Last Friday, I attended a “speed networking” event hosted by the Bowdoin Career Planning Center. Clad in our finest business-casual attire, 30 or so of my peers and I schmoozed with successful Bowdoin alumni for a couple of hours, rehearsing our small-talk skills and learning how to pitch ourselves to potential employers. During the session, a number of alumni stood up to commend us undergraduates on our mingling skills. How polite and well-mannered and genteel we had all been in our conversations, they told us. Eminently flattered, we returned to our schmoozing.
The same day, the Orient reported that a student had defecated in a receptacle intended for used feminine hygiene products, placed in a men’s bathroom as part of BSG’s “Free Flow” project. The same article reported that the feces—or, in non-journalese, a pile of shit—had been discovered by a member of the housekeeping staff, who was tasked with cleaning it up.
Beyond disgust, the appropriate reaction to these two events, considered together, is overwhelming cognitive dissonance. How is it that the same community can produce such radically divergent sets of behaviors, one deferential nearly to a fault and the other brutish in the extreme?
Upon first consideration, the question might appear naive. Certainly those attending Career Planning Center events are not those pooping in tampon receptacles, you will object. Or rather, college students will be college students—there will be a degree of “Animal House”-ian behavior at every college; it’s just a fact of life.
Although these observations are not necessarily wrong—jackassery is, unfortunately, timeless—they fail to penetrate the heart of the cultural issue at stake here. Upon hearing of the bathroom incident, the campus community justifiably responded with a mix of disgust and righteous indignation. Yet the reflexive reaction to this incident betrays a pervasive approach to campus discourse that is worth examining.
At its Wednesday night meeting, BSG debated whether to report this episode as a bias incident. As opposed to a standard violation of the social code, a bias incident is a transgression that constitutes or is motivated by “Discrimination or harassment of others on the basis of race, color, ethnicity, social class, national origin, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity and/or expression, age, marital status, place of birth, veteran status or against qualified individuals with disabilities.” Bias incidents, which are reported through a designated online form, are handled not by the Judicial Board, like violations of the social code, but by a special panel of students and faculty. (This fact in itself should raise some red flags for anyone concerned with collegiate due process protections). Since the hygiene products had been placed in the men’s bathrooms to support transgender or gender nonconforming students, some argued that the pooping could constitute discrimination, harassment or intimidation of Bowdoin’s trans* and non-gender conforming students.
Ultimately, BSG decided not to report this transgression as a bias incident for fear that “admonishing any sort of behavior would make this a divisive issue, and we don’t want tampons in the bathroom to be divisive,” as BSG representative Kate Berkeley ’18 put it. Instead, BSG has decided to “educate the community” through a poster campaign.
Yet the knee-jerk impulse to construe the episode as an act of bias, even if quelled, is telling. Unlike BSG, the Orient’s editorial board took a more overt tact, writing in its March 31 editorial that, “the type of behavior exhibited this past week is both disrespectful to the housekeeping staff and a direct disregard for the rights of trans* students on campus. It is an act of bias and it deserves a prompt administrative response.”
When judging disrespectful and abhorrent behavior on campus, we certainly must consider the role that bias and the unequal distribution of social power play in shaping those behaviors. Nevertheless, it is a mistake to focus exclusively on these dynamics. First, human action and motivation is too complex to be explained by any single set of sociological explanations. The reflex to chalk any incident up to social bias leads to explanations that are both reductionist and likely inaccurate.
Second, focusing exclusively on bias too easily absolves those who spot the bias from their culpability in creating a campus culture that leads individuals to think it’s acceptable to poop in trashcans. While transphobia contributes to this culture, so does leaving a mess at Super Snack, or leaving a pool of vomit in a communal bathroom at a College House. And although classism might play a role in these actions, so does a simple lack of manners. Vindicating oneself of transphobic sentiments does not necessarily exonerate one of the blame for these other behaviors, all of which realistically contribute to a campus climate saturated with mindless vice and selfish disregard for basic rules of respect and etiquette.
The narrow focus on the role of bias in campus culture, at the expense of more holistic moral considerations, helps to create the presently two-faced campus culture in which the same student body can act perfectly angelic at a job interview but outright appalling in private life. Clearly Bowdoin students are able to perform politeness, but, as this most recent incident proves, we sometimes lack the fundamental commitment to decency, care and respect from which politeness is supposed to arise. When we fail to escape the framework of bias, which absolves the accuser from the sins of the accused, we foreclose any opportunity for meaningful reflection on how our own actions, which might not tidily fall under the umbrella of bias, contribute to those ills. In such a climate, we are concerned only with seeming virtuous, not with being so.
The spirit of the liberal arts lies in an appreciation of complexity, a mistrust of easy answers and an aspiration towards virtue broadly understood. All of us would do well to allow this spirit to move us beyond our course selection process, and yes, even into the bathroom.