When University of Wisconsin students approached Dean of Students Lori Berquam with the "Think Campaign" in spring 2006, the idea was easy to support. Fighting oppressive attitudes on campus seemed to be uniquely opportune, especially in light of the anti-gay incident in Ogg Hall.
Ms. Berquam's support of the program was founded upon the notion that this group had the power to change campus attitudes in just about every possible institution of oppression, including racism. The aim was certainly high, but the message was more so for students to do something about oppressive attitudes rather than just talk about them.
Bundled in with this campaign was Ms. Berquam's support of the "bias incident report form" in which students had the opportunity to inform the Dean of Students office about threats and intimidation of their fellow students based upon a few proscribed categories, including race.
However, it seems that although you may see some posters brandishing the cleverly contrasted text stating "Think Respect," you should not be fooled.
The campaign and bias reporting mechanism have simply fallen out. The campaign now is relegated to its spot in the vast bank of inactive organizations occupying the Student Organization Office's web space and the bias reporting mechanism fills a similar role on the Dean of Students' website.
Ms. Berquam honestly assesses the success of both, saying the campaign "didn't gain momentum for subsequent years" and they "haven't had many reports" of bias on campus.
There has to be some reason for why this program simply did not take off. Apathy seems to be the traditional culprit of this kind of botched experiment, but, alas, the program would not have even started had this been the case. Rather, the real culprit behind this newly forgotten campaign and policy's fall from grace is that they were ill-conceived from the get-go.
The campaign sought to challenge oppressive attitudes through what Ms. Berquam called "educative" means. No surprise, the goal was to get students to "think" about "using the power of respect to promote a welcoming and inclusive campus climate."
Additionally, students were encouraged to use the bias reporting forms to tell on their fellow students for incidents involving threats and intimidation based on any of the oh-so-familiar "isms" to which we've become so accustomed.
The problem with both is almost too simple for words: People really don't like being told what to think and, better still, people don't like telling on others for issues they can deal with themselves.
But, posing an even greater threat to their functionality, when we deal with issues like race we are often confronted with the overwhelming reality that the issue is so deeply entrenched in ideas larger than the person is. This is, in essence, the basis behind institutions of oppression. The oppression is larger than the person is, and therefore, dealing with the issues by instilling severe consequences for oppressive attitudes, such as the bias reporting form, simply does not make sense.
Students who say slurs and derogatorily refer to others simply get what they deserve in the end. When you repeatedly disrespect people, sooner or later, karma returns the favor.
And — even though I do not live in Stephen Colbert's naive world free from race — I'd venture to say the problem is not nearly as big as we're making it out to be. Our current battles over racism involve empty epithets resulting in either media sensationalism or, more sensibly, a cold shoulder. The worst incidents may involve the police, but otherwise, we're capable of handling most of these problems ourselves. The proof is that we don't resort to these very formal institutions to deal with these problems.
So why should a school even bother with something like a "Think Campaign" or a "bias reporting mechanism?" In short, it gets back to our downright insatiable desire to legislate and litigate everything.
We, as a society, think that we can't deal with issues like racism on an informal basis, but in reality, we have the ability to do so. This is precisely why students did not turn to campaigns or reporting forms to deal with those who offended them during the past year.
It seems obvious; we simply do not rush to a computer to fill out a form online when someone has offended us — we confront the person. We do not go to counseling to discuss an offensive remark — we talk it through. And when someone's actions are so egregious that we can't deal with the action ourselves, we turn to others, namely, the police.
The assumption that students simply cannot take care of themselves is the root of the very kind of paternalism that the "Think Campaign" perpetuates. The campaign and reporting forms advance the mentality that we cannot deal with these problems on our own.
But, as lack of enthusiasm and disuse of these programs plainly show, we are more than capable of dealing with the racism of today on our own.
Robert Phansalkar ([email protected]) is a first-year law student.