The Toxic Culture of Amherst College

(Rachel Boyette ’17) — (ADDENDUM by the Author: The final draft for this article was completed early August, prior to the revolting and tactless act of a noose having been found near Amherst College’s football field. This article was not written to reflect any views related to that event, nor the following reactions from students afterwards. The main purpose of this article is to illustrate how students can appropriately and productively convey their frustrations, while critiquing past movements which failed to do so. The only appropriate response to the recent hate crime, in my opinion, would be for students who were not targeted by such an act to ask how they may best aid their fellow students who were, not deflect some phantom responsibility they may have felt attributed to them. As you read, consider this: our focus should not be on “who is justified in feeling outraged,” but rather “how can I most effectively bring about the change I want to see in my community?” My hope would be that for Amherst students, that change would be a selfless one, rather than self-serving.)

As the Decolonize Val movement stated earlier this year, there exists a culture of toxicity on this campus. The culture I am referring to is not perpetrated by cis, white, male athletes. It also isn’t necessarily perpetrated by queer, minority, or non binary students. The culture I’m referring to is one which student organized movements or messages are targeted to put down a specific student demographic rather than provide thorough and well-orchestrated events which invite participation. Campaigns are sloppily produced and incredibly short-sighted, while messages that are one part progressive and one part snide are immune to criticism because to disapprove of its hypocrisy is on par with being a bigot. This toxicity is perpetrated by a group I will refer to as “the vocal minority” – minority meaning, based on the consistent lack of support these events pull in, I do not believe the majority of campus agrees with the way these groups choose to convey their message, regardless of the actual content of their message. That’s actually the point of this article:

The way you convey your message is equally as important as its content.

Organizers who ignore this concept will sabotage their campaign. I focus my critique on movements made by students which explicitly target a specific group of students as part of their campaign, such as the Decolonize Val and Women’s Group sit-ins that were held the past academic year. Other protests which center on national politics and the like, such as the Frost Sit-In (2015) or the Anti-Muslim Travel Ban Protest (2017), are a different beast, and, in my opinion, usually serve to unite or educate the student body rather than divide. I will break down student campaigns in three parts: motivation, execution, and effect. By the end of this article I hope students will learn how to effectively spread a receivable message which will deliver long term effects, rather than vague crusades which fail to do anything other than raising student tensions.

“Decolonize Val” was spurred by a night in which a number of sport teams, both male and female, arrived drunk to Valentine Dining Hall and loudly sang an Adele song. The rest of the accusations thrown on Facebook, such as athletes aggressively shoving other students and public urination, are unsubstantiated at best, and libel at worst. Ambiguously, the event was described as an effort to “deconstruct the toxic culture of backroom Val.” The ‘goal’ was interpreted differently among protest-goers, depending on who you spoke to. For some, it was to express their distaste for drunk shenanigans at Val. For others, it was to bridge the athlete/non athlete gap. A lack of understanding about the central purpose of a campaign is a red flag of poor planning, one which carries on to the Women’s Group sit-in that took place in Fall, 2016, coincidentally also in the backroom of Val.

In the Facebook event, the Women’s group delivered their mission statement: “Despite the fact that women can and do use the back room, the presence of men’s teams can feel overwhelming and intimidating, making the mundane act of eating in the dining hall a source of anxiety for many women.” I am interested in learning what “many” means. Was a survey sent out across campus to count how many women fear sitting in the backroom? Did a sizeable portion admit it concerned them? Or did a few members of the Women’s Group feel uneasy that groups of male athletes often occupy the backroom at Val, most evident after a practice or prior to a game? A sit-in is an event which relies on public support for its success, and organizers of a sit-in should clarify that the issue they address is one which makes a noticeable impact on its community. Granted, I have not polled Amherst College’s population of women on whether they believe groups of men sitting in the backroom is problematic, but then again, neither did the Women’s Group.

Similarly, “Decolonize Val” also failed to find an issue which students could rally behind. A generous estimate of supporters would place 30 students at the first day of the scheduled week-long event, which fizzled out after day two. The purpose of pointing this out is not to rub salt in the wound, but to show potential organizers the pitfalls one will encounter by creating an event which requires a demand for participation that is not met by students.

In terms of motivation, emotions and the intent of protestors play as big of a role as the event which inspires the protest. After reading comments in the Decolonize Val FaceBook event and speaking directly to protesters, I did not get a sense that the organizers originally wanted to educate or facilitate discussion. Many online responses were condescending and deflected criticism. When one poster on the public event asked for clarification on why the event used the word “Decolonize,” ending her post with “I’m honestly confused about this,” an organizer of the event replied: “So am I. More so over the reason we need to have a collective conversation about not getting drunk af and making Val staff clean up people’s food and piss. But hey, to each their own.” This is a great example of a non-answer, which also manages to fit a jab into its response. The same organizer, in response to a different student who raised the issue that “to people from nations around the world for whom decolonization is an ongoing and painful process, the use of this word in this context could be construed as insensitive,” opened their response with, “You can call this event whatever you want. Have a special, personalized name for it. Get t-shirts made. Have at it.” Rather than considering criticism or justifying their use of ‘Decolonize’, this response is dismissive and deflective.

Plenty of responses made by other organizers and protesters were respectful and informative, but those responses could not repair the damage made of others. If anything, this shows that the organizers of the event should have preemptively designated one or two people to represent their campaign and respond to comments and concerns in a professional manner. This would have cut down on the uncoordinated responses which only added spite and confusion. The fact that they didn’t procure this measure only lends more evidence to the poor planning of the event. Furthermore, on the first day of the event itself, few organizers or protestors ventured outside of their group to start conversation, at least for the few hours I was present for. Rather, many protesters waited for others, like myself, to approach them. It’s certainly within their right to congregate in large groups and occupy several tables at the backroom of Val without reaching out to others to join them, as it is for the very group of students they protested against, but it fails to serve their goal of creating “collective conversations.”

Receivability is an important quality for any movement, especially an event like Decolonize Val which touts its main goal as inclusivity. You could consider the event a failure on that point alone, considering that multiple students skipped dinner on the first day of the protest in fear of being targeted by angry protesters. I hope the irony is not lost that Decolonize Val indirectly promoted the same exclusive and intimidating atmosphere that they were campaigning against. This would have been avoided if organizers were careful to advertize their event as receivable, rather than sensational. Which leads me to my next point: language is an important contributor to the implementation of a group’s purpose.

For Decolonize Val, a concern arises in the name itself. Organizers, perhaps aware of the lack of support they would receive, inflated the importance of their cause by comparing drunk, raucous singing in Val to imperial forces that exploit other nations and groups for profit. By placing themselves in a position as the grand rescuers of the disenfranchised, organizers inadvertently made the event a parody of itself, for sitting in the backroom of Val working on homework can hardly be considered heroic. Furthermore, stringing together buzzwords such as “[deconstructing] the toxic culture” allows organizers to avoid stating a tangible pattern of harmful behaviors, as well as exacerbate the urgency they hope to instill. “Toxic culture” is nothing more than a strawman. It is some enigmatic identity subject to interpretation, a boogieman which will always creep in the shadows. One can not defeat “toxic culture” by spreading awareness of “toxic culture.” One must outline harmful practices, explain their negative effects and suggest pragmatic solutions – all things which Decolonize Val failed to clearly convey to the student body, resulting in a movement which the majority of students didn’t understand, nor cared to promote. I can sympathize that perhaps not many students understand the complexities involved in organizing events like a Sit In. In which case, organizers should reach out to professors, administrators, and resource centers to enhance the quality of their work, or perhaps to find alternative actions outside of protests.

The Women’s Group Val Sit also had its share of problems in regards to language, specifically with the phrase I’ve already mentioned: “the presence of men’s teams can feel overwhelming and intimidating, making [the backroom] a source of anxiety for many women.” The way this is phrased, the only problem identified as to why some women are anxious is that men exist and some choose to eat together at Val. This would not be the case if organizers of the event provided evidence of harmful behaviors that men in the backroom, or in general, exhibit. The best the group does is mention how “men take up space but do not allow women to have their own spaces” but this claim offers no examples of how “men take up space” nor is it relevant considering that plenty of women, myself included, sit in the backroom regularly. What this does is present a problem which has no discernible cause nor solution, making the purpose of a sit-in useless. Instead, they implemented an activity which I found “toxic,” or perhaps more fittingly, misguided.

Part of the Women’s Group Val Sit featured posters asking questions along the lines of: “What spaces belong to men?”, “What spaces belong to women?”, and “Where do you feel unsafe?” You’ll have to excuse me as I don’t recall how many questions were asked nor their exact phrasing, but I certainly remember the written responses and, what I hope were unintended, effects. Rather than promote or celebrate women, the above-mentioned questions provoked responses which disparage men, as well as foster victimization among women. These questions should have been identified beforehand and removed. Let’s be clear: there are instances in which women are targeted and made to feel unsafe on and off campus, and we’ve seen a lot of it in recent years. Most notably was the Plimpton panty raid in 2016, and multiple reports of street harassment in 2015 (which I should mention neither instance involved a male student from Amherst College). However, this demonstrates that there are valid reasons why women may feel unsafe on campus. Yet, the Women’s Group Val Sit did not reference these events. If they did, perhaps the questions they posed wouldn’t have seemed so out of place and inappropriate. The failure to reference concrete examples of women actually being targeted to feel unsafe on campus and instead choosing to focus on how some women feel uncomfortable that male sports teams eat in large groups is either a result of laziness, or ignorance on behalf of the organizers. Again, this point is raised not to humiliate, but illuminate. If the organizers of this event reached out to Campus Police or Title IX to ask for examples of past instances of women on campus being targeted for harassment, they could have taken the angle they did, that women are too often made to feel unsafe on campus based on their gender, and add some actual validity to it. Instead, they didn’t put the extra work in, and it showed.

One might say that the organizers hold no responsibility for what other students wrote in response to the aforementioned questions. I say that considering this event placed men in the backroom as a problem and used questions to emphasize weaknesses felt by women, they absolutely hold responsibility, for those responses were primed. Raising awareness to the adversity women face or hosting events which make privileged demographics such as men feel uncomfortable should by no means be off-limits, but this was without question the wrong avenue to do it, and hosted by the wrong people. If the Val Sit was intended to bring a community closer and more engaged in conversations relating to the respect and treatment of women, it failed. It inadvertently assigned men’s sports teams who sit together as a valid reason for why women should feel unsafe in public. As someone who has experienced the legal definition of sexual harassment and assault, I find this extremely insulting to both women and men. If you want to raise awareness to the disrespect which women experience, you don’t even need a reason. The cause itself is worthy enough to be its own reason. There is no need to make connections to misogyny on campus where there aren’t any (Note that what I said is different from claiming that there aren’t instances of misogyny on campus. I just think that eating in large groups of the same gender shouldn’t be counted against men, just as it isn’t counted against women).

So, what are the effects which ill-conceived and poorly-executed movements produce? Well, I think you’ve already gotten a taste of my answer, but I’ll summarize. They create student divisions, discredit worthy causes, and are generally ill-received. This leads to the question: what is an appropriate response to the complaints addressed by these movements?

For the matter of Decolonize Val, those who had an issue with the night of drunken singing should have found a Val employee and asked them to handle the situation right there and then. When I asked multiple protesters, it seemed no one had thought to do so. Some of those who participated in the infamous singalong claimed on the Facebook Event page that they were never instructed by staff or anyone else that their behavior was disrupting other patrons in the cafeteria. If asking employees to settle the crowd during the act was not an option, organizers of the event could have with Val staff the next day, outlined their complaints, and organized a plan of how staff could address disruptive celebrations in the future. Not only would this have been more effective than a sit-in, but it wouldn’t have caused unnecessary tensions between students that an event titled ‘Decolonize Val’ will inevitably produce.

Perhaps this puts the onus on students who shouldn’t be expected to solve these problems, you might say. I would ask, how much time and effort do you think a week-long protest entails? Not only would dealing with the problem through the appropriate avenue, that is, those in charge of ensuring order within Val, have been more effective and efficient, but it would have spared nonathletes yet another reason to feel misrepresented by the vocal minority, and athletes another reason to feel targeted. I guess quietly and effectively resolving issues behind the scenes isn’t as glamorous as sparking a revolution. Any meaningful conversation that actually occurred during the protest can not be attributed as success for the protest – but rather, as the earnestness of students who want to discredit the stereotype that student athletes – white, cis, male, or not – want to facilitate a harmful and exclusive environment.

As for the Women’s Group, I could see something like the Val Sit become successful with a few modifications. Instead of posing divisive questions, we could ask questions in which all genders feel they could contribute something positive by asking what makes women strong, or to name a female role model. This would allow all students to feel comfortable in participating, as well as hopefully usher a sense of welcome and belonging to those women who felt intimidated by the back room, rather than be predisposed to mull on negativity and reasons to stay divided. But, generally speaking, the best course of action for a person who feels unsafe in non-dangerous situations is to attend therapy. This is not an insult. Therapy is a fantastic tool, and is probably is the most likely to resolve whatever has caused “the mundane act of eating in the dining hall [to be] a source of anxiety.

If organizers reached out to different demographics during the planning stage of their campaigns, they could receive input as to how their movement meets the interest of the general student body and receive ideas on how to improve. Organizers also NEED to reach out to professors, faculty, and staff for guidance on how to host and organize. They are resources and more than willing to aid us in our endeavors. After talking with many professors and staff about this topic, all of them expressed a willingness and desire to help guide students towards a more successful outcome which would serve to enhance the student community rather than divide it. Their input would surely increase the quality of student movements and keep groups from forming echo chambers. We need to take advantage of whatever will increase the quality of student-organized movements, and doing anything otherwise will contribute to the detriment of the movement itself.

The other part of ensuring quality among student campaigns is that we stop accepting sub-par movements as a way of life at Amherst. Yes, we are a liberal art college, and yes, we should be exposed to different opinions and uncomfortable subjects so we can grow. It’s fantastic that students want to take an active part in that – but that doesn’t mean that every protest is well-done or exempt from criticism simply because it rallies behind the disadvantaged or offended.

The reason I suspect so few say anything negative against these events is because everyone’s worried about the backlash which would ensue after challenging organizers and protesters. I don’t know about you, but I rarely involve myself in these quibbles because I don’t want to be accused of being sexist (or even more insulting, “a victim of internalized misogyny” as though I’m incapable of forming my own opinions), racist, ableist, homophobic, etc., when my message implies nothing of the sort. I think it’s time to get over this fear. If criticism is posed in a respectful and rational way, what is their to be afraid of? If a response to criticism is anything but fair, it speaks to the character of whoever wrote it, not you. What this also does is invite time to reflect on the validity of your own beliefs and why you believe it, an exercise which is not practiced nearly enough these days.

I implore students, regardless if you agree with what I’ve written or not, to take a lesson from Daryl Davis. Davis travels the country befriending KKK members, respectfully challenges their beliefs, and in over 200 cases, is the catalyst for Klan members to abandon their backward ways. Davis also happens to be black. I want to make it clear that I am in no way alluding or comparing any group of students to neo-nazis, because quite frankly, Davis should be a role model for everyone at Amherst. Davis exemplifies the qualities of someone who successfully challenges the views of those he passionately doesn’t agree with. He is respectful, intelligent, and compassionate. He doesn’t seek attention for what he does – I wouldn’t be surprised if he understood that the intentions of his mission would be questioned and possibly discredited if he was subject to mass media attention. He advises those who confront others of a different position to: “Give them a platform. You challenge them. But you don’t challenge them rudely or violently. You do it politely and intelligently. And when you do things that way, chances are they will reciprocate and give you a platform.” I think we as Amherst students are more than capable in following his example.

Finally, I want to clarify that these are my views, and my views alone. I do not expect that groups targeted by events like Decolonize Val or the Val Sit to accept my position as their own, and it would be unfair to declare myself as their mouthpiece, which I wouldn’t want to be anyway. Please note that I have not critiqued the actual messages these campaigns hoped to convey, but rather, the way in which they were conveyed. As far as I’m concerned, it’s perfectly reasonable to want a level of orderliness in Val, as well as encouraging women to feel welcome in all spaces on campus. However, the way in which these groups presented their messages failed spectacularly, and these flops are becoming concerningly common, with student relations being the cost.

This is not a call for complacency. This is a call for quality. Demand it.