Mandatory Bias Training is Necessary but Insufficient; Hamilton Forum is Proof

By TRAVIS SANDERSON

On Sunday, the Student Government Association (SGA) Senate sent an email calling for mandatory bias training for all “hired professionals and all student organization leaders, including members of the SGA and school publications.” The SGA indicated full support for training that may change the culture that led to heavily-publicized jokes about the chemistry questions that asked students to calculate the lethal dose of hydrogen cyanide and mentioned the KKK. 

The need for mandatory bias training has been ignored for years. In 2017, Community Council conducted a survey that indicated widespread insensitivity among faculty to working class students’ backgrounds and concerns. On May 9, 2017, faculty members J. Finley, Mez Baker-Medard and William Poulin-Deltour’s recommendation for socioeconomic bias training passed with unanimous support from Community Council. The initiative was specifically targeted at socioeconomic bias training; however, the recommendation was passed only by noting that bias training addressing all kinds of identities was needed. One faculty member is recorded in the public minutes as even suggesting a “JusTalks for faculty.” It was recognized that Faculty Council was the institution that could make mandatory bias training happen. To my understanding, the recommendation was not picked up by Faculty Council. The need for bias training stagnated until now, when a series of incidents proved the continued truth that many faculty are alarmingly unaware of the impact of their pedagogy on their students.

Many faculty are alarmingly unaware of the impact of their pedagogy on their students.”

While mandatory bias training is necessary, I am not convinced of its sufficiency in changing the culture at the heart of the problem. The invitation of Ryszard Legutko really drove home that point. Legutko is a virulent homophobe, a sexist and a member of a populist radical right (PRR) party responsible for rolling back democracy in Poland. His views are reminiscent of white nationalist Richard Spencer’s, who also sees multiculturalism as a degradation of a pristine “Christian and Classical” civilization. It is easy to draw a parallel between Charles Murray and Ryszard Legutko, but there are a few key differences. 

When Charles Murray was invited, many senior figures were unaware of the already-simmering tension that was ignited by Murray. There is no feasible way that officials were ignorant of potential backlash this time. Secondly, the chair of the Political Science department acknowledged that the “short amount of time between when the event became public and when it occurred gave all of us scant opportunity to listen to and understand alternative points of view.” The speakers policy was then modified to ensure that the community had ample time to discuss and debate speakers.

I am suspicious of the Hamilton Forum’s intentions. While the Forum did register Ryszard Legutko as a speaker, posters included no information on his controversial nature. They mentioned only his membership in the European Parliament and participation in the Polish anti-communist movement. Any hint at his illiberal nature and dangerous false equivalencies, like describing queer activists’ tactics as “Bolshevik” and gay folks as the “sacred cows” of society, were omitted. Rohatyn Center for Global Affairs (RCGA) advisory board members received invitations to the RCGA’s “Populism, Homophobia, and Illiberal Democracy” panel to engage the community in dialogue only a day in advance of the panel. At best, the effort seemed belated and haphazard. If the Hamilton Forum was interested in engaging the community in productive discourse, they would have been forthright with the nature of Legutko’s views from the start. Organizing Ryszard Legutko’s talk in such a hidden and dishonest way seems, to me, to be an illustration that the Hamilton Forum was determined to invite this specific speaker without giving the entire community a chance to challenge his authoritarian ideas.

I am suspicious of the Hamilton Forum’s intentions.”

The apparent intention behind the Hamilton Forum’s invitation makes me doubtful that mandatory bias training will sufficiently address the problem of bigotry in the community. The Hamilton Forum, in inviting an illiberal politician without engaging the community in any real dialogue, ignored the hard-won lessons of the Murray fiasco. Despite the community’s likely resistance, they invited him. Despite consensus two years ago that the community should have a chance to discuss and develop strategies to deal with controversial speakers, they invited him—quietly. No amount of mandatory bias training is likely to change the behavior of people who invite a hate-filled speaker knowing full well the potential consequences.

One can look at the repeated instances of bias and bigotry as one problem—ignorance. I am increasingly convinced that there are two separate problems. The first is ignorance, which can be corrected through bias training. The second is something different. It is generational, a worldview that diverges wildly from that of many progressive students on campus. If we assume that the Hamilton Forum is not illiberal itself, then we can assume that the Forum’s members view Legutko’s talk as a potential opportunity to resoundingly prove the superiority of liberal values. That assumption is logically consistent with the values that underpin the Hamilton Forum’s mission statement. In this worldview, liberal values are viewed as the logical and inevitable victors in a fair marketplace of ideas. Ryszard Legutko’s regressive rhetoric can be resoundingly defeated, as all authoritarian ideologies can and will. His talk on campus is not a threat to the people he singles out and oppresses back home, notably gay activists and feminists, if there is no real threat to the liberal values that protect marginalized people. 

Progressive students have a strikingly different worldview, less idealistic than realistic. We see the rolling back of democratic values around the world as proof of the danger of legitimating authoritarian views. We see Legutko in the context of a global far right movement. Far from failing in the marketplace of ideas, illiberal ideas have emerged as the ruling consensus in countries distant and disparate, from Poland to the United States. There is no guarantee that liberal values win in the marketplace of ideas. We see a connection between the homophobia of government that caused the deaths of queer people, notably during the first decades of the AIDS epidemic, and contemporary homophobic politicians like Ryszard Legutko. We recognize the world as digital; people do not need to engage with homophobic and illiberal politicians directly to possess an educated understanding that homophobia and authoritarianism are profound threats to liberty and equality. The deep gap in worldviews between the Hamilton Forum and progressive students, between idealists and realists, is embedded in the current conflict.

In the end, mandatory bias training is necessary but insufficient. Overall, we need to find some sort of bridge across different worldviews if we hope to address the problem of hatred and bias on campus.

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