The Office of Diversity & Inclusion at Amherst College in Massachusetts recently posted its “Common Language Guide,” a forty-page glossary of terms that calls for “a need to come to a common and shared understanding of language…around identity, privilege, oppression and inclusion.”
Some entries are almost comically tendentious. Here is the guide’s definition of “heterosexuality,” for instance: “A term developed as diagnosis of the hyper-infatuation with a different sex, first used by sexologist Karl-Maria Kertbeny in 1868…. [It] is used today to denote the normalized dominant sexual identity.” And while the guide’s definition of “equality” begins straightforwardly enough—“treating everyone exactly the same”—it quickly takes a sharp left turn, observing that “an equality emphasis often ignores historical and structural factors that benefit some social groups/communities and harm other social groups/communities.” Does that mean that emphasizing equality is not a good thing?
Anything resembling traditional, received notions of gender (and anyone embracing them) receives a bruising definitional wallop from Amherst’s team of language mavens. We learn that “femininity” is “a set of attributes, behaviors, and roles associated with girls and women,” and further that “performing femininity in a culturally established way is expected of people assigned female at birth.” The definition all but dismisses femininity as fraudulent—unless it is the femininity of the marginalized. Thus we encounter “hard femme,” defined as “an identity term for queer women… [who] remind us that femininity and strength can be synonymous.” “Hard femmes,” the entry continues, “are feminists.” But…wait! Can’t straight women remind us that femininity and strength can be synonymous? Can’t they be feminists? Not exactly; at least, not straight white women—since “white feminism,” as we learn, is “a form of feminism that centers the experiences of white (also: cisgender, straight, and upper-class) women…[and] is predicated upon the erasure of women of color and the ways in which racism and sexism converge and compound one another.”
Reading the guide is like stumbling into a trade-journal article, where specialized language demarcates territory and warns off intruders. Bristling with acronyms and niche designations, it elaborates a system of identity via a profusion of phyla: Latinx/o/a/e, QTPOC, AFAB (Assigned Female at Birth), FTM, MX, XTX (“a response by trans folks who reject the terms ‘FTM’ and ‘MTF’”). We wander into internal gender-politics squabbles, as when we learn that “Boi”—“a term describing masculine-presenting queer black women whose gender presentation can be more fluid and/or androgynous than completely masculine”—was “purposely coined to be different from ‘stud’/’AG’ [‘Aggressive Girl’] because of the rigid conformity to masculinity in those communities.” Meanwhile, TERF—Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist—denotes feminists who reject trans women because they were once boys; while this view has been rejected “by most queer and trans communities,” the guide notes that “TERF ideology still does infiltrate many women’s spaces.”
Apparently Amherst’s president was not happy about the guide. Here is Cooper:
The Common Language Guide wasn’t on the Amherst website for long. Soon after it appeared, president Carolyn Martin, surely recognizing the potential for calamitous PR, took it down, then hastily called a faculty meeting to express her displeasure at such a document having been made public without her approval. Of course, nothing really disappears from the internet, and it didn’t take long for gloating reactionaries to seize on the guide and indulge their favorite sport of gleefully savaging liberal elitism.
Liberals will dislike being forced into strange bedfellow-ship with rightwing cultural critics. But a document like Amherst’s Common Guide may leave them no choice. Despite the sentiment expressed in its introduction, such a document will not serve to encourage discussion, but to stifle it; the goal is not intellectual diversity, but conformity. A professor friend of mine at another college notes ruefully that colleagues who oppose the ideas and language put forth in the Amherst document don’t dare say so publicly. “They’d be ostracized and shamed,” he told me. “You just can’t disagree with this kind of thing.” So much for the idea of tenure as a shield against censorship.
In a statement disavowing the guide, Martin commented that it “runs counter to the core academic values of freedom of thought and expression…[and] cuts against our efforts to foster open exchange and independent thinking.” A few days later, in a second, longer statement, Martin—presumably having taken heat from her faculty—partly walked back her initial criticism, praising “the intentions of those who created the document” and asserting that “they believed creating it would help us 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.”
Read the entire piece here.