When we’re too afraid to fight back

The elephant in the room

Our university does a lot wrong.

Everyone who has read any number of my columns in this space knows that this is my normal mentality. Generally, the mistakes are defensible. They are, at worst, reversible. This week though, it may have gotten worse.

Earlier this week, The Daily informed the campus community—students, professors and staff—that the University Division of Student Affairs was launching a “Bias Reporting System.” The general idea is that students and others on campus can now file a simple online form to report instances of “hate, bias or discrimination,” which they perceive in their daily interactions with other students, faculty, staff or others. The idea is a noble cause—similar, in theory, to the way the campus deals with allegations of sexual misconduct. However in that comparison is also the problem.

Much like the horror stories, the country has heard about universities mangling the investigation of sexual misconduct allegations. (Everyone remembers the Duke lacrosse case.) The university’s effort to “build a campus where everyone feels welcome” is an idealistic pipe dream that threatens to quell campus discussion in favor of ensuring a cushy, feel-good environment.

Vice President of Student Affairs Lou Stark has claimed that the system will not be “a judge, jury and executioner type thing.” The Office of Student Affairs will try to understand the issues in detail and respond to trends. The office will, they have guaranteed, respond to every report. Herein lies the problem, though. It is obviously a mistake to believe that the university will respond to these problems by simply disciplining the person alleged to “discriminate.”

That would clearly provoke controversy. However, it is far more likely that the university will overzealously attempt to come after instances of “discrimination,” as if they feel they have a moral duty to protect their students from things they do not want to hear.

Let’s be clear about one thing. It is not true to say that discrimination does not exist. Discrimination exists in all parts of society and will exist once we have all left the university and have entered into the workforce. However, that is also the reality of the situation. Case Western Reserve University prides itself on preparing students for the “real world.” They want to ensure that students that graduate from this university become successful in their chosen career or life path. Part of that duty, though, is to ensure that students are aware of the problems in modern society and have a way to respond to them. Largely, in corporate United States, there is no “Bias Reporting System” to run to. There is no one who is simply going to make the problem go away.

This is all part of a larger problem in society. Lenore Skenazy, America’s “Worst Mom” and the author of “Free Range Kids”, comments that schools teach students overreact to problems. In reality they should teach students to “be tough, be sensible” and to react to things in a more mature way than simply dismissing the other side, because society beyond school is that way. If the university wants to prepare students for the working world, this is the mentality they need to take.

However, there’s a further issue. The announcement and parading out of this new system threatens our community and quality of debate. Instead of having the opportunity to explain oneself in the face of criticism, it is now increasingly likely that instance of perceived, and only perceived, microaggression will become issues of “discrimination.” The threat of university punishment for an offhand comment, or for teaching a certain way, or for referencing an alternative “non-PC” viewpoint, will silence that mentality entirely. It is a chilling effect on speech of the worst kind. The threat of punishment will silence those afraid of punishment.

Again, let’s be clear. No one has a right to not be offended. No one has a right to not hear things they don’t agree with. The university should, at least, understand this. Its solution, though, to a very real problem is one which blinds students to the mature ways of correcting behavior. Speaking back, pointing out the flaws in someone’s argument or viewpoint, is the correct way of dealing with these issues, not running off to some administrator because you are too afraid to deal with real problems yourself. Then again that seems to be how the school wants students to behave.

Andrew Breland is a weekly opinion columnist for The Observer. He entirely expects to be reported for instances of “hate, bias and discrimination” because of this article. Contact him at awb69@case.edu