans leaked the brochure to the conservative Daily Wire website, which pronounced it “something out of ‘1984.’ ” A crescendo of ridicule from conservative websites and blogs followed.
But it wasn't just the right piling on. Members of the predominantly liberal Amherst faculty, who were not consulted about the guide as it was being drafted, criticized it too.
At a post-release meeting of some 70 faculty members, “the people who departed most strenuously from the guide were on the left, including transgender faculty members,” said one of those present, Francis G. Couvares, the chairman of the Amherst History Department, speaking by phone.
Soon after, the language guide was withdrawn from circulation, erased from the college website, with college President Carolyn Martin proclaiming it “counter to the core academic values of freedom of thought and expression.” End of story.
Or was it?
Conservative bloggers weren’t the only ones portraying the Amherst Common Language Guide not as an aberration quickly withdrawn but as part of a persistent effort that will continue.
The objection among Amherst faculty wasn't so much to the politics of the document but to what seemed an effort by a branch of the college administration to impose simple, one-sided views on topics that are very much open for discussion. In other words, it contravened the idea that the college is supposed to teach students how to think, not what to think.
Amherst's chief diversity officer and its college spokesperson both declined interview requests. But others at Amherst, including some who opposed the guide, mounted strong defenses of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, saying that its intentions were honorable and that it, and others like it across the country, perform a vital function.
“You can't blame colleges and universities or their faculties for a culture that's becoming more and more concerned with race, class, and gender,” Michaela Brangan, visiting assistant professor of law, jurisprudence, and social thought, said in a phone interview. Brangan did not approve of the guide, which she said was “ill-conceived and ill-executed,” and she wishes faculty had known about and been involved in its making.
But she supports the ODI and its general mission, and disputes the notion that it is attempting to impose an ideology. Rather, she said, it is responding to a genuine need of an institution whose young members are often associating with people of different races or sexualities for the first time, or are themselves minorities on campus. She feels that other language guides published at other universities have been successful, giving as an example one at the Virginia Commonwealth University.
“The diversity mission—and the offices tasked with handling it—didn’t come out of any left-wing echo chamber,” she said in an email, referring to the phrase often used by conservatives and others to depict diversity programs as promoting a uniform point of view. “ 'Diversity' is from the Supreme Court case UC Regents v Bakke in 1978, and was justified under First Amendment doctrine by the arch-conservative justice, Lewis Powell Jr, as the only 'compelling interest' of the state that allowed colleges to use race-conscious assessments, as part of a holistic admissions process.”
“The ODI is there for those who feel that they need it,” she continued. “The staff that is there are those who want to be doing that work with students, who are figuring out how to navigate a hierarchical, assessment-heavy college system that wasn't really made with them in mind." Those who created the guide, she said, "believed that it was responding to a need for a specific resource.”
It is hard to read the actual Amherst Common Language Guide without being struck by its saturation in the conventional assumptions of the identity-politics left.
There's the entry on the “Male Gaze,” which emerged from “feminist film theory,” whereby “the power of looking is centralized in the man who is the bearer of the look, and the patriarchal order is reified [while] women are objectified and consumed by men.”
Or there's the one on “Intersectionality,” a fashionable term now well established at practically every institution of higher learning: “Intersectionality,” according to the CLG, is “a term...to name the intersections of multiple, mutually reinforcing systems of oppression [showing] how the individual experience is impacted by multiple axes of oppression and privilege.” (That's correct: “Mutually reinforcing system of oppression,” and “multiple axes of oppression” in a single sentence.)
Or “Mysogynoir”: A term “coined by black queer feminist scholar Moya Bailey to describe the particular racialist sexism that black women face.”
Pretty much nobody white is spared some sort of complicity in the oppression of others. “White Feminism,” for example, is feminism that “is predicated on the erasure of women of color.” It is “feminism absent intersectionality.” You might think that “fragile masculinity” is a condition of nervous boys calling up girls for a date, but no. It's “a state of requiring affirmation of one's masculinity and manhood in order to feel power and dominance.”
The term that aroused perhaps the most pungently negative comment was the one on “Capitalism,” which, according to the CLG, is “an economic and political system in which a country's trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit, rather than by the state.” So far so good. But the definition continues, as if stating a universally accepted truth: "This system leads to exploitative labor practices, which affect marginalized groups disproportionately.”
According to some faculty members, these definitions were written over a two-year period by the members of the Amherst ODI, which is precisely why some dissenters from multiculturalist trends didn't find the college's withdrawal of the document a clear victory for free inquiry. The Amherst ODI's definitions, after all, didn't come from nowhere. They arose from what critics of it call the “diversity industry,” the burgeoning number of college ODIs that are now as commonly accepted, and taken for granted, on campus as the admissions office or the football team.
The conservative City Journal in a study last year found, for example, that the University of Michigan has 100 full-time diversity officers; UC-Berkeley, 175.
Moreover, as some studies have shown, university administrators tend to be more ideologically uniform (that is to say, more “liberal” or “progressive”) even than faculties—by a ratio of roughly 12-to-1, liberals over conservatives. There do not appear to be any surveys of ODIs alone, but they would seem to fit the pattern, and that's probably almost inevitable, given that people with conservative ideas, or evangelical Christians, or anti-abortion feminists, seem unlikely to want be college diversity officers
The diversity bureaucracy has its own publication, The Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, which, its website says, “offers insights into theory and research that can help guide the efforts of institutions of higher education in the pursuit of inclusive excellence,” a term that critics say sounds unobjectionable, but actually means giving preference to women and minorities over white men in hiring, rather than simply hiring the best person for the job.
There's also a professional association, The National Association of Diversity Officers, whose annual conference in March this year was devoted to the topic “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Imperatives of the 21st Century.” Workshops were on subjects like “The Neuroscience of Social Justice” and “So You Want to be a Chief Diversity Officer?”
The website of Amherst's ODI lists 20 staff members, including Norm J. Jones, the chief diversity and inclusion officer, a “director of inclusive leadership” two “faculty diversity and inclusion members,” an “associate dean for diversity and inclusion,” the director of the Women's and Gender Center, the director of the Queer Resource Center, the director of the Multiculturalism Resource Center, a specialist for “race education and programs,” a “dialogue coordinator,” and a “dialogue facilitator,” this last person teaching a course called “Learning and Teaching With Feminism in Mind.”
The office is the main response of Amherst to the increased presence of non-traditional students and the demand of some of them to create tolerant and supportive environments. The college, according to available statistics, says that its student body is now 38 percent people of color, presumably including a significant number of ethnic Asians. Nearly 30 percent of students receive Pell Grants, federal subsidies given to low-income students. There are, of course, gay, lesbian, and transgender students, who in the past might have kept their sexual identities secret, but who are no longer willing to do so and feel that they are subject to discrimination and prejudice.
The irony is that the Amherst ODI, in pressing its agenda to the point of what many called self-parody, may have harmed its ability to help these students. “Part of the problem was that they didn't get out of the bubble of the diversity community,” Couvares said, referring to the authors of the language guide. “Even my colleagues of transgender history said, 'This is ridiculous.'”