Wesleyan sometimes feels like a palliative treatment center. People here care deeply about, even obsess over, the well-being of others. When twelve people were hospitalized over a bad batch of Molly, people rushed to support them. Wesleying criticized the University for arresting students, instead asking for “care and caution.” In order to “protect everyone,” a student told Rolling Stone Magazine, students refused to “snitch” to the police or Public Safety.
But our actions often fail to cure, or even treat, anything. Students renamed “Buddhist House” to “Middle House” in response to an Argus article that called the house, which is lived in mostly by white people, an example of cultural appropriation. Yet renaming the house after the Middle Way, a central part of Buddhism, hardly addressed any of these critiques.
We try to do the same with our language. We refer to poor people as “low income.” We talk about matters of “diversity” and “inclusion” on campus, instead of systemic racism, classism, or sexism. The language we use is, to quote George Orwell, “a packet of aspirins always at one’s elbow”: pleasant but anaesthetizing.
Using “diversity” to talk about racism is, of course, not unique to the University. The word was used in the 1978 Supreme Court case Regents of the University of California v. Bakke in defending affirmative action procedures. According to sociologist Ellen Berrey, managerial trade journals and published books began using the term to talk about racism in the late 1980s.
And, “diversity” appears in newspapers across the country. When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences failed to nominate a single black person for an Oscar in a major category for the second straight year, The Los Angeles Times asked, “Where’s the Diversity?” The paper later described the controversy as a “diversity furor.” The New York Times created this email account to record readers’ stories of racism, sexism, and homophobia in Hollywood: HollywoodDiversity@nytimes.com.
Similarly, a short feature in The New York Times referred to an emerging “group of younger, more diverse Republicans” when talking about Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) and three South Carolina politicians, who had all met in advance of the primary elections in South Carolina. A follow-up article stated that in Rubio’s entourage in Nevada, “diversity is notably absent.”
Occasionally, students at the University refrain from using the word “diversity” in their discussions. The IsThisWhy campaign, in its demands to President Michael Roth, only used the word to criticize its belief that the student of color community is solely valued for its help in filling “the institution’s diversity quota.” The petition to boycott The Argus only referred to “diversity” in its demand that people involved in student publications attend once-a-semester “Social Justice/Diversity training.”
But palliative language, like “diversity” and “low income,” is nonetheless used more extensively at Wesleyan than it is in broader public discussions. The New York Times does not frequently refer to “matters of equity and inclusion”; instead, it describes “inclusion” as a “diversity buzzword” on college campuses. The Times occasionally uses the flawed phrase “underrepresented minorities,” but unlike here, where “underrepresented groups” is often code for “black” or “Latino,” the Times explicitly defines it: “black, Latino, and Native American.”
In contrast to the attitude many students have toward the administration, language on campus often feels oddly bureaucratic. The term “equity and inclusion” appears most often to describe University administrative divisions and offices. But it was also the terminology used by the IsThisWhy campaign in its November demands to University President Michael Roth. The petition to boycott The Argus uses the extremely vague criticism that the paper has “historically failed to be an inclusive representation of the voices of the student body.”
The lack of specificity in campus dialogues helps people to avoid discussing the topics they’re supposedly most interested in talking about. Complaining about the “lack of diversity” in the Oscars allows people to ignore the racism and sexism that prevents women and people of color from appearing in Hollywood films. Discussing “matters of equity and inclusion” or “underrepresented” or “marginalized” groups on campus conveniently excuses us from specifically talking about the people who are underrepresented, marginalized, or excluded.
Similarly, using the term “low income” instead of “poor” doesn’t lift up poor people. Instead, it makes poor people’s existence less viscerally disturbing. We see “poor people” on the street; we only see “low-income people” on a line in the U.S. Census.
The language we use on campus comes from a place of good intention. As a university, we pride ourselves in trying not to offend people. Thankfully, we do not have the same obscene response toward political correctness as Rush Limbaugh or Donald Trump.
But far too often, the language we use serves as a way for us to avoid conflicts, rather than approach problems. Like any good palliative care center, we like to kill students’ pain. But we don’t cure the diseases.
Lee is a member of the class of 2016.