Imagine being a college student, sitting around with friends one night, when your out-of-town girlfriend decides to surprise you with a visit. She walks into your living room, travel bag in tow, and after getting over your shock, you stand and hug her.
Then imagine this private interaction makes you the most hated person on the internet.
This recently happened to a student known only as “Robbie,” whose girlfriend, Lauren Zarras, posted a video of the interaction on the social media app TikTok.
Millions of amateur sleuths declared Robbie had been cheating on Zarras because when she walked in the room, he had been sitting on a couch with two other girls. People burdened with the curse of having too much time on their hands broke the video down, frame by frame, to prove Robbie had not been faithful, based on the fact that his hug had not been sufficiently effusive. Other accounts posted parody videos of the interaction.
robbie had no idea
The thing is – Robbie didn’t ask for any of this. He’s a student living his life, and suddenly viral stardom was hoisted on him, changing his life forever. (He later recorded a hostage video clarifying that he did, in fact, love Zarras very much, and urging the keyboard crime solvers to “go get some air.”)
In one way, campuses turning into surveillance states – even when students are in their own homes – is unavoidable. With every student and professor carrying a high-definition video camera in his or her pocket, and with those videos available to the world, there may soon be no human interaction unrecorded.
But it takes on a more sinister tone when universities themselves encourage students to record their interactions and use those to turn each other in to the campus sensitivity police.
Take the Yale law student who recently ended up in hot water after sending an email inviting other students to a party at his apartment, which he blithely called a “trap house.” According to the Washington Free Beacon, the student, who is part Cherokee and a member of the conservative Yale Federalist Society, was throwing a “Constitution Day bash,” featuring Popeye’s chicken, “basic-bitch-American-themed snacks (like apple pie, etc.),” and a cocktail station.
Soon, a screenshot of the invitation was posted on a discussion board for black second-year law students, who said it indicated it would be a “blackface party.”
The student was then hauled before a campus diversity panel, where former Barack Obama administration official and Yale diversity director Yaseen Eldik grilled him on the etymology of the term “trap.” During the discussion, the panel told the student it was racist to mention fried chicken because black people were more likely to have problems with obesity. Eldik further mentioned that the student’s association with the Federalist Society was “triggering” to other students.
(Seriously, listen to the full hearing. If an audio file could be hung on the wall of the Louvre, it would be this one.)
The culture that encouraged these black Yale students to report their classmate for an innocuous joke (the “trap house” term has been used for years, without a single human raising an objection), is the same one that created “bias response teams” that urge students to rat on each other for perceived slights uttered in private conversations.
The Fix has spent years covering BRTs and the corrosive effect they have on campus. Essentially, colleges have become post war East Germany, where neighbors were encouraged to snitch on each other to gain favor with the secret police (and oftentimes, schools actually have police officers on the diversity panels they use to question students about their speech infractions.)
It doesn’t have to be like this. When a student hears or sees something he or she doesn’t like, the school’s response should be the same as it has been since the dawn of college campuses: “Go work it out with them.”
Unbeknownst to many college students of today, there was a time when, if you were offended, you confronted the person who offended you – you didn’t run, screaming, to the school’s administration. Any framework that allows this just perpetuates the idea that any discomfort you may feel as a student is the responsibility of the school and any disagreement you have must be adjudicated by a third party.
But even worse, it foments a culture where everyone is under suspicion, and anyone can, without their knowledge, draw the ire of the nation for a perfectly normal action. Schools may not be able to stop girlfriends from filming their boyfriends’ awkward hugs, but they can teach students that weaponizing speech through surveillance is the worst way to go through school.
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