Dialogue can’t be forced

This week, Queen’s introduced the Intergroup Dialogue Program in the University’s residences, a pilot program intended to encourage student discussion on social issues, the Queen’s Gazette reported Nov. 10.

Six trained student facilitators who live in residence will intervene in dining hall and common room conversations when they hear social issues or controversial topics being discussed. The unpaid positions won’t replace residence dons as conflict mediators.

The project is being touted as part of Queen’s continued efforts at encouraging diversity, such as providing gender-neutral bathrooms and offering halal and kosher foods in residence cafeterias.

Although the University appears to have good intentions in promoting inclusivity, this approach seems to be an inadequate, lacklustre attempt to deal with social inequalities—and especially racism—on campus.

It’s unlikely six facilitators in a crowd of thousands will have much impact on fostering dialogue in residences.

On the other hand, if they do become regularly involved in conversations, they risk hostility from students who don’t want to be approached in what they consider private social settings. The resulting dialogue likely won’t be productive or effective if students feel they’re being cornered and become defensive.

Student facilitators need to be trained to be sensitive in these situations.

The University should be clear about the type of training facilitators receive. The program’s mandate is wide and requires intensive training before facilitators are prepared to deal with the nuances of different social issues.

The program could also become engulfed by political correctness, which stifles meaningful discussion and critiques. Students living in residence could easily adjust or hide their behaviour without changing their attitudes.

The University should take its cues from other universities that have implemented the program successfully. Queen’s has taken a positive step in trying to create an atmosphere of inclusivity among newcomers. But good intentions won’t be enough if the program either has no backbone or oversteps its purview.

The University needs to tread carefully and make sure this doesn’t become another knee-jerk response to social injustice.

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