We’ve all seen them. They’re pasted in the hallways, stairwells, elevators and classrooms. They’re mandatory in your syllabi. They even stare at you while you’re inside the campus bathroom stalls. The fliers talking about Title IX—the program aimed at staving off sex and gender-based discrimination—are everywhere, and rightfully so. Discrimination and harassment are serious issues, and they need to be treated as such; but there is something very wrong with the program as it is currently written, and in ignoring the problem we may be causing more harm than good regarding interpersonal relationships among peers in academia, and indeed the world at large. Today I want to discuss the three most glaring issues I see with our institution’s Title IX statement, and why I think you, the student body, ought to be as concerned as I am.
Before I begin, I’ll do something I typically loathe doing; I am going to preface my commentary by qualifying myself and my observations with lived experiences. The fact that I feel the need to do this only adds credibility to my point, since it is very likely that I will receive a fair amount of criticism for my opinions, and potentially reciprocal action by the institution.
I am a gay man. I’ve been that way for as long as I’ve been open and honest with myself about such things. I also served in the military for close to a decade, with my first enlistment being under the shadow of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and the last half of my second enlistment seeing the end of that ridiculous program.
Furthermore, my fiancé is a Puerto Rican, transgender woman from North Philadelphia. The reason I bring all of this up is because I need to make it clear that I am painfully aware of the oppressive side of life. I lived it. I continue to live with it, and I see it every day. However, being aware of the oppressiveness of life—and make no mistake, life itself is oppressive—does not mean I need to adopt the persona of a victim, and furthermore that I ought to fail to hold my own category of people responsible for the social pathologies we’ve given rise to.
So let’s move right into the thick of things by considering a hypothetical situation: suppose my fiancé and I are speaking to each other about the currently problematic LGBT “category.” Let’s pretend—pretend being the operative word—for a moment that we do not agree on the issue of pronouns. She thinks pronoun usage is not an issue to be concerned with, and I find it to be highly troubling since it seems that not only are transgender activists conflating a categorical descriptive term based on the speaker’s perception with a title, they are doing so disingenuously in the attempt to gain either political power or social clout. We get into a heated debate, but, all things considered, things remain amenable. Now let’s further suppose somebody walking by—an “ally” if you will—hears the discussion, and determines it to be “demeaning, humiliating, suggestive, insulting,” or any of the other terms used in our current Title IX statement. As it is written this would allow my accuser to turn me over to school authorities for a violation, simply by exercising my First Amendment rights in an environment where hard topics are meant to be discussed.
What’s worse is that such a claim can, and probably would be made anonymously, which, if we’re being honest, at the very least borders on impinging on an individual’s Sixth Amendment right to confront one’s accuser. To add insult to injury, it’s not obvious, based on the way our Title IX information page is laid out, that as the hypothetically accused I’d be able to prepare myself for the possible consequences imposed on me by the institutional authorities.
The scenario above lays out three crucially important problems with our current Title IX statements that students and faculty alike need to consider: first, are we, as a community of scholars, content to allow an ambiguously worded document challenge our First Amendment rights, particular regarding contentions issues relevant to the contemporary milieu?
As best as I can tell, even in the most progressively left-leaning institutions it benefits everyone involved to be able to talk about such matters in a reasonable manner since the only path towards a transformative education is through understanding. If we cannot talk openly, we cannot and will not be able to understand one another, let alone ourselves.
Furthermore, are we content with a social situation that advocates for relying on figures of authority to correct issues instead of attempting to correct them ourselves as autonomously as possible. Let’s ignore the Freudian implications of what can only be construed as an ironically matriarchal (or more precisely, Oedipal) structure for a moment; the only benefit to such a system is that it will, and has, resulted in an increase in reporting of crimes, thus eroding the already worn face of relations between groups that have no justifiable reason to distrust each other (e.g. gays and straights).
Lastly, can we justify a regulation that potentially violates another constitutional right in keeping reporters anonymous, and also fails to describe the process of corrective action taken by the institution? I feel as though this question is likely to solicit responses of the “If you’re not doing anything wrong, you don’t have anything to worry about” variety. That, my friends and colleagues, would be an error in judgement so profoundly bad that only the Russian Bolsheviks of the early 20th century could top it. To that end, I would suggest reading (and rereading, and rereading, and rereading) Martin Niemöller’s poem “First They Came . . . “
“But Ryan,” you might be inclined to ask, “aren’t you catastrophizing this issue a bit much? Surely you see the necessity of such actions in the light of recent history.” Indeed I am. I concede to this point willingly. I am catastrophizing the situation to a degree, but not out of some flippant disdain for progressivism or a hatred for abused people. History has taught me that failure to speak precisely and assure institutional fiat is held to some reasonable standard usually entails disastrous, or at least problematic conditions.
Remember, every sacred cow has the potential to be used as a bronze bull. Are we willing to become the executors of a poorly written piece of guidance that stands to rob us of our ability to address, with honest understanding as a goal, sensitive topics without fear of reprisal? Mark my words: failing to correctly address this set of issues will lead to other forms of abuse, and, at the very least, will stifle the ability to speak freely about issues that the university used to be especially situated to address.
Ryan Wasser is a graduate student pursuing a WTC English MA. RW851045@wcupa.edu