A Most Curious Document

John E. Staddon

John E. Staddon is James B. Duke Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke University.


Elite schools have struggled for many years to increase their racial and ethnic diversity, to foster ‘inclusion,’ and to eliminate any vestige of prejudice. Surely after decades of effort, universities must be among our least prejudiced, biased and hate-filled institutions?

Apparently not. Duke University, one among many, is worried about bias and hate and recently produced a report to prove it: Report of the Duke University Task Force on Bias and Hate Issues (April 30, 2016). This 69-page report, produced by a task force of twenty-nine, plus eight “resource members,” is intended to provide “a broad review of Duke’s policies, practices, and culture as they pertain to bias and hate in the Duke student experience.”  

What is going on? Is Duke really a hate-filled and bias-riddled entity that needs the efforts of thirty or more people over some months to find a cure? What they have found? What remedies do they propose?

First, definition: what does the Task Force mean by bias and hate? Examples would help, but apparently most of the examples are concealed in Appendix G, which is not published. We do get a definition of a “bias incident” as

“an act or behavior motivated by the actor’s bias against the facets of another's identity.” The act or behavior may be intentional or unintentional…

Not clear on “facets of identity”? On just what bias entails? Sorry, but that’s it. There is no elaboration. Would the Task Force be content to define “sex crime” as “any act or behavior motivated by sex”?

As for hate, they rely on federal guidelines – which might suggest that the legal system, rather than Duke University, should have prime responsibility.  

The length of this document and the man- (person-?) hours devoted to its production implies that there must be a pretty serious problem at Duke. With few actual examples to judge by, readers curious about just what kinds of things constitute “hate” and “bias” on Duke’s usually placid campus have little to guide them. Still, a few hints are provided in the main text, which suggests that the evil may be rather less than the weight of the report suggests.  Here are three examples:

There are reports from women and minorities that when they receive a fellowship, an interview, a job offer, etc., others might claim it is because of their minority status, and that there is lack of awareness that “jokes” about these “unfair advantages” are hurtful and in poor taste.

Of course Duke and many other academic institutions have affirmative action programs – programs of which they are proud. These programs do give preferences of some kind to groups thought to suffer discrimination now or in the past. Were these preferences operative in the “hurtful” examples cited? We don’t know, but it’s certainly possible. Why then are questions, or even jokes, inappropriate?

Were the comments “in poor taste” or, to use simpler words, were they impolite or rude? Possibly, but again we don’t really know as the words “rude”, “polite” and “impolite” occur nowhere in the report (However, the word “bias” occurs 311 times and “hate” 250.)

Here’s another example, referring to teaching:

Predictably, some of the insensitive commentary comes from a lack of awareness: teaching examples are almost always heteronormative,

Most sexual relations are between a man and a woman. Homosexual behavior is practiced by a minority, not just among human beings but throughout the animal kingdom. Heterosex is indeed a biological norm. Sex is ‘heteronormative.’ But that ugly word seems to have two meanings: first, that male-female sex is normal in the sense that it is a majority practice. No argument with that. Writer and critic Gore Vidal, hardly a homophobe, once commented, “Homosexuality is natural. Notice that I did not say ‘normal’.”

But heteronormative might also mean that heterosexuality is in some sense preferable to homosexuality. This is an opinion that was once widely accepted but is now controversial, at least in the U.S. It might be implied by a choice of heterosexual examples, in say, a literature course. But it might not. In any case, should any suggestion that homosexuality is abnormal be banned from the Duke campus? Is the idea of normality itself “hate speech”?

Here’s a final example, from a short list:

One example of hate or bias conduct that would violate this policy is a student yelling hateful or biased declarations regarding religion, gender identity, or another protected characteristic in [the Duke student center] in such a manner that other students do not feel safe or are unable to eat, meet, or converse freely. [my emphasis]

Nearly thirty years ago in the UK, a government report on race relations concluded that a “racist incident” is “any incident perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person.” In other words, racism was henceforth to be defined not by some objective standard or by the intention of the actor, but by the observer – any observer, not necessarily the victim.

A popular UK courtroom TV series recently illustrated the effect of this ruling. A Pakistani policewoman is accused by a third party of making a racial slur, intended and perceived as a joke by the black colleague at whom it was directed. No harm, no foul. Nevertheless, she is convicted, in accordance with this ridiculous law – although not punished. The whole proceeding was of course completely unnecessary. But prosecution was required by the “anyone may object” policy.

Duke is evidently following suit. At Duke a complainant can make trouble by accusing another student of “hate” or “bias” even though no harm is intended and no one else, including the alleged target, is offended.

This embarrassing report is intellectually dishonest because it refuses to define its subject. It allows almost any aggrieved group to silence those with whom it disagrees. The report is infused with a sort of squidgy pop psychology that gives all weight to the complainer, no matter how whiney or hypersensitive he or she may be, and none to the complained about. The accused should just shut up.  The report seems designed to pander to the grumpiest and noisiest among the student body.

But the worst thing about this report is its final recommendation:

We recommend that offices continue to offer and promote opportunities for students to think about identity in the context of everyday life issues and career goals

I suggest that our history points in precisely the opposite direction. Surely it is the constant harping, over many decades, on racial, gender, and other characteristics over which the individual has no control that is the problem. Urging people to think of themselves and others first of all in terms of some group identity, rather than as individuals, has massively backfired. Many students are now obsessed with group membership. They ignore the achievements of others because the first question that comes to their mind is not What has he or she done? but Is he on our team or not? Does he have the right identity? The result is that institutions of higher education, which should be the fairest and least hostile places in society, are now accused of being among the worst.  

Constantly reminded of his racial identity, it has become natural for a young African American, hearing the name George Washington, to think first not of Washington’s role in founding the country but of his slaves. Slave-ownership is deplorable, to be sure, but most of Washington’s contemporaries owned slaves. His slaves are irrelevant to Washington’s role in American history.  Alan Turing’s homosexuality led to tragedy, but is equally irrelevant to his pioneering role in computer science and artificial intelligence. It is hard to imagine that still more waving of the angry flag of group identity will do anything but further divide people and cause more destructive agitation.

Contrary to this report’s recommendation, what is needed is not more “thinking about identity” but less – much, much, much less.

Image Source: Public Domain.

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