The Lack of Leftist Discourse
Issue   |   Tue, 09/24/2013 - 23:43

There is a crucial, worrying and endemic lack of leftist discourse at Amherst College.

I’m assuming — and I beg your pardon if I am wrong — that if you’re the typical Amherst student (and I beg your pardon again for generalizing), this statement has thrown you into dizzy confusion, if not outright outrage — Amherst College? Not leftist enough?! We’re a bunch of self-righteous liberals that shun any conservative voices that dare use racial slurs or tell us we can’t abort what we like! If anything is the problem, it’s that we’re too liberal. Too leftist. Jeez, we even have a Multicultural Resource Center that’s not in the basement now, what more do you want?

You wouldn’t be entirely wrong to say that, because it’s true — we are, in general, a college of self-righteous liberals. But therein lies the entire problem — the conflation of liberalism with leftism, the idea of a political spectrum that begins with conservatism and ends with liberalism, or, at most, an idea of social democratism that sits comfortably within the liberal paradigm of thought. There seems to be an inability to think outside this narrow framework, to conceive of a “left of liberal” that’s not just an extension of liberalism itself; a taboo to any sort of belief system that involves radicalism, Marxism, structural or post-structural frameworks of thought. It’s symptomatic in a lot of ways the debates around campus are structured: for example, I’ve heard “but that sounds awfully socialist of you!” as a legitimate argument last year about some of the debates around the MRC. Not —”that sounds awfully socialist of you, and that’s bad because [x],” but “that sounds awfully socialist of you, and that should be enough for you to discard your argument,” because we’re all in a consensus that we hate socialism, right? I’ve also heard Ethan Corey, who — as much as I do not want to speak for him, I can say expresses pretty radically left beliefs in the articles he writes for ACVoice — being described as “an extreme liberal”: because people at this college do not have the vocabulary to conceive of someone having a position expressed opposed to liberalism that is not conservatism and cannot, again, understand a left of liberal that isn’t just “extreme liberalism.” I’ve heard arguments in class where people have said, “that’s not democratic!” keeping in mind only the liberal-capitalist view of democracy as if it were the only one that existed, and nobody thought much of it. These incidents aren’t meant as conclusive proof of the lack of discourse I am describing: they are mere concrete examples of something I feel runs much deeper in the way we think and we’re taught to think and the way we talk and act at Amherst (an institution that, we must remember, produces and prides itself on producing several people who go into mainstream American politics, law or bureaucracy, or into corporations, businesses, consulting, finance and other institutions of liberalism and capitalism).

This close-mindedness works in more insidious ways as well — not just an outright fundamental confusion with regards to leftism, but also a visceral outrage at anything that shakes this belief system of liberalism. Take, for example, two articles that appeared in The Student last year. The first was one by Salena Budinger and Maia Mares, on Feb. 2, 2012, entitled “The Fundamental Right to Choice.” It was in response to a piece on abortion by Andrew Kaake that fostered a lot of debate, but it went beyond just positing a pro-choice stance to Kaake’s anti-choice one: it said — and this seemed to disturb people more than the contents of the original anti-choice article itself — “You don’t need to respect an opinion if it continues the systemic oppression of every person capable of being pregnant.” Immediate angry responses called the authors “illiberal” (and thus implicitly, wrong), and against the “civil discourse of liberal society.” The consensus seemed to be that “yes, you’re right in saying women have the right to choose what to do with their bodies, but you’re wrong to say that we shouldn’t honor and respect the opinions of those who disagree. They deserve the ‘right’ to speak out.” This is liberalism — that radically different opinions can and should coexist, even if one destroys the other; even if speech and belief are forms of action and structural violence. We can all think differently but should not and cannot act according to these beliefs ­— there should be a dissonance in ideas and acting upon these ideas. Praxis is immaterial; tone and form and the liberal notion of respect triumphs over content, substance, critique and truth. These were the same kinds of oppositions that were popularly posed against the protests that occurred during last year’s contentious (and contentiously titled) “Day of Dialogue”: maybe you have a point, but did you really have to protest? Did you really have to break the order, the liberal notions of civility and politeness, the status quo set by higher authorities of how the day should progress (liberalism, in my view, is fundamentally connected to an unquestioning respect for authority)? Fundamentally: did you really have to act on your beliefs? Did you really dare to act against the code of conduct dictated to us by liberal society?

The second article I wish to speak about that is symptomatic of this pervasive liberalism in the response that it received is Professor Thomas Dumm’s highly controversial piece entitled “The Elephant in the Room.” First of all, I find it hilarious — and by hilarious, I mean troubling and sad — that the article was met with much more vocal outrage than any statistics about rape, any racial slurs scribbled loudly and proudly over the campus at varying points this and last year, indeed, more vocal outrage than literally anything else that has happened over the course of my Amherst college career (excluding, perhaps, Angie Epifano’s original article on rape at Amherst itself). Now, I want to disclaim that I know nothing, nor wish to assert anything, about Professor Dumm or his political leanings. But I feel that what he does in his article uproots some fundamental tenets of liberalism, and that is perhaps what drove the outrage against it. Professor Dumm dared to question the vested interests of the sexual respect committee with respect to athletics, given the alumni connections and monetary benefits sports gives to the college. The response to him from members of the sexual assault task force was “how dare you question our intentions, we’re good people that genuinely want to end sexual assault!” Again this is liberalism in operation. Take people’s opinions — take the work of Amherst committees — as divorced from the contexts and structures they emerge from, as able to exist in a void where material conditions don’t determine the modes of thought that emerge. That is, that it would be fundamentally wrong to investigate any links between funding, alumni, material and vested interests of those that keep the business that is Amherst College going, in investigating how it responds to its internal crises. Don’t ever dig deeper into structural violence: question everything but Amherst itself, but liberalism itself, Professor Dumm! After all, it’s only with a persistent ignorance of material conditions of human existence and deeper structural issues of society, that someone can, with a straight face, tell Professor Dumm that his alleged stereotyping of athletes (which, incidentally, he did not do) is similar to the discrimination of people of color in America. It’s only someone who cannot think beyond liberalism and equality asserted without structural context, who can compare Professor Dumm’s article to the myth of the black rapist. In short, the only context where an article that does no more than beg a more critical investigation into subcultures possibly perpetuating sexual assault can incite such an angry mob of responses, is a context where liberalism suffocatingly overpowers the discourse.

To sum up, then: there is a worrying lack of leftist vocabulary, consciousness, discourse and praxis on this campus. It is not because of the lack of specific beliefs as much as it is because the entire framework within which we act and speak is a liberal one: exemplified in our agreeing-to-disagree, in what we consider valid and invalid debate, in what outrages us and what doesn’t, in what we are allowed to believe and what we believe is “just common sense” and what is radically insensible to us. And this is worrying for its larger implications: its implications in how we think, how we debate, how we criticize the institutions about us, what sort of questions we ask to ourselves and to the college that we form a part of. The lack of leftist discourse, for example, allows questions of treatment of staff or payment of staff at Amherst, or our treatment of adjunct faculty, or our support or funding of or investment in certain companies and industries, to go unquestioned and uninvestigated by all our main campus publications. It allows us to feel enraged at Professor Dumm or student activists for questioning the status quo, but never feel enraged at the status quo itself. It allows us to be subsumed by, instead of critical of, the larger stifling of political debate in America, where the false dichotomies of Republicans and Democrats, the Wall Street Journal and New York Times, conservatives and liberals, captures public debate. It allows Amherst College to be a place that oils the neoliberal machine of America instead of being subversive to it, and above all — it undermines, to repeat a phrase I used two weeks ago, our education, by making it a (liberal) indoctrination.

Frustrated Reader (not verified) says:
Wed, 09/25/2013 - 11:26

In my opinion, this article represents one of the true problems with discourse (liberal or illiberal, "leftist" or otherwise) on this campus. It shows a dominant concern to score points rather than to educate, to puff itself up rather than to explain in human terms.

With your second paragraph, you've lost half your audience by condescending. With your third, you've lost every major outside of Political Science, BLST and Sociology by talking about social democratism, various paradigms and post-structural Marxism. What do these things mean? Only a certain subsection of Amherst Students know, and the rest of us are left feeling like silly idiots if we read in that far.

In the end, this article feels as though it was not written to educate or to foster discourse. It feels like it was written for the certain subset of Amherst College that is already convinced of its material.

I know you already have ideas about who I am, writing this comment. You may say I've been subsumed by the liberal paradigmatic current and that the College has not adequately prepared me with a critical leftist vocabulary. And well, fuck it, maybe that's true. Maybe I'm a lost cause. But one thing's for sure: you'll never rescue me from the current if you keep preaching about praxis... whatever that means. I'm not a PoliSci Major, so fuck me, right?

I have a number of other problems with the assumptions made in this article, but I hope this sums up my frustrations a little bit. If you respond, please bring yourself down to my tiny-brained level for a little while so I can try to understand what you're talking about.

Meghna (not verified) says:
Wed, 09/25/2013 - 18:30

So, I find it worrying that you read this article as trying to score points rather than educate, because that is definitely one of my pet peeves-- I hate people who talk to hear themselves talk rather than move a collective argument, so if I came across that way, I'm truly sorry, because that was not my intention.

That being said, what I want to focus on in this article is that there exists an outside to liberalism, and that it's terrible and irresponsible, and that we don't realize it because we don't have the vocabulary to realize it. By vocabulary I don't mean, oh, why are students unaware of fancy terms like "praxis" or "hegemony", ha ha, so stupid! I mean, why aren't we taught to think in a way that recognizes these concepts as valid? Why are we just absolutely unable to see beyond liberalism, or see everything beyond it as illegitimate? Praxis and hegemony and post/structuralism aren't hard concepts to understand once they're spelled out. The problem is that nobody is spelling them out for us. My point in this article was not to educate in that I elaborate these concepts to you, my point was to point out to you that these concepts are not being elaborated and explained in the mainstream discourse, and I dislike that and its implications for Amherst and its students. And they're not concepts that are only intelligible to sociology or LJST or poli-sci majors! Why are these problems other-ized at Amherst, why are they pushed to the margins, why are they only the domain of those who study those particular majors? Why aren't they a part of our mainstream political vocabulary? Science majors (as an example) have no problem talking *politics* in general-- they just have a problem talking about this *kind* of politics. And that's what I want to say, why is it that these concepts are so unintelligible to us in our Amherst discourse?

During my time studying abroad, encountering students not just from other liberal arts colleges in the US or other countries, this really wasn't the case at other places to the crucial extent it was at at Amherst. People of all majors were able to speak beyond liberalism because their mainstream discourse introduced those ideas. So I wasn't trying to speak to an echo-chamber of people who agreed with me: I was trying to point out a problem that I feel, at the first level, we're unaware even exists.

Meghna (not verified) says:
Wed, 09/25/2013 - 20:07

To clarify, I meant to say "what I want to focus on in this article is that there exists an outside to liberalism, *we do not see this outside*, and THAT is what is terrible and irresponsible."

2011 Alum (not verified) says:
Wed, 09/25/2013 - 14:14

So I get the point that there are ideological frameworks that are distinct from both the liberal and conservative ones that dominate campus and national political discourse. And I agree that Amherst should expose students to ways of thinking about the world that are different from what they would get otherwise. But my question is, why is "Leftist" discourse the one that deserves more attention?

For one thing, there's already a fair amount of Leftist content in academic courses. There's an entire class called "Taking Marx Seriously" taught by a real-live Marxist (and excellent professor) in Pavel Machala. And you'd be hard pressed to go to far in sociology or LJST or many other departments without reading Marx himself, or post-Structuralists, or many others on the "Leftist" continuum. In fact, I'd argue that courses that actively grapple with "Leftists" represent a sizable minority of all the relevant courses at the college.

But maybe the issue isn't that students aren't being exposed to these ideas, but that they aren't treating them as serious alternatives. If that's the case, the obvious next question is: should they be? I'm not convinced. It sure seems to me that the world in general (and college students in particular) tried taking this stuff seriously for a while in the mid 20th century and the results were... not great. In politics, Marxism turned out to not be such a useful way to look at things. The predicted great proletarian uprising is running awfully late, and the millions killed directly as a result of Marxist regimes in the USSR and Communist China do not inspire confidence that Marxism works as a political scheme. And someone who were to read many post-structuralists in class couldn't be faulted for concluding that they are good at producing the most unreadable body of prose in the history of the English language and not much else.

So maybe there is a problem where students are ignoring a serious alternative ideology to Liberalism and Conservatism, but I am not convinced that Leftism is it.

June (not verified) says:
Wed, 09/25/2013 - 15:48

"In politics, Marxism turned out to not be such a useful way to look at things. The predicted great proletarian uprising is running awfully late, and the millions killed directly as a result of Marxist regimes in the USSR and Communist China do not inspire confidence that Marxism works as a political scheme."

I think you're confusing Leftism with Marxism with Communism. Let's make distinctions between critical theory aimed at analyzing/changing our political world, and the failed political regimes (neoliberal capitalism included) that should be the subject of those critical theories.

Meghna (not verified) says:
Wed, 09/25/2013 - 18:36

Why care about this framework? Because I'm a leftist, not a liberal-- I believe leftism is the best, most humane, most emancipatory and most important and critical way to think about things. I'm not arguing for leftist discourse on the premise of false pluralism, that we just need more ideas out there because yay! Diversity of ideas! I'm arguing for leftist discourse because I think it makes us more critical scholars and better people.

I could talk at length about my disagreement with your interpretation of leftism, but that's a whole set of debates that might take up more time and space than what this article aimed to take up. What I will say though, is that the very fact that that is your and the mainstream of Amherst's interpretation of what leftism is is a crucial misunderstanding of leftism; it is a particularly liberal, American understanding of leftism, and the fact that most people at Amherst are not looking at this image of leftism propogated by popular American media that is haunted still by the Cold War amongst other things, is my complaint in this article. I mean, people who've read Marx and considered the USSR/China to be Marxist in any sense just really...haven't read Marx all that well. And if anything, agreement or disagreement, Amherst college should be teaching you to read Marx, and other leftists, critically and well.

Jake (not verified) says:
Wed, 09/25/2013 - 17:51

Actually the author to some extent answers the existing comments in her previous article about the importance of moving beyond the need to present and understand every position within an argument in society. Asking for the need to present and push for an understanding of every possible position on an issue is intellectually dishonest because it assumes that people are rational human beings who can and will consider every viewpoint in a debate, when in fact we are predisposed to favor the dominant ideologies society disseminates to us. Thus, I think the leftist discourse is especially important to counter this ultimately fairly conservative (although I acknowledge that's all relative and not an absolute) dominant discourse. Beyond this, to be honest, part of it is just simply that all perspectives on various issues aren't equal. This of course sounds oppressive to many, but our dominant liberal rights discourse already assumes this and perpetuates specific philosophies under the guise of freedom of choice. Many use this to say people like Arkes should be allowed to teach whatever discourse he wants, but at the end of the day I think the harm his discourse pushes onto society is a net bad and doesn't need to be taught in schools. Human rights should trump freedom of opinion, especially because we all always assume many perspectives are irrelevant or don't even think of them because we assume them to be outdated, and this is often because they are oppressive. There is no reason why other still existent and even common perspectives shouldn't belong here as well. To be reductive, a leftist discourse is important because a leftist (not necessarily communist) discourse has a greater history of valuing social justice and human rights. I think this does make it a more important perspective than many to learn, despite what those who supposedly value freedom of opinion say.

Elson (not verified) says:
Wed, 09/25/2013 - 23:07

There are a series of underlying theoretical debates which liberal capitalism and leftism, in the form primarily of Marxism, have engaged. These debates were resolved in two ways, the first being mathematical and the second actual experimental processes. What I'm saying, really, is that leftism is not actually taken seriously as an ideology because it seems to have lost both of these debates.

The first comes from the theory that a group of people each following their own self-interest will produce more efficiently than a group motivated by compassion or collective will. The advantage Maxism held over liberal capitalism was the fact that liberal capitalism, inherently based on competition, implies "losers" who, unfortunately, will be hard done by the system. On the other hand Marxs' system would have no "losers" because of this cooperative stance on resource distribution. The resolution of this argument is simply that liberal capitalism is so efficient that even the losers in that system are better off than the average citizen under a Marxist regime (think of happiness as being a triangle under liberal capitalism, with the poorest being toward the point- the area of that triangle is larger than the area of the square under Marxism). Rather than spend too much time on specifics, the general conclusion is that the sum of "happiness" brought about by satisfying material needs is larger under liberal capitalist societies. Professor Machala often tells the story of how when he returned to the communist block having received a Western education no one was jealous of his experiences- rather, they all wanted a pair of blue jeans.

Further, this debate churned beneath the Cold War because it appeared that the Soviet system, employing an imperfect form of Marxism was competing effectively with the liberal capitalist world. But, to use a rather crude analogy, asthma only acts up when you're running. By forcing the USSR to spend heavily on arms, that is, to run, its economic weaknesses were exposed and it collapsed. Thus, one of the test subjects outperformed the other.

In any case, my point is simply that Marxism is no longer discussed as an economic system because the debate, in the eyes of the academic and political world, has actually been resolved. Whether it can be reopened is another story, but that's at least the impression I get, and further, these are the justifications I have implied from my study of this topic.

2012 Alum (not verified) says:
Wed, 09/25/2013 - 23:23

I agree that people aren't always going to fairly assess all opinions presented to them, but how is the solution to this to suppress certain viewpoints?

How do you decide if an opinion is worth listening to if you don't understand it at least at some basic level? Who gets to decide which opinions are worth listening to? What if a more conservative college decides that "leftist" and extreme liberal opinions shouldn't be worth listening to and understanding?

Different '12 alum (not verified) says:
Thu, 09/26/2013 - 13:45

Well clearly Jake and his ideological fellow-travelers get to decide.

What could go wrong?

Meghna (not verified) says:
Thu, 09/26/2013 - 18:04

"What if a more conservative college decides that "leftist" and extreme liberal opinions shouldn't be worth listening to and understanding?"

You're implying Amherst doesn't alrady do that! The entire point of my article was to demonstrate that in insidious and covert ways, it does, even as it stands for pluralism and diversity.

2011 Alumni (not verified) says:
Thu, 09/26/2013 - 18:56

1)The problem, as others have noted, is that it assumes an understanding of what "truth" actually is. I'm no relativist--I believe there is an objective truth--and clearly Meghna does too (in that some things are inherently wrong). The problem is that not everyone agrees on what truth is, and liberalism is simply the best way to let people with fundamentally different truth claims negotiate this out. If liberalism is frustrating because it means you let some pro-life dude write an oped, or you let Nazis march through Skokie, then it's frustrating the same way things like the rules of evidence in a courtroom, or the Geneva conventions prevent us from fully carrying out what's "right." Because we can't know.

2) So look, it's absolutely right that lots of shit gets pulled in the name of the GLORIOUS GLORIOUS MARKETPLACE OF IDEALS AND OUR LORD JS MILL. That's obvious, and you're right to point it out. But what's your alternative when someone else is expressing an idea that you find "oppressive?" It seems like you can either oppose it with more speech (which is the liberal way of doing things), or...what? Force? You gonna use coercion of some sort on Hadley Arkes 'cause you think he's PROBLEMATIC and NOT OKAY? Putting aside the compunctions that most normal people have about that sort of censorship, it's going to open you up to the same attack when the people who don't like you have the upper hand. Hell, even if you have no qualms about violence, think this through--if you're opposing the dominant ideology, and you're telling the dominant ideology that some speech can be banned/censored/stomped out with the foot of righteous indignation...then you let the system you hate work violence against you without having to apologize for it, and without its hypocrisy opening up a space for change.
3) A side note--why is it okay to conflate liberalism in theory with liberal political economy in practice , but not okay to conflate Marxism in theory with Marxist political economy in practice?

Anon '12 (not verified) says:
Fri, 09/27/2013 - 15:40

... but I want to hug whoever wrote this comment, because it is everything I wanted to say in response to this piece but didn't have time to sit down and write out.

You're great. Let's be internet friends.