Halloween is the perfect time for those dark and scary “Tunnel of Oppression” exhibits on many college campuses. The tunnels, billed as “grassroots diversity programs,” are meant to shock and waken students to the amount of hate and oppressiveness around the world and in America today. Photos and skits in the makeshift tunnels portray the menace of the Klan, Nazi concentration camps and violence towards women and gays. The emphasis is on emotion. Some students weep, cry out, or stumble out of the tunnel early, unable to deal with the exhibits.
The tunnels usually create an eerie atmosphere to unsettle students as they move through. This is known as “getting people out of their comfort zone.” Strange whispers and catcalls fill the air. Sometimes the tunnels shrink down to a very narrow passage, inducing an educationally helpful sense of claustrophobia. The odd sounds and brutal images are intended to provoke a visceral reaction, an emotional re-education with echoes of brainwashing.
In the best blogpost done so far about the tunnel, Erin O’Connor wrote at Critical Mass: “The Tunnel of Oppression is a good example of what passes for enlightenment on today’s campuses….(It) takes the concept of shock value to extremes, using overblown melodrama as an agent of social change, and recruiting people to its cause by subjecting them to simulated short-term trauma—which it then conveniently tells them how to understand in the handy group therapy session that forms the final stop on the tour. It’s manipulative, it’s anti-intellectual, and it’s—paradoxically—every bit as cynical and consumerist as the society it claims to deplore.”
The idea of the tunnel is to emotionally transform each student. As Ashley Thorne notes on the National Association of Scholars website, at the University of Arizona participants emerge from their tunnel by signing pledges to stop hate on campus and pasting those pledges in the “Hall of Happiness.” The university created a two-credit course sponsored by the education department, labeled “Event Planning and Leadership/ the Tunnel of Oppression.” These days all dubious ideas end up on the curriculum.
The tunnels’ expansive vision of oppression goes way beyond physical violence. Some exhibits attack “ableism” by forcing students to maneuver wheelchairs through narrow, poorly lit spaces. The oppressors include the media, which force women to admire body shapes of famous models Hollywood stars. One printed oppression message said,”Height of the average woman: 5 foot 4. Height of the average model: 5 foot 11.”
The American diet, presumably imposed by media and oppressors in the food industry, comes in for many a thumping. This includes cheeseburger oppression. At the Santa Clara tunnel of oppression, visitors heard in the darkness voice-over guilty confessions of cheeseburger eaters. Another Santa Clara exhibit featured famous paintings behind barriers. This was to demonstrate that without art education, creative artwork is beyond the reach of students.
Most of the tunnels are probably harmless, but they carry messages that have some standing on today’s campuses: America is an oppressive society; the emotional is more important than the rational (personal transformation and not the search for truth is the proper goal of the university); and diversity specialists are the correct guides for reshaping the minds of today’s students, who are often too white, straight and male to understand the oppression all around us.
Not all students emerge from the tunnel with the prescribed attitude. One reader of O’Connor’s blog wrote: “Actually I think this kind of thing has lots of potential. Why have classrooms, instructors, textbooks, etc. The college experience should be a set of rides and exhibits, more or less like Disney EPCOT but adjusted to the less intellectually challenging—we could have not only the ‘tunnel of oppression,’ but the ‘mountain of math,’ the ‘English experience,’ and so on. Students could buy a ticket, ride through in comfort, have all the proper beliefs instilled and at the end collect a diploma.” Sounds good to us.