If you wanted to create a killer app for logging microaggressions, you couldn’t do better than the University of Wisconsin’s “Bias and Hate” reporting website.
As Christian Schnieder describes in fascinating detail for the Dispatch, students on campus are being encouraged to report on each other with Stasi-like efficiency via such portals, which “encourages campus community members to report any uncomfortable interaction they encounter on campus.”
The website continues: “Students may file behavior reports anonymously against other students for words uttered in private interactions, or may report professors for words said in front of a classroom.” The University of Wisconsin isn’t alone. Many other schools (232 according to a 2017 estimate by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) also host “Bias Response Teams.”
As Schneider notes, however, the faculty members and campus police on the Advisory board tasked with responding to complaints have a great deal of leeway to determine what are and are not biased words and actions. Recent complaints Schneider obtained thanks to a Freedom of Information Act Request revealed complaints about having seen a student’s roommate watching an online video that mocked people with speech impediments; a photo with students armed raised overhead that the complainant felt gave off a “Nazi/hate group vibe;” and a professor whom a student felt didn’t properly acknowledge Indigenous People’s Day.
It’s not surprising, then, that the existence of Bias Response Teams has also prompted lawsuits, including one brought by free speech rights group Speech First against the University of Michigan. As the Wall Street Journal describes, universities are loath to define the speech they are so eager to monitor: “As for what constitutes bias, that’s vague—unconstitutionally so, argues Speech First. The existence of an offended party can be sufficient to prove ‘bias.’ The team warns potential offenders that bias ‘may be intentional or unintentional.’ Similarly, the student code prohibits ‘harassment,’ which it defines as ‘unwanted negative attention perceived as intimidating, demeaning, or bothersome to an individual.’ Here, subjective perception serves as evidence.”
As well, the administrators who often make up the Bias Response Teams are like the proverbial man with a hammer. Since their jobs “depend on the assumption that bias is widespread,” they have a “bias toward finding bias.”
Conservatives are often criticized for giving college campuses too much attention. They worry about that the fact that an overwhelming majority of university faculty are self-described liberals, and that conservative ideas are often deemed anathema among students and administrators alike. The real snowflakes, this argument goes, are conservatives who are annoyed their ideas aren’t as popular as those of progressives.
It’s true that a handful of people on the right have capitalized on the culture war not to try to present conservative ideas in good faith but to try to make careers for themselves as professional provocateurs. But the infrastructure of identity policing on campus, aided and abetted by the many “equity industry” organizations whose mission it is to reeducate people about their bias, have been at their work for decades. And it appears to be making inroads among the young, who are holding on to their progressive views as they age, unlike previous generations of young liberals.
As the College Fix has noted, workshops like the ones hosted by The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond (trademarked motto: We are Undoing Racism), have brought dubious ideas about race to college campuses for years. According to a student who attended one such workshop at Vassar College last year, which featured a “circle of sharing,” “There were no interjections when the instructors stated, ‘All white people are racist.’” There are even academic studies focused on the People’s Institute’s efforts at “developing decolonial pedagogy within a predominantly White, elite university.”
Such workshops haven’t had the cleansing effect of creating safe spaces for all students, however. Students at Arizona State University who lean Republican were likely not feeling safe after this video surfaced last week after the impeachment vote to acquit Donald Trump. It showed a man on campus yelling, “Slash Republican throats!” (the university is still trying to determine if the man is a student).
That video went viral and got a moment of the public’s distracted attention. For the most part, though, the corrosion of understanding about race and bias on college campuses has happened gradually and steadily, workshop by workshop, bias report by bias report. As Schneider concludes about the University of Wisconsin’s bias portal, “Encouraging students to report one another may be institutionalizing victimhood and teaching students that the university is responsible for ensuring every utterance they hear is non-confrontational.”
He’s correct that tools such as bias reporting portals are likely to exacerbate racial tensions rather than heal them, especially given the ideologically distorted view of race many professors on campuses are already promoting. The University of Wisconsin-Madison campus is already home to academics like Sami Schalk, a gender and women’s studies professor who describes herself as a “sarcastic fat Black queer femme.” Several years ago she defended black students who had filed a false report of a hate crime at the University at Albany; recently, she got involved in a fight about racism, which prompted her to Tweet, “This is your semi-annual reminder that white people do not get to determine what is & is not racist. If a person of color calls you racist, it’s probably bc you did something racist whether you can recognize it or not.”
Unfortunately, if recognizing racism and discussing its impact on college campuses is left to misguided bias reporting portals and academics like Ms. Schalk, the dialogue so many progressives claim to want to have about race is unlikely ever to occur. The divide will deepen, rather than heal, racial divisions.