College Politics and the English Language
Issue   |   Wed, 09/18/2013 - 00:25

On Saturday evening someone drew a swastika and wrote a racial slur near the entrance of Chapman Dorm. Dean of Students Jim Larimore took 465 words to communicate that information in a campus-wide email. He added, using perhaps the maximum number of words possible: “That this incident should occur within hours of the end of the observance of Yom Kippur, a holy day of particular significance for those of the Jewish faith tradition, makes it especially hurtful.” To summarize those 33 words in ten words, it happened the night after Yom Kippur, a Jewish holiday.

The email went out at 12:55 a.m. Sunday morning, meaning it was written as an immediate response to this emergency graffiti incident. Perhaps some will think the response was appropriately prompt and well-communicated. Yet it seems unlikely this email was written with the sole intention of conveying information to students. First, its length precludes the vast majority of students from doing much more than skim it. Second, it is written in such convoluted language that it is occasionally impossible to make sense of. What does it mean to “join [Dean Larimore] in a commitment to redouble the work of ensuring fairness and respect in our community”? The email is administrative, coldly distant and consistently devoid of clear meaning. The sentiments are not wrong or dishonest. Dean Larimore undoubtedly cares about the graffiti — the problem is that his email does not show that.

In his essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell identified a “special connection between politics and the debasement of language.” Dean Larimore exemplifies the debased language of politics in his call for the offending students to “reconcile themselves with the community.” This empty phrase is most simply understood as insincere political chatter. What does it mean to reconcile oneself with a community? Dean Larimore may have something in mind, but his writing opts not to explain. Orwell compares the political use of imprecise language to ink from a cuttlefish. When the situation is bad, our language works to separate us from the problem. This email did not encourage Amherst students to think about the bigotry — instead it made it easier for us to stop thinking about it.

The graffiti included “a vulgar phrase and a racial epithet usually targeted at African-Americans.” Can Dean Larimore not tell us these words? I am sure we have heard them before. Yet, despite his informative tone, he is not interested in informing us about the ugly, bigoted side of the Amherst community. Instead of thoughtfully discussing the issue, Dean Larimore spends his time vaguely condemning the graffiti, listing campus resources for counseling and support and closes with an optimistic note about the community rising above the incident. I am confident this email would get nods of approval from any PR or legal team. I am sure carefulness and political correctness-ad-absurdum make for a strong administrator in the eyes of the Trustees. However, I do not think these are qualities of a strong ally for students. Communication like this will not forge a cooperative relationship between the students and the administration; it will only drive us further apart. The fact that this email seems standard and unremarkable demonstrates just how deep this problem runs. The email was written in the vague platitudes that accompany almost every corporate press release, official government statement or political campaign agenda.

The fundamental problem with the email is that it gives the impression that Dean Larimore spent the early hours of Sunday morning responding to an incident instead of expressing a genuine, considered concern about Amherst College. If his goal is to grow a college community, he should begin by not sounding like he is managing one. This email is only one example of a larger issue. Amherst College could be much improved if the school stopped treating us like political liabilities to be managed, removed the gloves of administrative phrase-ology and began talking to us like competent human beings.

Anchor
Comments
Jules (not verified) says:
Wed, 09/18/2013 - 18:23

Regarding "those of the Jewish faith tradition":

http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x7mjyt_it-s-always-sunny-in-philadelphi...

Dean Larimore tried so hard to avoid saying 'Jews', only to instead use a mildly offensive substitute. How is saying "those of the Jewish faith tradition" more offensive than "Jews?"

Well, first of all, it offends those who care about economy in diction. But, more importantly, the term excludes non-religious Jews who no doubt find the swastikas every bit as offensive as the more religious.

Quagga (not verified) says:
Thu, 09/19/2013 - 01:25

Oh god, at this point, people are writing JUST to write. there's nothing controversial about those emails, but leave it to a CLASSIC amherst student to find problem with them. stop writing to create drama.

but i guess this is a nice welcome to Dean Larimore! nothing says "welcome to amherst, new administrator" like bashing them in the amherst student (or other publications on campus)

Tim Brunk '87 (not verified) says:
Thu, 09/19/2013 - 04:08

I find myself puzzled by David Walchak’s recent column concerning Dean Jim Larimore’s email message about racist graffiti in Chapman dormitory. For one thing, Mr. Walchak objects to the wordiness of the 465-word email (“its length precludes the vast majority of students from doing much more than skim it”) but he uses a 658-word opinion piece to express that objection. In his first paragraph, Mr. Walchak offers an example of a 33-word excerpt from the email that he can reduce to 10 words. However, this distillation of the email omits the dean’s characterization of the graffiti as “hurtful” and it identifies Yom Kippur as simply a “Jewish holiday.” In fact, Yom Kippur is, as the dean puts it, “a holy day of particular significance for those of the Jewish faith tradition.” It is not on a par with Purim, for example. In this case, the dean’s extra words are quite important.

Mr. Walchak wonders what the dean meant when in his email he wrote that he wants the Amherst community “to redouble the work of ensuring fairness and respect in our community.” The dean’s meaning seems clear to me: he believes that members of the Amherst community can and must do better to foster an atmosphere of respect for all persons. The dean issued a call for the responsible parties to “reconcile themselves with the community.” Mr. Walchak labels this call “empty” and “insincere political chatter,” wondering what it means “to reconcile oneself with the community.” Again, the dean’s meaning seems clear to me: at the very least he is asking for conversion of heart on the part of the offenders. At the very least, the guilty parties should acknowledge to themselves that their conduct is not in keeping with the high standards and principles of Amherst College or, indeed, with the basic requirements of human dignity and mutual respect that should govern all aspects of human conduct. Maximally, the guilty parties should publicly acknowledge the offensive nature of their conduct and accept appropriate sanction from the College. Does the dean really need to spell this out for Amherst students?

Finally, Mr. Walchak objects to the fact that the dean’s email is not specific about the racist features of the graffiti aimed at African-Americans. Because the dean’s email uses only the expression “vulgar phrase and a racial epithet,” Mr. Walchak contends that the dean is “not interested in informing us about the ugly, bigoted side of the Amherst community.” Now I do not know the dean and I have never even met him. Nevertheless, I would venture to say that the leap in Mr. Walchak’s logic here is unwarranted. Is there really something sinister and nefarious—something Orwellian—behind the dean’s decision not to quote the racist graffiti word for word?

Anonymous (not verified) says:
Wed, 10/02/2013 - 23:11

In my opinion, had the dean been entirely clear and concise, you would not have needed to translate the portions of the Dean's speech cited by Mr. Walchak as being particularly ambiguous. In fact, your quick conversion of "reconcile themselves with the community" to "members of the Amherst community can and must do better to foster an atmosphere of respect for all persons" is already a much more impassioned start. What Mr. Walchak seems to be communicating is not simply a matter of the message's clarity. A student body is exactly that; a body of students - human beings - not a company. They want and deserve to know that they are cared for in their environment by a fellow person; someone who can communicate honestly and empathetically.

Anonymous (not verified) says:
Fri, 09/27/2013 - 12:18

"Amherst College could be much improved if the school stopped treating us like political liabilities to be managed, removed the gloves of administrative phrase-ology and began talking to us like competent human beings."

This is exactly it. Thank you, David.

Filtered HTML

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
CAPTCHA
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
Image CAPTCHA
Enter the characters shown in the image.