UIUC Memes instigates debate on intolerance

The University is taking steps toward increasing tolerance on campus.

The Office for Student Conflict Resolution’s three branches — tolerance, mediation and discipline — all work to promote civility on campus. The tolerance program specializes in acts of intolerance such as hate crimes and bias incidents that do not violate the University’s student code.

Justin Brown, assistant director for the Office of Student Conflict Resolution, said one example of such a bias incident would be if two roommates were in an argument that ended with one calling the other a racial slur or making some other offensive comment. So long as this does not escalate to “true harassment,” it is within the speaker’s rights to free speech and would not violate the University’s student code but could still offend the listener.

After the alleged victim files a complaint to the office, a bias incident investigation team begins working on the case.

“The tolerance program itself is a reactive entity,” Brown said. “We are depending on reports and then responding to those reports.”

Brown said some people file reports about incidents that were not specifically directed at them but made them feel victimized nonetheless. He said the most recent case of this is with the University student-run Facebook page that hosts “Internet memes”:http://www.facebook.com/pages/University-of-Illinois-Memes/294595943927808. Some of these captioned images have been deemed offensive by people filing complaints with his office. While the memes are not directed at specific students, or created with the intent to offend, they are still investigated.

“There’s nothing the University can do to mandate that they remove that page or that they monitor it in a certain way. That’s not our function, and we don’t have the authority,” Brown said. “What we can encourage is for students to take up that charge.”

About 30 students did just that Sunday evening at the University YMCA. Members from cultural centers and social justice groups on campus organized a dialogue for students to voice their concerns about diversity and tolerance on campus, along with the “University of Illinois’ Memes” Facebook page.

Aditi Singh, one of the event’s organizers, said the page is not entirely filled with offensive content, but the memes that are intolerant offend almost all minority groups.

“They are probably the most racist things I’ve ever seen in a really long time,” said Singh, senior in LAS. “They attack every single group.”

Bradley Harrison, sophomore in DGS, said despite people’s tendency to say things on the Internet that they wouldn’t say in public, they still mean what they post.

“This is how students feel,” he said. “This is a representation of the way students at the University of Illinois feel about other identity groups, and that’s a problem.”

Brown said once students file a report, the investigation team will only take steps that are agreeable to the person who filed the complaint. This person can halt the process at any time, unless the alleged misconduct by the other party is severe enough to warrant legal action.

If the team determines that the accused is at fault, it requests that the offender come to the office for mediation.

“Often when you have a pure act of intolerance — no violence or anything else involved — the best sort of solution we can hope for is to have those two people … sit down in a room and have a facilitated discussion,” Brown said.

He said the office “is not a sanctioning body,” so all that can be done is to try to persuade the offender to visit the office to discuss the complaint. Despite the fact that offenders are not required to talk about the complaint, they usually do.

“Most people will want to respond, will want to know what it is that they did that upset someone,” Brown said.