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The bias incidents are on us

May 7, 2019

This piece represents the opinion of the author.

Let’s take ownership of our own actions. The “bias incidents” (which, if you ask me, is a rather ineffective term) that have transpired on the Bowdoin campus over the past few academic years are on us. They are not simply the result of a polarized political atmosphere, or someone misunderstanding the nature of a joke, or oversensitivity, or the overall terribleness of an individual unindicative of the whole. Ultimately, we are the ones who treat each other poorly with little regard to general decency.

In the fall of 2017, I did some prying of my own in the wake of the drawing of swastikas in the Visual Arts Center. I didn’t do much—I merely sent a few emails hoping to cling to some unfounded optimism that intolerance would be met with justice. But the response I received was unsettling, to say the least. I was comforted that the investigations conducted by the Office of Safety and Security and Brunswick Police Department were duly completed, even if they concluded unsuccessfully. But the message was clear: the drawings were so immature in nature that a Bowdoin student, one of my peers, could not possibly have been responsible.

I liked (and still like) to hope that the assurances I received were true. I wanted (and still want) to believe that I attend a college where my peers exude morality in every action. Maybe every member of our community is too actively a defender of righteousness to be capable of promulgating anything that could be seen as indecent.

But that wouldn’t be an honest, or fair, assessment. We simply aren’t that good. I know I’m not (and I would insist on not being held to such a high standard). This is clearly the case. We all sin and, at least in my case, do so often. However, we don’t always make even a semblance of an effort to atone. A blind intransigence that Bowdoin students are too virtuous to do condemnable things is plainly absurd.

Why, then, does it often seem as if “bias incidents” are committed by those on the fringes of our community? Certainly, the responses to the incidents continue to improve—campus-wide emails are quicker to point out the likelihood of student involvement. Yet, when we insist that the students who do such indecent things are not indicative of our decent community, we are denying reality in order to maintain our higher aspirations of who we are.

Instead, we should take responsibility. Doing so is the only real first step towards making Bowdoin the unequivocally good place that we so desperately want to believe it is. I’m not saying that we should all take the blame for acts of hate that occur on our campus, nor am I indicating that minor wrongdoings are on par with racial discrimination and fear mongering. But we are culpable if we think that egregious misconduct is somehow an anomaly simply because hate is beneath us.

The campus-wide emails we receive each time there is a “bias incident” put into motion an increasingly predictable series of events. The email is sent, students chat briefly about the actions, some articles are written (like this one), the topic moves out of plain sight, an op-ed is written asking why we forgot about the incident, and then the act recedes from memory altogether until the next incident. What’s missing from this repeating timeline is a campus-wide reconciliation of the facts: someone in our community disrespected, violated, frightened, and damaged someone else in our community. The latest “bias incidents,” occurring recently, perversely and sadly provide us with an opportunity to do better in how we respond. This is on us.

Alexander Kogan is a member of the class of 2020.

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One comment:

  1. Recent Bowdoin Alumnus says:

    This is a great perspective. Part of the problem is that we’ve built an atmosphere that discourages others from taking responsibility. We quickly condemn and excommunicate anyone at the slightest hint of transgression. This pressure promotes silence and suppresses the rigorous dialogue that we greatly need. How can we expect anyone to come forward, admit wrongdoing, and learn from their mistakes when the same penalty – social obliteration- is levied against mistakes of any and all magnitudes? First, we must stop expecting absolute perfection from everyone; it is counter-productive and unrealistic. We must promote spaces of psychological safety for people to experiment with new and foreign ideas without fear of harsh recrimination. Secondly, and more importantly, we must establish a clear protocol for redemption and atonement. The current form of excommunication is always final and unconditional. It must become more nuanced and develop gradations. The current paradigm is unfair and has people living in fear of every small mistake. We must be brave in sharing our ideas and be yet braver in letting others share theirs, even if we vehemently disagree. We cannot cow to the fear of ostracism, or worse, begin to enjoy the ostracizing.


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