Is There a Light at the End of the ‘Tunnel of Oppression?’

July 20, 2011

Whenever a student takes an internship, the questions he or she receives from other people are typically a strange combination of diverse questions and predictable ones. While the topic deviates from the standard inquiries of “Where are you from?” and “What are you studying at DePauw?”, they almost certainly will gravitate toward “Who are you interning with?” and “Oh, and what do they do?”

When I tell people that FIRE is an organization dedicated to defending and promoting civil liberties on college campuses, I’m met with an immediate positive response, and the third type of standard question: “So what do they do specifically with campuses?”

I explain that I found out about FIRE and its work after going through a troubling experience in my time as a Resident Assistant during first-year orientation. The programming, particularly the interactive performance “Tunnel of Oppression,” I felt, amounted to ideological thought-reform on some very serious issues like race-relations, gender and sexual identities, and religious affiliation. While I understand the motives of the well-intentioned individuals facilitating these exercises, I feel that the program itself and the potentially caustic assumptions involved (i.e., all “whites” are privileged and all “blacks” are underprivileged) create an atmosphere inimical to individuals hoping to have honest, open discussions on these very serious issues. In the same way, I find much of the freshman orientation programming across the country to be antithetical and counterproductive to the mission of higher education and to intellectual discourse.

This answer confuses many, and not for any bad reason. I frequently discuss how much I’ve loved my time at DePauw and particularly enjoyed the opportunity to serve freshman students as their RA. But it’s precisely for this reason that working for FIRE and fighting these abuses of university power have become so important to me.

I am not questioning whether discussion of topics like race, sexuality, and religion are important to developing a community of acceptance and tolerance on such a diverse campus. What I question is the wisdom of starting these discussions by forcing students to engage in them the moment they set foot on campus with people whom they have never met before in ways designed to make them feel insecure and self-conscious. Some simply might not feel comfortable discussing such deeply personal issues in such a large group of unfamiliar faces, and that’s understandable. Administrators so quick to acknowledge the sensitivity of these issues are ironically just as quick to force students to discuss them under their noses, leaving many students feeling vulnerable and reluctant to participate.

The environment created is one that discourages rather than encourages discussion of these topics and essentially pits students against each other by implying that all who benefit from current social inequities are at best either in denial or completely ignorant of them, or at worst seeking to extend them.

During the Tunnel of Oppression performance, we (my fellow RAs along with many freshmen students) are repeatedly told it’s good if we feel uncomfortable because that is the purpose of the exercise. I can’t help but wonder if we might get a more effective and productive discourse about these topicsall topics, reallyif students were free to have them of their own volition, in a context and with people that make them feel more comfortable. These issues are too personal, too spiritually and humanly intimate, to be addressed in any context other than one of mutually assured respect, consideration, and trust. I emphasize respect here, because I feel that this program creates no respect for these issues, but rather a simple air of indoctrination.

While those behind Tunnel of Oppression and similar programs believe they are achieving a noble end, they don’t seem to realize it comes at the expense of respect for students’ freedom of thought and conscience. By guiding students en masse through a mandatory or “strongly encouraged” doctrinaire presentation in an entirely new community of students as part of their freshman orientation, college administrators are making students hesitant or even hostile to discussion of important issues. In those students’ minds, the “official” attitude of the community has already been established, and disagreement will only lead to intense discomfort and conflict. Students have no reason to believe that their opinions will be heard, valued, or respected. There is simply no incentive to participate. Indeed, those with differing opinions of either the method or the content of these programs must stand up to university administrators and their RAs, and must also stand out amongst their fellow classmates as someone opposed to such ideological programming in an environment which labels opponents as racists and homophobes. This is a remarkably powerful disincentive.

Students deserve to have open, honest discussions about these issues, not be indoctrinated, trained or “enlightened” by university administrators. The “tunnel of oppression” and the climate it generates respects neither students and their ability to learn and grow in a community nor the deep intimacy of one’s construction of and relationship with their personal identity.

Rachel Cheeseman is a FIRE summer intern.