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What Can We Learn From the Campus Free Speech Debates?

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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.



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