Individual rights, equal opportunities

It is hard to miss talk about the Individual Rights Coalition around Grounds these days. Despite the fact that the new group has already become the center of controversy, many students remain uniformed about what it is really advocating. According to the information provided on their Web site, the IRC commits itself to protecting free speech, thought and action at the University. While this might sound nice, it holds many more implications than one may initially surmise.

The biggest rallying point for the organization is the administration's new, potential mandatory "diversity training" that is tentatively set to go into effect in the fall of 2005. While the IRC's calls for freedom and equality are noble, their condemnation of diversity training betrays that their understanding of what actually constitutes "equality" ?- at the University and in our society at large -- is quite off base.

First of all, it must be noted that this online diversity training (which could be a prerequisite for class registration) is hardly in its final phases yet. Therefore, at this point the program is still too theoretical to critique on any kind of detailed or technical basis. At its current stage of development, however, it seems to be -- at the very least -- innocuous from a "freedom" standpoint, and, at best, to hold a great deal of merit.

The way the training was initially to be set up (plans have become uncertain in recent weeks), and what the IRC was responding to is as follows: Students would be shown a picture (for example, the blackface pictures from last year's incident) and then given the choice of roughly five opinions about the image. The student will be asked to anonymously choose the opinion that most coincides with their own. They will then be given historical information pertaining to their decision (in this case, on the history of blackface in the United States).

Members of the Individual Rights Coalition see this as an attempt to, "illiberally mold student opinion to conform to an official view on matters of race, ethnicity, and social dynamics" (www.freeuva.com). This critique is unfair on two levels. First of all, historical education is not indoctrination, and the information provided would be merely historical. As the IRC Web site reminds us, we are not children -- we are thinking, intelligent adults. Unlike when many of us received our "all-white" historical educations in elementary school, we now have enough sensibility to look critically at information we are given, and not just swallow it without consideration. The fact is that, yes, we do have the freedom to form our own opinions about things. However, if we have inadequate information (which in some sense, we all do), we are not free: We are constrained by our own ignorance. Diversity training hopes to bring to light -- for discussion -- parts of the truth that are often overlooked in this country. Should we take advantage of this, we are made more free, not less.

Secondly, on their Web site, the IRC states, "At an institution of higher learning, the University's current policies teach students that individual freedom is an expendable convenience to be discarded at will by whoever happens to hold power." Hmm. Now here's an interesting quote.

It is no secret that this nation, despite its lofty ideals, has used its power to subordinate freedom for its own convenience many a time. Here, the most apt example of this behavior is slavery. Yes, slavery was a long time ago. No, no one alive today owned any slaves. We know. However, the legacy of slavery is still rearing its ugly head all over the place. If we agree that to "dispense with freedom" is wrong, then to refrain from giving African-Americans special considerations -- not "privileges" as some would call them, but rather as compensation for the modern effects of past crimes committed against them -- is unfair and irresponsible.

Right now, whites own over 90 percent of the capital in this country. Deprived of opportunity for so long (under slavery, Jim Crow and persisting discrimination), African-Americans have not had the chance to be equal players in the workforce. Furthermore, today, with such a vast proportion of American "higher-ups" being white, even nepotism has left African-Americans behind. Take, for example, this fact: There are few, if any, African Americans getting legacy status -- the kind of affirmative action no one likes to talk about -- at the admissions office of this University.

To all members of the IRC: You believe in equal rights. Good. Let's talk about equal rights. Let's talk about the equal right to get a job when the CEO's over-privileged and under-qualified son is up for the position. Let's talk about the equal right to shop in a retail store without being followed around. Let's talk about the equal right to feel welcome at your own university. Let's talk about the equal right to run for Student Council president, without fear of bodily harm.

There is a price to be paid for years upon years of our nation's transgressions. We do not live in a vacuum, divorced from the actions of our ancestors. Unfortunately, we cannot undo the past, and the only way we can hope to fix the future is through education programs like diversity training. Until, through programs like this, people become educated about the true nature of the reality we live in, and can thus see the merit of and need for programs that help to rectify the human-imposed inequalities we are facing, we cannot claim equality, or hope for freedom.

(Laura Parcells' column appears Fridays in The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at lparcells@cavalierdaily.com.)

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