President Donald Trump is famous for his vulgarity. His supporters venerate his ability to “tell it like it is,” regardless of whether the statement is true, even—or especially—if it is racist, sexist, or hurtful in another way. Trump’s message succeeded because his supporters believed in it, but also because of Trump’s ability to tell it like it is, or, in other words, to communicate his message in a way his supporters could understand. Though liberals like myself disagree with Trump’s opinions, we must acknowledge that his message won in part because it was digestible, whereas the liberal agenda was not. President Trump uses catchphrases, but liberals, especially on college campuses like Harvard, use rhetoric that is intellectual, pretentious, and inherently exclusive. Even worse, the language we use to explain identity politics can be blatantly condescending.
News organizations across the country have decried purported “student radicalism” on college campuses, with particular interest in the way students at Harvard and its peer institutions interact with identity politics. Terms we use everyday at Harvard, including “trigger warnings” when a subject could be emotionally damaging, and “safe spaces,” or places where people can feel comfortable sharing their stories, are used by conservatives to mock liberal sensitivity. Although some liberals might wish to find a better way to explain what all this jargon means, especially because these terms provoke conservatives to label us as “snowflakes,” the better question is why they provoke conservatives mock us in the first place.
A 2016 New Yorker article entitled, “The Big Uneasy,” which explored student activism at Oberlin, revealed how difficult it is for liberal college students to explain their complaints in simple terms. The article reported that a letter submitted by a group of black students to the college’s board and president claimed that Oberlin “functions on the premises of imperialism, white supremacy, capitalism, ableism, and a cissexist heteropatriarchy.” To highly educated students on liberal campuses, this argument makes sense, whether you agree with it or not. But to those outside of the ivory tower, the meaning of these -isms can be lost in their extravagance.
A disabled trans student in the New Yorker piece complained of “persistent, low-grade dehumanization from everyone,” continuing that he felt as though he’d entered the realm of “tokenism,” and was used as “proof of concept for other people.” While this student certainly faced real hardship as a disabled transgender individual that many Americans could relate to or understand, the language he used to describe his struggle unintentionally places his story in a realm of academia that inherently isolates him from almost all of America.
Two years ago, after Yale’s Erika Christakis sent an email to some students that questioned the rationale of regulating offensive Halloween costumes, The Atlantic published a piece that detailed the incident and included an excerpt from a student response letter. That excerpt said the professor’s email “trivialize[d] the harm done by these tropes and infantilizes the student body” and “fail[ed] to distinguish the difference between cosplaying fictional character and misrepresenting actual groups of people.” Though this response and the Oberlin list of demands were sent within a university context, they sparked national attention, and a national backlash, with conservatives ridiculing them for their unintelligibility.
The terms we use to describe our liberal platform need to be understandable for the audience they are trying to reach. This is not to say that we should resort to name-calling, like President Trump, who plays with the fires of nuclear war by calling Kim Jong Un “Rocket Man.” But if liberals want to make political correctness and identity politics politically viable for the general American public, we need to find a way to condense our message. Otherwise, it will forever be limited to colleges—the only places where terms like “infantilize,” “tokenism,” “proof of concept,” and “cissexist heteropatriarchy” are part of the common vocabulary.
Anna M. Kuritzkes ’20, a Crimson Editorial and News editor, lives in Pforzheimer House.
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