Cross the Line...Or Else

Cross the Line...Or Else

“Cross the line if you’ve ever laughed at a racist joke” is but one of the prompts directed at participants during the infamous freshman dorm activity, Crossing the Line (CTL). Huddled in a stuffy dorm lounge that becomes only stuffier over the course of the two-hour event, students exchange awkward glances as they mark out which of their classmates crossed the line for which prompt.

Whether this program is worthwhile depends on whom you ask. Some students leave CTL with a sense of comradeship on identity-related issues over which they previously felt alone. Others find CTL’s utter exclusion of nuance and clarifying positions to be frustrating and intellectually limiting. Furthermore, CTL encourages a mob mentality in which participants lose their individuality, both as they decide whether to cross the line and afterwards. The biggest problem with Crossing the Line, however, is that it is mandatory in some dorms.

For those who have not participated, CTL involves the following sequence of events: first, a moderator makes statements in form of, “Cross the line if …” In turn, participants, who are standing on one side of a room (with a line drawn down the middle), cross the line to the other side of the room when a prompt applies to them. Before the next prompt, participants reassemble. The process repeats. Participants self-segregate into two groups, separated physically by the line they cross and figuratively by the prompt they answer.

At Stanford, the Diversity and First-Gen Office (DGen) oversees the implementation of the program, which dates back to the 1980s. The goal of the activity is admirable: “achieving authentic engagement and community without requiring cultural uniformity.” And while some participants believe that CTL goes a long way to achieve this aim, many others are staggered that participation in CTL is mandatory. Those who refuse to participate in the activity face punishments as harsh as being prohibited from a freshman-year highlight: Ski Trip.

My own experience with CTL was largely positive. Barring a couple instances, I enjoyed sharing my background and identifying similarities with my fellow Larkinites. Participants each have unique experiences during CTL. What I found most problematic about the activity, however, was that it was obligatory. I find demanding an individual’s time to be problematic and patronizing. What is even more troubling is to also demand his participation. The difference is whether one is forced to observe a play from the audience or mount the stage as part of it. CTL does not merely ask students to sacrifice time, but to share intimate details of their lives and judgments.

After each prompt, CTL participants are presented with two choices: stay put, or cross the line, thus indicating that the statement is relevant to them. Perplexingly, the organizers decree that students may stay behind the line even when cues do apply to them. One could argue that this caveat implies that CTL does not require that participants share personal information. This claim, however, is short-sighted for two reasons. First, because of the binary nature of CTL, there is no way of clarifying whether one stays behind the line because one prefers not to share, or simply because the statement does not apply. Second, for those to whom the prompt is relevant, the choice offered is between crossing the line despite fear of exposure, or deciding not to step up and and accepting the guilt of abandoning those who did. Students are forced to either reveal intimate details about themselves, or feel guilty for not doing so.

Finally, a concern that CTL proponents neglect to consider is the forced learning of others’ private lives. Even bystanders who stay behind the line and opt not to participate have no choice but to learn private confessions from virtual strangers and close friends alike.

Beyond being being mandatory, forcing exposure, and instilling guilt, CTL is filled with flagrant hypocrisy: to combat the placement of people into boxes based on their identity and beliefs, CTL puts people into boxes based on their identity and beliefs. However, as the variations on the prompt prove, individuals connect with each other along many complex dimensions. Even if the intended end is good, the divisive tactics of CTL should repel anyone who opposes group-think and segregation.

Finally, by compelling the participants to choose one side over the other, CTL censors both nuanced statements and clarifying positions. An example prompt from CTL is as follows: “Cross the line if you have attended a private school.” What if someone attended a private school on a scholarship? Even on a matter whose binary nature appears straightforward, CTL actively ignores positions in the middle. CTL’s attitude is eerily reminiscent of the current polarized American political climate of reducing complex issues to binaries.

The binary format and public setting make CTL self-defeating in its primary purpose: it fails to promote a space where students can be honest about their individuality and identity. Instead, participants are part of a mob mentality, considering how they wish to be perceived rather than what they actually think. Students are not to blame for being “dishonest” or “conformist.” The format, that disallows the adoption of nuanced positions or defense of them, is. All students who have observed CTL would agree that often, participants wait to watch others’ reactions before determining whether to cross the line themselves.

There will still be many who contend that, on net, CTL fosters a sense of unity. I do not challenge this position and do not deny that many individuals indeed cherish CTL. I merely point out that there is a profound reason that personal relationships — be they familial, romantic, or platonic — develop as a function of time as details get shared in confidence along the way. What CTL does is to force that intimacy through emotional exhibitionism. This may prove effective for some people. It certainly does not for others. In any case, it shouldn’t be mandatory.

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