What Can We Learn From the Campus Free Speech Debates?

Amherst's "Common Language Guide" set off a conservative media firestorm, pitting free speech against equality.
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Amherst College.

In late March Amherst College's Office of Diversity and Inclusion—hoping to spark discussion over how students discuss matters such as "identity, privilege, oppression, and inclusion"—released a guide to its student body called the "Common Language Guide." The email containing the report explained how "This project emerged out of a need to come to a common and shared understanding of language." Almost immediately, Amherst, despite widespread student support for the document, officially retracted it.

The retraction ("mistakes will be made," explained President Carolyn "Biddy" Martin) came amid a wave of mockery from right-wing commentators. Critics were primarily angered by the document's implication that students should speak a rigid form of what right-wing activists call "wokespeak." More often than not, the examples they highlighted focused on an arcane lexicon of sexual identity, using it as a broader critique of a supposed Orwellian suppression of speech.

"Nonbinary," for example, was identified as the proper term to identify "a person whose beautiful existence transcends reductive binary constructs." "Homonationalism" (which identifies "cis-gay and lesbian veterans of the Iraq War [who] were celebrated as proof of American exceptionalism"), "packing" ("the act of wearing padding or a prosthesis to give the appearance of having a penis"), and "tucking" ("the practice of concealing the penis") were terms highlighted by conservative critics as examples of overly aggressive language policing.

The document's political insinuations also angered right-wing opponents. Amherst's common language wanted "capitalism" to be spoken of as necessarily leading to "exploitative labor practices, which affect marginalized groups disproportionately." Race was "a social construction developed by European (white) scientists" intended to "subjugate particular communities." But to be "colorblind" in one's assessment of fellow citizens was to forget that "colorblindness," according to the document, "does nothing to address inequality." As for "reverse oppression," the guide was unequivocal: "There is no such thing."

There are a couple ways to understand these increasingly common campus blow-ups over language. First, the retracted Common Language Guide reiterates the tension between two ideals Americans hold to be self-evident: free speech and equality. In this framing, proponents of the guide were working nobly to set parameters that emphasized the ideal of equality for all individuals regardless of race, gender, creed, or ethnicity. Critics of the document were, in turn, seeking to protect their personal freedom to express themselves in the language of their choosing. By any standard, it's a thorny conflict.

There is a second and less obvious—but more politically consequential way—to frame Amherst's conflict over language. It centers on the intersection of electoral politics and higher education. According to Mark Lilla, author of The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics, a report such as the Common Language Guide might be seen as the culmination of the 1960s "retreat of the New Left into American universities."

Indeed, it was within the confines of the university—where a liberal educational focus nurtured explorations of identity—that the personal became political. Today, as the Amherst example suggests, students, who tended to support the document, have run with the concept, going so far as to understand all politics to be personal and, accordingly, influencing language to reflect that convergence on the sacred nature of personal identity.

Meanwhile, with the ascendency of Ronald Reagan's "Morning in America," conservatives—as Lilla describes it—"sought out wealthy donors to set up foundations and think tanks as safe spaces outside the university for elaborating the Republican catechism." While many people currently understand conservative politics to be a form of white identity politics, the initial driving emphasis of these institutions ostensibly had little to do with personal identity and everything to do with establishing a unified movement around "dismantling the government by first seizing control of it." Bill Clinton's declaration that "the era of big government is over" was just one confirmation that this strategy, due to its unifying vision, was working.

Lilla, an avowed Democrat, worries about higher education's role in fostering the schism between identity politics and consensus politics. As liberals, safe in the crucible of the campus, lose "themselves in the thickets of identity politics and develop a resentful, disuniting rhetoric of difference"—much of that disuniting rhetoric evident in the Common Language Guide—Lilla sees them as focused "less on the relation between our identification with the United States as democratic citizens" and more on "our identification of different social groups within it." The upshot is, ironically, the emergence on the left of a kind of radical individualism long lionized by conservatives, an individualism from which one cannot—or at least should not—generalize at the risk of causing offense.

The reactions to the Common Language Guide were made in an almost gleeful spirit (see here and here), as if right-wing outlets could not believe their good luck at having such low hanging fruit to exploit. If Lilla is correct, these reports—Trump's fragmenting political style notwithstanding—were giddy for a reason: The Common Language Guide is at stark odds with the unifying spirit he argues is required to succeed in electoral politics.

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