Friday, April 27, 2007

Would You Be My Friend? (or Ni Xiang Shi Wode Pengyou Ma?)

Yesterday, someone I know, who will remain nameless, received an e-mail from the "big boss." This message, which was sent to all employees, was apparently written in response to the fact that the Virginia Tech shooting was carried out by a person of Korean descent. The gist of the e-mail was that the shooting provides us with an "opportunity" to reaffirm our commitment to being inclusive and caring toward others of different backgrounds and circumstances.

On the face of it, there is nothing wrong with this basic sentiment (although it strikes me that we have more important things to do in the aftermath of a tragedy like this). For my money, though, the letter comes across as preachy and even condescending to the organization's employees. In a more general sense, I would characterize it as the latest installment in the long-running hit series Political Correctness Gone Wild.

And it gets better...or worse as it were. To really drive home the point, the e-mail includes an attachment entitled "101 Tools For Tolerance." These are steps we can take in our lives to promote equity and celebrate diversity. Are you kidding me?

Here is a taste of what is being suggested to the employees who received the e-mail:

#1 - Attend a play, listen to music or go to a dance performance by artists whose race or ethnicity is different from your own.

#5 - Shop at ethnic grocery stores and specialty markets. Get to know the owners. Ask about their family histories.

#7 - Ask a person of another cultural heritage to teach you how to perform a traditional dance or cook a traditional meal.

#18 - Create a "diversity profile" of your friends, co-workers and acquaintances. Set the goal of expanding it by next year.

#21 - Invite someone of a different background to join your family for a meal or holiday.

#22 - Give a multicultural doll, toy or game as a gift.

#26 - Bookmark equity and diversity websites on your home computer.

#37 - Examine the "diversity profile" for your children's friends. Expand the circle by helping your children develop new relationships.

#59 - Celebrate "Someone Special Day" instead of Mother's Day or Father's Day. Keep adoptive and foster students in mind when planning family-oriented programs.

#71 - Vary your lunch partners. Seek out co-workers of different backgrounds, from different departments, and at different levels in the company.

#100 - Conduct a "diaper equity" survey of local establishments. Commend managers who provide changing tables in men's as well as women's restrooms.'s the image I have running around in my head. Imagine a well-meaning employee of this organization. This person receives the e-mail and decides to take the tolerance tools to heart. After creating a "diversity profile" of their children's friends, they realize that their kids are a bit lacking in, say, the El Salvadorean department. "Man, my kids don't hang out with any kids from El Salvador." So what next? "Hey, there's a little El Salvadorean child riding his bike down the street. Quick Johnny, go play with that El Salvadorean kid." And this could be just the beginning. Before long, if this person plays their cards right, they could be invited over to the El Salvadorean house to learn how to make pupusas.

Now, mind you, I love pupusas. (Irene's makes the best around here...must...have...pupusas...) But this whole "tools for tolerance" approach, and the PC movement in general, uses questionable means to achieve laudable ends. Yes, the world would be a better place if there were more tolerance and understanding. But to treat other human beings as instruments for increasing the "diversity profile" of our circle of friends is wrong. It's just plain wrong.


Thursday, April 26, 2007

The Blame Game

Last year, a student here at GW was barred from campus and evicted from university housing, effectively ending his time here as an undergraduate. This dismissal was set in motion when the student met with counselors for his depression and was treated at university's hospital. Health officials then shared his personal medical information with school administrators, who deemed the student to be in violation of the university's endangering behavior policy.

I bring all of this up because it strikes me as relevant when thinking about the "blame game" that happens whenever a tragedy occurs. Could the 9/11 terrorist attacks have been prevented? What should have been done differently before Hurricane Katrina? And, of course, why was Seung Hui Cho still a student at Virgina Tech, even though he had exhibited such deviant behavior?

I don't want to suggest that investigations shouldn't take place or that changes in policy shouldn't be made. But I do want to say that we ought to think very carefully about the balance between collective security and individual freedom. Was GW's campus made safer for me and others when that student was expelled? That's a difficult question, isn't it?

Here's what it boils down to in the end for me. Regardless of how a policy might be written on paper, it is the individuals on the ground implementing the policy who determine its tangible impact. GW officials had to decide, in real time, whether to invoke the school's endangering behavior policy. Virginia Tech officials had to figure out, on the spot, whether the campus should be locked down. One might reasonably question the decisions that were made under pressure. That said, written policy changes would not necessarily have changed these human judgments.

Let's not treat policy change as the be all, end all. Let's not play the simple form of the blame game. These are difficult situations that place decision makers in tough spots. Question, yes. Quick fix, no...