Political correctness, the demand for ideological conformity, is indeed a problem and a constraint on learning and on freedom on and off campuses. But sleight of hand and cynical reversals have allowed some critics to represent the effort to fight ignorance and prejudice as always only ideological conformity. All of us need to guard against the appeal of extremism and the tendency to increase our power or fight our impotence by issuing demands of allegiance and ideological purity, by admitting only particular perspectives, by refusing to brook disagreement. We all know, after all, the pain of situations when our tentative efforts to think for ourselves or to understand an issue have been attacked as failures of loyalty to someone else’s construction of a political cause. Beyond the hurt is something even worse. A community that does not know how to practice the art of friendship, that has nothing in common except division, is a community on its way to self-destruction. A community that has nothing in common except division is on its way to self-destruction.
Polarization, by definition, obscures reality, which is irreducibly intricate, surprising, and often counterintuitive. Eradicating this complexity in the service of power, simplifying it in the name of politics, is invariably destructive of institutions and human beings. It undoes the connective tissue between us.
When I think of the way politics can obliterate humanity, I always think of the French Algerian writer Hélène Cixous, whose voice was crucial to me at a particular point in my intellectual formation. In a speech at the 1980 Simone de Beauvoir conference in New York, Cixous delivered one of the only talks that avoided the pitched battles among other speakers for centrality, visibility, the moral high ground, and ideological purity. I remember the angry hurling of insults by the speakers who condemned others for failures to have the right analysis, to be the right kind of feminist and, by extension, the right kind of woman. And I remember Cixous noting that in these debates the political threatened to crowd out the poetic. By “the poetic,” she meant a way of approaching things that lets them come in in their strangeness or their otherness and does not rush to grasp things in the terms we have adopted in advance. An approach that lets others live requires what she called the art of receiving and the lessons of slowness, which foster the ability to see before comprehension. Seeing before comprehension.
Without the poetic, Cixous said when she spoke, the political kills. There is no question in my mind that that is true. A world without politics would also kill. It is a question of whether our politics is inflected by empathy, imaginative identification, and friendship. Our students have repeatedly called for the time that is needed to absorb what they are learning, to dwell in their experiences. Our faculty and staff, too, suffer from the pressures of today’s “precipitate rhythms.”
I hardly need to remind you that this election falls almost exactly on the anniversary of last year’s student sit-in. Those students who gathered in Frost Library on Nov. 12, 2015, focused our attention on the barriers that prevent students from feeling they belong here. Those barriers include experiences of implicit and explicit bias, various forms of inequity in students’ access to academic, social, and financial opportunities, and alienation in an environment that does not always seem welcoming of who they are. Those of us who listened, and there were hundreds of us who did, came away with a better appreciation of the richness of our community and the courage of our students. We also gained a clearer understanding of the distress that is felt by too many students. The students who spoke gave us visceral evidence of something we know and on which we are acting, but have not yet solved. Amherst, to its credit, decided earlier than its peers that selective institutions were not doing nearly enough to identify, recruit, and develop the talent that exists in every group and zip code in the country. By virtue of the College’s efforts, Amherst’s student body reflects the demographic realities of the country. And with diversity, the quality of our student body, by every standard measure, has increased. But changing the composition of a student body is not enough. The College also has to let itself be changed; we have to let ourselves change.
Letting ourselves change requires a combination of our love of knowledge with love of other human beings, whatever their station or position or point of view. Given the divisions on campus and the resentments that have arisen in those divisions, and given the unhappiness of some of our alumni (who see changes at the College as threats to the college they knew), I feel the urgent need for collaboration and for a stronger sense of shared values. I look to all of you for help. Help cannot and should not take the form of agreement or uncritical deference to any constituency, or any part of a constituency, or to authority, but it does need to involve respect for one another, genuine efforts at cooperation, and the humility on all our parts, however aggrieved we are, to acknowledge that no one of us and no one group of us has a monopoly on pain, on truth, on righteousness, and certainly not on loneliness. Yes, there are structural inequalities and experiences of oppression in the world that affect us differently and create inequities in the opportunities and resources at our disposal. And it is also true that we are human beings with inner lives that are irreducible to our positions or identities in a structure. We are so much more than any name we can be given, including our proper name. Our existence is too precious and weighty a thing to be conceived only in political terms.
There is more than enough intelligence and goodwill in this College for us to help one another hold onto our cognizance of structural inequalities and unfairness and also our awareness of one another’s humanity, and, beyond that humanity, the fact of being itself.
The country has reached an inflection point. Higher education has, too. The question for us at Amherst is whether we can be an example of a community that we do not see around us, one characterized by openness and respect, freedom with responsibility, politics inflected by poetry. Can we acknowledge and reckon honestly with the problems on our campus, enter into discussion with one another in an earnest effort to seek solutions, rather than assigning blame? Can we respect one another’s humanity and avoid operating as though there is only one way to move forward? Our differences need not be resentment-filled divisions. They need not be sources of opprobrium and blame. They could be the way in to a deeper sense of appreciation for the life that includes, but also exceeds, politics in its narrower sense.
The work does not stop, and we have a great deal more to do. This is a great College. It always has been, and it will continue to be. I know, from speaking with you individually, how much you value what you learn at Amherst from faculty who are more engaged with students than any I have ever known. Let’s keep our eyes on what matters here. The College owes the students who protested last year a debt of gratitude for the lessons they offered on what it means to live through trying times. They called us back to our purposes as teachers and learners. What we need in order to face our challenges is curiosity, empathy, and honest engagement. Let’s be the kind of community we don’t see in the world around us.