Amherst Life Blog

Welcome to the Amherst Life Blog! Here we will be posting information on activities, events, arts, community concerns, local business, and a variety of other topics related to life in Amherst, Massachusetts. If you are new to the area and looking for housing, please check out our other blog too ------------>> Amherst Housing Blog ::.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Town of Amherst: Reader Perceptions

Once again we have some interesting comments from a reader and (we hope the reader does not mind...) we'd like to share them with all of you. They open the door for much-needed conversation. We will answer each question one by one, and hope other readers will as well. Thanks again for posting your views. The comments are as follows:

I'm the earlier commenter. A few thoughts based on a very quick perusal of your blog:

(1) I grew up in Amherst, and I disagree with your assertion that Amherst has "a long history of racism." What Amherst does have is a long history of racial tension -- which is not the same thing. This tension is due in part to the fact that it's considered socially acceptable in Amherst to imply that someone is a bigot if you disagree with them, even on issues only tangentially related to race. This tactic is effective because the white liberals who make up a majority of the town's population are terrified of being accused of racism. So such an accusation is a near-perfect trump card. In the long run, however, this sort of coercion is quite naturally going to lead to bitterness and mistrust on both sides (see, e.g., the West Side Story controversy).

(2) Calling someone a bigot is a good way to avoid addressing what they're saying. I'm not suggesting that there's any point in debating with Nazis, but you use the term "racist" very freely. An accusation of bigotry is a quick way to dispense of someone whose ideas you find threatening without ever actually engaging with what they have to say. Obviously there are real racists in the world, but throwing the term around lazily is anti-intellectual.

Your blog does far too much of this kind of name-calling. Take the parking issue. You may be right and the town counsel may be wrong, but this doesn't make them racists. In this context, it's an irresponsible accusation. Part of growing up is figuring out that not everybody who disagrees with you has nasty motives.

A related point: If everybody's a racist, then nobody is. When you throw the term around as loosely as you do, it stops meaning anything. If you think the town counsel of ultra-liberal Amherst is full of racists (rather than, say, people who you believe are misguided or ignorant with regard to racial issues), what do you call David Duke? A super-duper racist?

(3) Terms like "minority" carry political baggage. I think this is part of your point, and I agree that it's worthwhile to question our preconceptions regarding these sorts of things. But the goal of language is not merely to set the stage for a glorious future. It also has a duty to represent what exists. I certainly wouldn't be offended if whites were referred to as minorities (as you note, it's technically accurate if we're talking about the world at large), but on a purely practical level it would be silly to do so in the United States today. And practicality matters. We should all aim to be as straightforward as possible in our speech. Obscurantism is bad, even if you're just trying to be inoffensive.

(4) People who break windows and write racist slogans on stores tend to be losers. The fact that some pathetic, thoughtless people (probably kids) did this in Amherst isn't evidence that Amherst is a racist community. They'll probably regret it in a few years -- and if they don't, they will be very, very far outside of Amherst's mainstream (certainly not the embodiment of community sentiment).

(6) The fact that somebody is offended by something is not an argument. Something can be both offensive and right. For example, it strikes me as very unlikely that the New Testament is literally true. Presumably this opinion is highly offensive to some people. But the fact that it's offensive to them doesn't make me wrong (or right), and it's no reason for me to stop being honest.

(7) Intent clearly matters. I think you might be more likely to recognize this point if the standard that you apply to others were applied to you. For example, if someone were to call you an anti-Semite because you think that Amherst is rife with racism, you could reasonably object that this accusation is unfair because what you've said isn't anti-Semitic at all, that in fact you never mentioned Jewish people, and that you hold no anti-Semitic beliefs. This would be a very reasonable defense. The fact that somebody is outraged by what you have to say doesn't mean they have any good ground to be, and the fact that somebody might call you a bigot doesn't make you one.

(Intent also matters for other reasons. Don Imus isn't Lester Maddox. This goes back to my earlier point about the necessity of making sure that words like "racist" enable us to distinguish between members of hate groups and people whose views we merely consider ignorant or misguided.)

(8) The world is a diverse place. People are offended by all sorts of silly things (religious fanatics in particular -- see, e.g., the Denmark cartoon controversy). I don't feel bound to avoid offending people who get offended for bad reasons, and neither should you or anyone else. We have brains for a reason. My opinions don't become wrong or unspeakable just because other people don't like them.

So instead of going after your ideological opponents with ad hominem attacks and accusations of racism, try putting yourself in their shoes for a moment and crafting an argument that might appeal to a person of good will. I think most people are basically trying to do the right thing. I'm not saying you ought to abandon your principles, but you'd be a far more effective advocate if you listened to your conscientious opponents and treated them with respect rather than dismissing them as bigots. Maybe you could even get them to see your side.


  • At 11:55 AM , Blogger O'Reilly said...

    You have a reader that has been paying attention to Amherst Life and dedicated a bit of time to writing a well-considered comment. What does Amherst Life think about these ideas?

  • At 7:36 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

    Read above, you'll see what they're thinking...

  • At 2:00 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

    what does o'reilly think about these ideas?

  • At 2:02 AM , Blogger O'Reilly said...

    Amherst Life likes to make broad proclamations about the way things are in Amherst. The tone of the advocacy is idealogical rather than compelling on the merits.

    To me, the arguments are unconvincing because they make claims of fact without providing information, observations or experiences that inform the opinion and give it credence.

    Unsupported claims about unethical or immoral Amherst is an inherently self-righteous point of view, and frankly, it's easily dismessed.

    Here are some ideas.

    Write from the first person singular, from you to me. It's a more powerful voice.

    Write like your name is attached to the post.

    Speak to others like you care about them. Show them what you want them to see.


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