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The Carletonian

BIRT’s Function Deserves Greater Scrutiny

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The proposed Bias Incident Response Team (BIRT) would aim to make Carleton a more open, comfortable, and inviting environment. However, unless properly structured, BIRT risks devolving into a mechanism for students to silence the viewpoints of others, thereby defeating its own purpose.

In an effort to understand exactly what bias incidents are and what a team created to respond to them might look like at Carleton, I sat down with Dean of Students Carolyn Livingston and members of the BIRT working group. These concerned and well-intentioned volunteers are currently exploring the feasibility of a BIRT at Carleton, and are set to deliver a recommendation at the end of winter term. My curiosity was piqued last fall when I read the working group’s preliminary definition of a bias incident: “A bias incident is characterized as a behavior or act-verbal, written, or physical-which is personally directed against or targets an individual or group based on perceived or actual characteristics such as race, color, religious belief, sex, marital status, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, national or ethnic origin, disability, veteran status, or age.”

This definition is exceptionally vague, and I assumed that the working group would make it a goal to more precisely define what a bias incident is. However, I discovered that not only is the vagueness intentional, but also that the working group has actually modified the definition to be even less specific. “The point [of the definition] is to create a space where people feel they can report,” said Dean Livingston, adding that “vagueness is not a concern.” In short, the expectation is that you’ll know a bias incident when you see one, making a set definition unnecessary.

From there, I looked into how BIRT would function and found answers with working group co-chair and Carleton Chaplain Carolyn Fure-Slocum. Chaplain Fure-Slocum explained that BIRT would most likely be structured to resemble the system through which incidents of sexual misconduct are handled; reports would come to BIRT through the community concern form, which allows accusers to remain anonymous, and BIRT would deal with the accused as necessary on an individual basis. BIRT would not be the campus vehicle for adjudicating egregious hate speech or threatening speech or behavior; both of these are already banned by Carleton’s speech code.

I have great misgivings about the potential for this system to devolve into a receptacle for students to anonymously lodge grievances, based on a uselessly vague definition of bias which is intentionally structured to allow the greatest level of interpretation. Furthermore, I worry that rather than eliminate bias at Carleton, such a team might instead reinforce the collective biases of Carleton’s majority opinion. BIRT, in its current theoretical form, relegates difficult discussions to a closed-door, appointed committee of individuals who will be given substantial authority in deciding specifically what speech is unacceptable at Carleton. The term “bias,” in this context, occupies an ill-defined and mercurial region which could be interpreted to be anything that might be considered offensive on any level to anyone. Giving BIRT authority to decide what speech strays into this nebulous region and what to do about it is dangerous and threatens to marginalize those students who hold minority opinions. As a community that claims to value ideological diversity, we must be exceptionally careful in implementing BIRT in a way that allows students to be heard yet does not silence genuinely held, dissenting minority opinions. To do otherwise would be intellectually lazy and would deprive us of a critical component of what makes us effective citizens: the ability to form rational, coherent arguments to ideas which we find uncomfortable and even offensive.

BIRT absolutely has a place at Carleton and should be given the ability to refer extreme cases to higher authorities, but it should not attempt to address bias on a case-by-case basis. If allowed such power, BIRT runs the risk of becoming a proxy through which the ideological majority could directly silence the ideological minority on an individual and personal level. Rather, BIRT should report on complaints of bias in aggregate, attempting to identify general trends which it

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