Conversation cops step in to school students

The Globe and Mail | November 19, 2008
By Carly Weeks

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." 

The initiative, believed to be the first of its kind in Canada, is part of a broader program begun at the school this fall to foster diversity and encourage students to think about their beliefs.

But the move is sparking fresh debate over the line between politically correct behaviour and freedom of expression. Some students fear the university's program borders on oppressive. 

"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 Mr. Laker said the new "intergroup dialogue program" focuses on respectful, non-confrontational discussions that don't impede freedoms.

"This is difficult work. It needs to be done very respectfully," Mr. Laker said. "There's really no interference." 

Under the new program, six student facilitators live and work within campus residences. Their mission is threefold: to engage students "spontaneously" by talking to them about an issue that has arisen, for instance, on campus or in the media; to hold movie nights, book readings or discussions on a range of social issues; and to step in when conflicts arise. 

And if students become uncomfortable when a facilitator calls out someone on an offensive slur, it shouldn't be seen as a bad thing, Mr. Laker said. It means they're forced to think about their choices.

"That is an acceptable tension to have," he said. "I would go further. I would say it's a beneficial tension."

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."

Daniel Hayward is one of the six student facilitators who began their work at Queen's in August. A graduate student, Mr. Hayward said the group received extensive training and has already had success talking to students about a variety of social issues.

He said much of their work is passive and done on a casual level. For instance, they had a poster campaign on campus earlier this year using the phrase "That's so gay" to grab attention and then to point out why it's offensive to some.

"It's helping to create an atmosphere of inclusivity," Mr. Hayward said.