Plunging boldly forward into … well, about five or ten (or more) years back, I received an e-mail telling the campus community that later this week, one of our buildings will be turned into a “Tunnel of Oppression.” For those of you unfamiliar with this business, here’s the description we got:
What is the Tunnel of Oppression?
The Tunnel of Oppression is a diversity initiative originally developed at Western Illinois University. The initiative stemmed from a homogeneous campus environment searching for a way to represent the realities of oppression into a full sensory experiential manner. The creators of the Tunnel of Oppression wanted to give participants the opportunity to see, touch, hear, and feel the realities of oppression as a stepping stone towards creating diversity awareness. The first Tunnel of Oppression was loosely based off of the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, CA.
The Tunnel of Oppression at [Mondoville] College
The program is intended to be eye-opening and consciousness raising and is built as a brief introductory experience for those students who have rarely experienced difference. The rationale is that students are often unable to fully understand oppression and discrimination until they have experienced it first-hand. Therefore, the Tunnel is a multi-sensory program that challenges perception and the majority, seeking to give insight to injustice.
- Room of Hope
Erin O’Connor has written about this species of propaganda on several occasions, and David Foster has had a bit to say as well, pointing out that, although one of the purposes of higher ed is to develop critical thinking, this seems to work almost exclusively on the level of pathos — I have no problem with tugging on the occasional heartstring, but this promises to be an act of vivisection. Heck, even South Park has riffed on these things.
Meanwhile, I find myself reminded of an old crime novel I like quite a lot — William Lindsay Gresham‘s Nightmare Alley (1946). The titular “alley” is (at least on one level) the circus sideshow/freakshow, where the marks — the paying customers — queue up to see the midgets, bearded ladies, and of course, the Geek, who lives in rags, wallows in filth, and bites the heads off of rats, chickens, and other critters. This is horrible enough, of course, but Gresham takes us “behind the scenes”, telling us that the Geek is actually just an alcoholic who is so far gone that he’ll degrade himself this way for a bottle of rotgut.
At the same time, part of the horror in the whole business is that the marks are degrading themselves as well — their dimes and custom make them part of the whole sordid business. For that matter, the freaks are simply who they are, in many cases, and are making a living as they can. The customers, however… they choose to participate (and are often sold the spectacle in the name of intellectual or moral edification, rather like the current phenomenon of the “Hell House“), and I suspect that, beyond the spectacle, part of the appeal is the confirmation of the spectator’s superiority, or at least normality. “I may be a loser, but at least I ain’t the Geek.” There’s a kind of false self-exaltation on the spectators’ part.
And I think there’s something a bit similar in the Tunnel of Oppression. Visitors get to vicariously, safely “experience discrimination” — for actual victims, of course, the Tunnel is simply called “last Tuesday”. And afterward, they can claim an empathetic consciousness raising, whether they’ve actually experienced such a thing or not. Again, it’s a false self-exaltation. The kids of Mondoville will get to experience oppression the same way Marie Antoinette experienced the life of a shepherdess.
The Tunnel of Oppression is a sentimental exercise, substituting cheap emotionalism for the development of conviction. It’s plastic soul-making for a new generation of marks — and I suspect it can only produce marks with plastic souls.