UNC freshman orientation: Conform or be cast out

By Alec Dent

Chapel Hill, NC – I am about to begin my freshman year at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and I recently attended college orientation. As an Eagle Scout, I learned orienteering, the skill set used to navigate in new or unfamiliar territory. I noticed the shared root word and expected orientation to show me how to navigate my way through my freshman year.

UNC at Chapel Hill quadAt first, my expectations were met. My classmates and I learned how to register for classes, a few of the Carolina fight songs (“I’m a Tar Heel born and bred!”), all the different extracurricular activities at UNC, and the opportunities we will have to study abroad. We walked around campus for two days learning about all that Carolina has to offer and the Carolina community.

But then things took a new direction: we were treated to an interactive theater experience focused on diversity and inclusiveness. The actors performed four skits, each addressing a cardinal sin of the liberal perspective—racism, sexism, heterosexism, and class politics. For each skit, the overarching theme was avoiding offense. But they also displayed an ironic cluelessness: the skits were themselves narrow-mindedly offensive for their clumsy portrayal of people conducting these supposedly daily interactions.

Furthermore, the skits forced me to ask: “to what end is UNC orienting her students?”

The skits set forth various scenarios. The first showed an Indian woman talking to a white friend, who unintentionally acted racist. In another, a man aggressively flirted with a woman who was clearly uncomfortable. The next skit showed two friends asking another friend of lesser means to go out to lunch and immediately assuming he had the means to do so. The final skit showed a gay man react with offense at the use of the word “gay” as a derogatory term.

Instead of showing that all people are equally deserving of human dignity, the theater group created its own caricatures: the “villains” in each of the skits were either white, male, heterosexual, middle class, or some combination of the four. Perhaps, if the objective had been solely to learn how to navigate a community whose citizens hail from increasingly diverse backgrounds on ethnic, religious, and cultural lines, this exercise would have been helpful, if ham-handed.

However, learning to get along wasn’t the real purpose. The actual intent was revealed in the discussions that took place afterwards. We were given an opportunity to ask the characters from each scenario and the event leaders questions. Most of them weren’t memorable (“how did that make you feel?” and “why did you think that was okay?”) but a few of them brought the real direction (not to mention, hypocrisy) of the program to light.

One question touched on the “objectification” of men. Instead of using the opportunity to speak to how men are objectified in popular culture (the most obvious and recent example being the Magic Mike male stripper films), the event leaders changed the subject to gender norms. The event leaders brought back the characters from the sexism skit, a big, strong looking man, probably over six feet, and a petite woman. The actors were told to go back to a scene where the man had his arm on the woman, clearly checking her out, while the woman looked uncomfortable. Then they switched roles. This caused some laughter, which disturbed the event leaders so much they reprimanded the crowd. They failed to see the humor in this unlikely situation, a large, strong man in an atypically submissive situation.

The leaders proceeded to say that what society tells us about gender is wrong—that gender is fluid and so are the characteristics typically associated with genders. They went so far as to refer to audience members as “those who identify as male” and “those who identify as women.”

I found this viewpoint to be disturbingly nonscientific. There are obviously inherent biological and psychological differences between men and women. The differences between men and women don’t make one gender better than the other; it seems to me that where women are strong, men are weak and vice versa. If anything, the differences enable the two genders to rely on each other and permit them to work cooperatively using different capabilities to improve human existence.

As bad as that incident was, orientation got even worse. One of my fellow students stood up and questioned how affirmative action is not inherently discriminatory. This student was a white male, and he shared his view (in an allegedly open forum) that it seemed wrong for race and gender to be a factor in college acceptance. What would it mean if, after all his hard work, he missed an opportunity because he was a white male?

His question was beyond the pale. The room gave a collective gasp and started murmuring darkly. The event leaders swiftly shut down the offending student’s line of questioning, evasively answering that affirmative action was very “loose” and the quotas weren’t stringent.

The incident with the student who questioned affirmative action revealed an unspoken campus rule that we never discussed: not everybody has the ability to say when he or she is offended or upset without fear of reprisal, social or otherwise.

In a truly open-minded community, dedicated to our school’s motto lux libertas (Light and Liberty), all people would have this ability to speak their minds. What I learned that day at UNC, however, is that free speech, so fundamental to the academy, is only permitted to those who toe the “progressive” line. This exercise could have looked at our different backgrounds in an effort to cultivate true community, built on respect and politeness. Instead, we were “asked” to accept a perversion of true open-mindedness. Instead of encouraging us to each bring ourselves to the table and explore our differences cordially, we were told that some differences, namely non-“progressive” beliefs, were unacceptable. In order to be accepted, we must make our views uniform.

When it comes to the question of orientation, is that really the direction to which UNC wants to point?