December 1, 2015

Political Correctness in Mississippi

Animated flag of Mississippi.
Animated flag of Mississippi. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I do not live in California. I live in Mississippi, a red state if there ever was one. In poll after poll, we end up being ranked as the most religious state in the U.S. And "religious" has only one meaning around here: evangelical fundamentalist Christian, politically conservative, and mostly Southern Baptist. I do not work at a liberal university; I don't think there are any liberal universities in Mississippi. I mention this because it provides context for what I am about to share. If what I describe can happen here, it can happen anywhere. And in fact, it almost certainly has been happening everywhere for some time.

My workplace, a state university, is requiring everyone to complete several lengthy online training modules that cover topics such as diversity in the workplace, sexual harassment, Title IX, sexual assault, and a few others. When I say that everyone is being required to do this, I am referring to administrators, faculty, staff, and students. So this is not just for employees. We have not been provided with any rationale for why this training is necessary, why we are being told to do it now, or why we are being threatened with assorted consequences if we do not complete it promptly.

Having completed the first round of the required training, I can say that some of it was mildly helpful. Almost none of the content was new to me, but there were a few areas where it was useful to have a reason to review it. That said, I've identified a few problems with the content that deserve comment:
  1. It seemed designed to pit everyone against each other by insisting that all perceived violations, no matter how minor (microaggressions were explicitly addressed at length), must be reported immediately to Human Resources.
  2. Some of the information presented as factual is controversial (e.g., campus rape statistics); however, the controversy was not ever acknowledged.
  3. Much of the material read as if it was developed by the sort of social justice warriors (SJWs) and proponents of political correctness many of us have been criticizing.
I'll expand on each of these points below.

Everyone Must Tattle On Everyone Else

Infused throughout the entire course of training is the notion that employees and students are not just encouraged to bring any and every grievance, no matter how minor, to Human Resources but are required to do so. As an employee, the training clearly explained that I am expected to do this as a condition of my continued employment and that I could lose my job for failing to do so.

To be clear, we are not talking only about reporting serious things like theft, sexual assault, fraud, clear examples of racism, and the like. Most of the examples involved hurt feelings and microaggressions. Example after example involved the sort of comments that many people make without realizing how devastating they apparently are for whoever assembled the training materials. I will give a few specific examples below.

The point here isn't that everything described as worthy of investigation was trivial but that everyone spending time on campus must be ready and willing to tattle on one another. According to the training, we must avoid attempts to resolve conflicts informally at all costs. This includes attempting to speak to the person who said something we do not like and explain our point of view (e.g., raising awareness). No, we are supposed to run to Human Resources instead. Why? Because talking to the person who offended us might complicate their ability to conduct an investigation. I find it almost impossible to believe that this sort of climate is conducive to productivity, worker satisfaction, education, or any other goal we might reasonably be expected to pursue in higher education.

Nothing Controversial Here

I'm not going to get into the controversy over whether U.S. campuses are in the midst of a sexual assault epidemic here except to point out that this is a controversial claim. The commonly cited campus rape statistics are particularly controversial and for good reason. The methodology of some of the studies from which these numbers are taken have serious problems. And yes, I have read most of the widely cited journal articles for myself in order to understand how they did what they did. My point here isn't that they were necessarily wrong; my point is simply that their limitations and the controversy around these statistics was not even hinted at in the training. Instead, the numbers were presented as fact.

The training tells us that approximately 1 in 5 women will be sexually assaulted during her time in college. The training does not tell us that the definition of sexual assault used in many of the studies cited in support of the 1 in 5 statistic was rather different than the definition of sexual assault provided by the training. Moreover, the training made no mention of the fact that the number of sexual assaults reported on our particular campus is not even close to 1 in 50, much less 1 in 5. At best, this seems sloppy and misleading. At worst, the word "propaganda" comes to mind.

An even stranger example of the failure to acknowledge controversy is that the training presented the new "affirmative consent" laws around rape as if they were uniformly the law of the land. Some states have adopted these laws, but the state in which I am located is not one of them. At least, not yet. How are current students being served by misinforming them about the laws of the state in which they reside?

Straight Outta the SJW Playbook

When I say that much of the content seemed like it could have been written by SJWs, I'm thinking primarily about the emphasis on tattling, the elevation of one's feelings over reality, and the countless mentions of microaggressions. Here are a few examples from the training that illustrate why I might say this:
  • "Over the Hill" stuff at workplace birthday parties is a serious no-no because...ageism. This was described as a clear example of legally prohibited discrimination that should be reported to HR at once.
  • It is absolutely inappropriate to comment on anyone's physical appearance at any time and for any reason. One example involved a woman telling a male co-worker that it looks like he has lost weight recently and that she's curious about how he did it since she's trying to do the same. Report this insensitive woman to HR!
  • The custom ring tones one puts on one's personal smart phone can be "triggering" to one's co-workers, and we must all be sensitive to this lest we be reported to HR.
  • An employee who reports his or her co-workers, including reports for the trivial sort of things about which we heard so much, to HR cannot be retaliated against in any way. This includes the sort of "retaliation" that would involve this person's co-workers opting to spend less time around him or her.
  • What about free speech? That's easy. The training explained that we do have a right to express ourselves but that this right ends the moment what we say interferes with someone else's work or learning environment. And what is the marker for evaluating this sort of interference? That's even easier: hurt feelings. In other words, my right to free expression in the workplace ends the moment someone else experiences (or claims to experience) hurt feelings.
Many people outside of academia have an understandably difficult time understanding where all this political correctness and SJW stuff is coming from and why it seems to be as influential as it does. For those of us who have been at "ground zero" for the last decade or more, it seems all too familiar. I wish I could say I thought things were going to get better in the near future, but I can't. Remember, this training is being required of everyone. That means that brand new students entering college at 18 are being hit with this right from the start. In just a few years, few will remember anything different. This will be the new normal.

I understand that an employer has a compelling interest in making sure that employees behave appropriately. I also understand that efforts like this are often driven by lawsuits or the threat of lawsuits. My guess is that this new training requirement and the matter in which is was presented without explanation are the result of a lawsuit or compliance breach of some sort. Still, I have to ask myself whether these efforts are going to foster the sort of work and learning environment people really want.
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