A hat tip to my Twitter-friend Benjamin Boyce for highlighting this story this morning. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill recently held a mandatory training session for all Greek organizations on campus. Carolina Review, which is the campus conservative newspaper, got leaked audio from the training and also spoke to people who attended.
Ms. Parle started the presentation with an ‘indigenous land recognition,’ after which the hundreds of Greek attendees were advised that they should make a habit of repeating the political catechism in their daily lives and taught how to do so. After establishing her lecture was on stolen land, Ms. Parle asked students their feelings about ‘the system.’ Were they warm towards it? Apathetic? Or, the last option: ready to dismantle it?
The first topics covered by Ms. Parle were the role of identity and the social constructs which define them, a subject which introduced the presentation and remained a focal point throughout. She emphasized that identity is a primary factor in life experience, explaining that identity guides “the way you navigate the world.” Students were instructed to write their intersectional identities, drawing from those provided which included characteristics like sex, (not to be confused with gender, of which both expression and identity were listed), sexual orientation, body size, and race.
At this point we can jump into some of the leaked audio. In this clip, Ms. Parle discusses how the world is designed for average body size, meaning height and weight. She explained that people who need help reaching the top shelf in the grocery store are victims of a “system of oppression.” “Every grocery store…was built for the average height person,” she said.
Leaked audio 1: pic.twitter.com/qYgxPAGZXD
— Carolina Review (@CarolinaReview) October 22, 2021
We’re not really supposed to think about things like this. We’re supposed to have an emotional reaction and stop there. But let’s think for a moment about whether or not the fact that some people can’t reach the highest shelf in the grocery store is a “system of oppression” or something else. Apologies ahead of time for belaboring this a bit but there is a reason for it.
The simplest type of shopping experience would be something like a flea market or a bazaar, a place where individual sellers have booths next to one another that offer goods basically all at eye level, often on a flat surface like a table. Flea markets take up a lot of space. There’s one about 2 miles from my house every weekend which takes up the parking lot of a community college.
Grocery stores take a different approach. They have a certain amount of floor space owned or leased by one company on a price per square foot basis. Because the cost of operating is based on the floor space, they attempt to maximize the number of items they can sell in that space. A large store might carry thousands of different types of items while a small store (think 7-11) might offer only a few hundred.
If you set up flea market booths in a 7-11 there wouldn’t be many booths and the use of space wouldn’t be very efficient. To maximize the use of floor space, grocers essentially build up in exactly the same way and for the same reason that cities build up, i.e. to maximize the value of available land. Shelves which present items vertically rather than horizontally are much more efficient because there’s less wasted space under the shelves.
A large grocery store is attempting to pack in thousands of items including hundreds of types of alcohol, 50 types of beer, 75 types of cookies and 5-6 brands of popular items like paper towels. Also, there’s a huge number of niche, specialty items like anchovy paste or various Asian sauces for dishes not everyone cooks at home. When you’re trying to have a bit of something for everyone plus a lot of alternative brands for the best-selling items, you need a lot of shelf space.
But it’s a trade off. If you put things 9 feet off the ground so that only the very tallest people can reach, you probably won’t sell those items very often. If you make all the shelves 5 feet tall, everyone can reach everything but you’d need a lot more floor space to make everything fit (or you could simply carry fewer items). Your best chance of staying in business and making a profit is to find the sweet spot. Shelves should be high enough that they can carry lots and lots of unique items but low enough that most people can reach most items without asking for help. And really, if you think about it the stuff on those top shelves are often things you don’t buy every week.
I’m laboring through all of this make a point. A grocery store is a carefully thought out design intended to offer the most choice to the most diverse set of people in a given amount of space. Sadly, all Ms. Parle can see is a system of oppression against short people.
I wish I could think of another word for it but what she’s saying is just dumb. I’m not saying she’s dumb but her analysis is very dumb. It omits all of the very good reasons why the system is the way it is. In fact, her analysis is actually anti-diversity in a way. If grocery stores were limited to 6 foot shelves, they wouldn’t stop selling toilet paper or Oreos which sell like crazy, they’d stop carrying 25 varieties of Asian sauces or specialty items most people don’t buy very often.
Here’s clip #2 (below). In this one, she shows the attendees four images and asks them to react. When they don’t react as she hoped, she berates them.
Leaked audio 2: pic.twitter.com/1k2Cy0Kzbw
— Carolina Review (@CarolinaReview) October 22, 2021
People who were forced to attend this training weren’t thrilled about it:
“There’s no way the university should be funding [the event] in my opinion,” one attendee told Carolina Review on the condition of anonymity. The same student was disturbed by the “clear political undertones” present in a mandatory University event.
Another student described the ordeal as “uncomfortable.” “It seemed that the speaker was projecting her identity politics onto us,” he continued. Examples he listed included “lecturing us on how the land we grew up on didn’t belong to us, how being right-handed is akin to being white-privileged, and how our identities define us.” A third attendee said that the “way [Ms. Parle] went about it felt very aggressive and accusatory… it almost defeated the purpose.”
Sentiments like these were shared by nearly every student contacted for comment by Carolina Review, yet every student requested anonymity.
The fact that no one would go on the record is sad but not surprising. Any student who points out, like I have above, that this training is poorly reasoned, is taking a risk with their future. Maybe nothing bad would happen or maybe they’d be targeted by the campus social-justice mob and hounded off campus. It would be great if more people would stand up and call this what it is (it’s dumb) but it’s a lot easier to shrug and move on and that’s what most people do.