Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Queen's own speech enforcers

Back in my student days, we used to wonder what to make of the Queen's University students who would visit us for football games, decked out in kilts and showing a rather too disciplined interest in marching bands, as opposed to getting drunk and disorderly.

My how times have changed:
Your friend's new fuchsia fedora might be hideous. But don't call it gay, or you might get a language lesson from the conversation cops.

Students at Queen's University who sprinkle their dialogue with an assortment of "homo" or "retarded" could find out the hard way that not everyone finds their remarks acceptable.

The Kingston university has hired student facilitators to step in when they overhear homophobic slurs, remarks bashing women or racially tinged insults, along with an array of other language that could be deemed offensive.

That means tête-à-têtes in the residence hallways may no longer be just between friends.

"If people are having a conversation with offensive content and they're doing it loud enough for a third person to hear it ... it's not private," said Jason Laker, dean of student affairs at Queen's.

"If you're doing anything that's interfering with what other people need to be doing, that's not cool."
"Having a program like this in place could stifle public discussion if people are worried their private conversations are being monitored," said Angela Hickman, managing editor of the Queen's Journal, a campus newspaper. "For a lot of people, their opinions get formed in conversations and so stifling that is dangerous."

The newspaper published an editorial last week criticizing the program as a "lacklustre" attempt to deal with social issues that could actually create hostility among students.
But some students wish it would remain a discussion between friends, rather than a dialogue with a university-appointed facilitator.

If the facilitators jump into a group conversation, "they risk hostility from students who don't want to be approached in what they consider private social settings," said the editorial published in the campus newspaper.

Intergroup dialogue programs are well established at many universities in the United States. But many of those consist of credit courses taught by faculty members or student facilitators who have received rigorous training over several semesters in a classroom environment.

The Queen's facilitators went through an intensive 11-day training course that touched on a variety of social issues and possible scenarios.

Patricia Gurin, professor emeritus of psychology and women's studies at the University of Michigan, is one of the founders of the intergroup dialogue concept.

While she didn't comment specifically on the program launched at Queen's, she warned that such activities could backfire if they are not carried out by highly trained individuals who have experience with a variety of conflicts and social issues.

"It takes a lot of skill to do this work," Ms. Gurin said in an interview yesterday.

She said that facilitators who haven't been trained properly could end up reinforcing defence mechanisms of privileged students.

"White males say 'This is more white-male bashing.' What are they learning from that? Reinforcement of defensiveness rather than opening up and exploring is the consequence."
A sampling of some behaviour that could warrant attention from university-appointed student facilitators, tasked with policing students' offensive language at Queen's:

If a student uses the phrase "That's so gay" in conversation.

If a student calls someone or something "retarded."

If a student writes a homophobic, racist or other derogatory remark in a public space, such as on a residence poster or classmate's door.

If a student avoids a classmate's birthday party for faith-based reasons.
Are universities now so infantilized that one feels pressured to attend birthday parties?

It's one thing to freely contest someone's words, quite another to be employed as a busy-bodying intervenor to do it. Those who go looking for bits and pieces of conversation to scapegoat for the failure of Kingston to be a Utopia are truly a sign of the collapse of what used to be known as the liberal arts. But that's so straight of me... Conversation cops step in to school students


Dag said...

One of my favorite lines in one of my favorite books, Eric Hoffer, The True Believer, is something like this: "Those who don't have any business of their own will soon turn to minding yours."

It's a sickness. It's a mental sickness that some are prone to, drawn to if it arises around them, and that takes over their minds to the point that, in time, they kill people over it.

truepeers said...

I think I caught that sickness for a while; had to edit the earlier post; i was really dumbstruck by this one and the writing showed it!

Dag said...

I hate to say, but I can relate to that in a big way.