November 25, 2008
Further to recent comments on Queen’s University’s “dialogue facilitators,” this may be of interest. The university’s Intergroup Dialogue Programme is outlined here in marvellously woolly and tendentious terms. The preoccupation with “groups,” “social justice” and “social identities” is quite striking, as is the potential for contradiction with “fostering critical knowledge” and “authentic dialogue”. Given the opaquely technocratic language and its numerous assumptions, it’s difficult to be sure what the actual objective is:
IGD theory and practice has been influenced by both the human relations approach and the social re-constructionist approach, striking a balance between emphasizing positive intergroup relations and critical understanding of social inequalities. Using critical social pedagogies and social justice education theory and practice, IGD integrates content and process in teaching and learning about social justice issues.
Perhaps it’s imagined that “critical knowledge” and “authentic dialogue” are synonymous with deference to some leftist formulation of “social justice” – a term used continually but never quite defined. Sceptics among us may wonder if the objective really is to inhibit the shouting of racist epithets, etc – behaviour quite rare on university campuses and doubtless covered by existing codes of conduct. Some may even suspect that the purpose of the exercise is simply the opportunist propagation of “social justice theory.” Either way, “dialogue facilitators” will be trained in “issues of social identity, power and privilege and social justice” and will “facilitate proactive opportunities” for students to “reflect on intergroup issues.” “Positive spaces and mindsets” will, of course, be created.
After some unfavourable coverage, the university has been busy with damage limitation and claims that the “dialogue facilitators” will not in fact be eavesdropping or foisting ideology on others, but will instead “invite engagement across difference.” Talia Radcliffe, of the Alma Mater Society students union, says the programme has been “mischaracterised” and is merely intended to “act as a facilitation of dialogue,” an altogether fluffier endeavour.
Readers may wonder how this non-invasive, more fragrant interpretation squares with comments by “dialogue facilitator” Daniel Hayward, who says, “We are trained to interrupt behaviour in a non-blameful and non-judgmental manner… seeing if [what was said] can be said in a different manner.” Or with comments by vice-principal academic, Patrick Deane, who tells us, “In the residence setting, it’s perfectly possible that students who are behaving in a manner that’s disrespectful would have it pointed out to them.” What constitutes “disrespect” is, alas, far from clear, though earlier reports include use of the word “retarded,” the expression “that’s so gay” and the avoidance of a classmate’s birthday party for “faith-based reasons.” According to Mr Deane, facilitators may “step in” should any disrespect occur in cafeterias and common rooms. Exactly how disrespect will be detected is similarly vague. Nor is it clear how to reconcile assurances that eavesdropping will not occur with the following assertion by Jason Laker, dean of student affairs: “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.”
Mr Deane is also happy to inform us that, “Freedom of speech and thought is impossible without respect, consideration and a commitment to mutual understanding.” Well, non sequitur aside, there’s a problem here already. Some quite popular worldviews are ridiculous and intellectually indefensible, and thus undeserving of respect. One might, of course, tolerate such views, but tolerance isn’t respect and the two shouldn’t be confused. Some students may be intensely reactive to any perceived affront, even on matters of fact and logic. Indeed, those with insubstantial arguments may be particularly prone to umbrage. What, then, will happen if a student has a “social identity” premised on a ridiculous and indefensible position and thus feels “disrespected” by statements of fact? And what if that person happens to belong to a group favoured by proponents of “social justice theory”? Will their tears say more than coherent argument ever could?
And the questions keep on coming. Who gets to determine what constitutes “offensive content” in what is, lest we forget, a private conversation? What happens if I’m talking to Bill and a third person manages to overhear - or mishear - something deemed contentious or uncongenial to their ego and then summons a “facilitator”? Am I expected to explain myself and relate the context in which whatever it is was said? Can I say “fuck off, mind your own business” - and what happens if I do? Whose personal space has just been violated here? How is “offensive content” to be detected without at least occasionally listening in on someone else’s business? Indeed, isn’t there an incentive to do so, if only to justify the existence of “dialogue facilitators”? Will normal assumptions of privacy and personal space be compromised in order to deter an occasional ugly comment? And should students learn to communicate in whispers over lunch, so as to avoid unwanted “facilitation” by some condescending interloper strung out on “social justice theory”?
Update, via Wayne Fontes: Dialogue will no longer be “facilitated”. Note, however, the unrepentant tone.
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