April 11, 2019
Dear Members of the Amherst Community,
A number of events, some interrelated, some not, have occurred on our campus that fall short of the standards of mutual respect, decency, and ethical behavior that we expect of each other. Furthermore, the response to these incidents has, in some cases, had the effect of escalation. Neither reason nor generosity have made enough of an appearance.
Throughout our society and even at the highest levels of our government, too many people are laying claim to a right to say whatever they want, however offensive, without regard to consequences or to the value of simple human decency. Understandably, feelings run high for all of us in such an environment. But thought is needed at the moment and that requires slowing down.
Our rights are one thing. Our values and our sense of community are another and they are essential to the functioning of democratic institutions. The Amherst community is capable of negotiating the tensions that arise between rights to freedom of expression, on the one hand, and respect for persons and values on the other. Dealing responsibly with conflict, such tensions requires that all of us act in good faith, show some humility about our own points of view, and use the skills that are on offer here for intellectually substantive and open exchanges. I want to briefly review and comment on several recent incidents, while ultimately calling for a halt to the pitched conflict that can only do more harm.
As many of you now know, a swastika was drawn on the face of an unconscious student this past December. Why anyone would draw such a symbol, regardless of circumstance, is beyond my imagination. There are few images as hideous in what they represent as the swastika, the symbol under which the Nazis exterminated over six million Jews and large numbers of other targeted groups, including homosexuals, communists, and those with disabilities. The swastika is also used in this country by white nationalists as a threat against Jews, people of color, and immigrants. I am thinking of the murders at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, and of those who marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, carrying torches and yelling racist and anti-Semitic slurs. There is a historical link between Hitler’s Germany and white supremacy in the United States. As Yale law professor James Q. Whitman shows in his book Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law, the Nazis turned to the Jim Crow South for lessons in drafting what became the anti-Jewish Nuremberg Laws. When this atrocious symbol becomes visible, we have a responsibility to stop and reflect on what it means and what the symbol has been used to do. We also have a responsibility to work against the hatred that the symbol represents.
I believe our staff in student affairs acted appropriately in investigating the incident, meting out discipline where evidence warranted, and protecting the confidentiality of the process and of students, as required by law. I also believe the staff made a sound decision in deciding not to make the drawing of a swastika public in order to respect the affected students’ wishes, but I acknowledge, as colleagues in student affairs have, that there can be reasonable differences of opinion on that matter.
After the incident and the swastika’s use were made known by an article last week in The Amherst Student, our chief student affairs officer reached out and continues to reach out to members of this community for whom the drawing and appearance of the symbol are most painful.
The response to the Common Language Guide. In previous messages, I have explained that I removed the document from the College’s website because it should not have been sent out to the entire campus without vetting and consultation. I have also indicated what bothers me about the guide itself and will not repeat myself here. However, I do want to reiterate that there is a very serious need for improved understanding of the lived experiences of those who have been marginalized in our society. Problems with the attempt to tell this story should not cause this important point to be lost. I want to come back to the need that gave rise to the document and consider what initiatives would help develop greater curiosity and knowledge on campus not only about one another’s social identities, but also about one another’s inner lives and what we can create when we interact with openness, rather than prejudice, and when we seek to learn in greater depth.
The Republican Club GroupMe Chat. Neither curiosity nor respect were in evidence in the GroupMe chat among some members of the Amherst College Republicans when their posts were widely shared last week. The posts ridicule not only the Common Language Guide but also particular members of our staff. Once public, the mocking and derision did harm to those who were targeted and to the entire community—as we are seeing.
There is no doubt that Republican students on campus have their own reasons for feeling marginalized and derided. Too often these individuals are not afforded legitimacy or inclusion by those on the left who reduce members to an objectionable stereotype. These students, too, deserve to feel welcome and be known for who they are as people and as individuals with conservative perspectives. That said, the mocking and derisive behavior of some members of the club is inexcusable, and has no place in our community.
I wish those who exchanged the posts had immediately expressed regret for the hurt that the now-public posts inevitably caused and are still causing. I wish they had thought beforehand about the feelings of fellow students and the good of the community. And I wish they understood that saying something in private does not release a person from the demands of simple decency.
The student government, in its attempt to rebuke the inexcusable behavior of some individuals in the club, has condemned the entire Republican club, further escalating the situation. The Judiciary Council, for its part, has announced punitive measures against the leadership and the next e-board of the club. I have several concerns about the council’s decisions that my colleagues in student affairs have made available. Karu Kozuma has asked the Senate to review those concerns. In particular, the Judiciary Council’s decisions assume the Council has the authority to use the Student Code of Conduct as the basis for its actions. In fact, only the Office of Community Standards can adjudicate violations of the Code.
JEFF SESSIONS' VISIT
We have just learned that the Young America’s Foundation has posted notice of a visit to Amherst College in two weeks, on April 24, by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions. At this time there has been no confirmation of this event and we have not entered into the necessary discussions that always occur, typically well in advance, about the terms and conditions required by such a visit. We will keep the community informed as we learn more.
We are all custodians not only of the educational opportunities this College offers, but also of the social environment we create while we’re here and the one to which we contribute when we leave. I accept my responsibility as chief custodian and, in that role, I ask for your help. I ask each of you to think about your responsibility for the larger good, and about the question of what kind of people and community we want to be. The back and forth of offensive and retaliatory actions at a distance, without any apparent interest in interaction or restraint, does not seem worthy of a community that values curiosity, intellectual substance, friendship, and understanding. We can disagree with one another, dispute one another on the issues, and take strong stands without doing damage to people’s personhood or to the larger social world we inhabit. I ask everyone to do your part to create the conditions that make it possible to think and to learn, not only about rights and wrongs, essential though those thoughts are, but also about how we create a liveable world in our relationships with one another.