Truth, Liberty, Tolerance
If you’re going to college soon, you’d better watch what you say. Words are policed more heavily on campuses than ever before, and not just mean ones. In fact, it’s microaggressions -by definition subtler, often inadvertent offenses – which are the subject of the latest progressive crusade.
According to Columbia psychology professor Derald Wing Sue, microaggressions are
“the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether
intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership.” They show deep-
seated bias by reinforcing stereotypes. For example, asking an Asian student for help with a math problem is a microaggression. So is speaking to a Latino person in Spanish, or soliciting fashion advice from a gay man. Broader statements that downplay oppression also qualify as microaggressions.
The movement to recognize such inconspicuous harassment has gained traction across
the nation. Students at many colleges, notably Oberlin, Columbia, Dartmouth, Brown, and
Swarthmore, have established websites to document microaggressions at their respective
schools. Schools including Occidental, Ithaca, Oberlin, Wesleyan, and George Washington
University have installed systems to facilitate filing of microaggression complaints. The
University of Oklahoma even has a 24/7 telephone hotline. Incoming freshmen at institutions
from UW-Madison to Massachusetts’ Clark University receive microaggression-avoidance
training. In our state, University of California professors are instructed to avoid remarks such as “America is the land of opportunity” and “There is only one race, the human race.”
Some schools have taken the campaign against discomfort further by enacting preventative measures. New York University recently updated its Non-Discrimination and Anti-
Harassment Policy to prohibit “hostile behavior such as insulting, teasing, mocking, degrading or ridiculing another person.” NYU is surely a safer place without teasers prowling its halls.
Perhaps with the exception of NYU-style extremism, this heightened sensitivity is a
positive thing. Institutionalized discrimination still exists, of course. But that we can now fightsubconscious bigotry too is evidence of progress. If we hadn’t moved past the days where civil rights leaders battled more overt injustices, doing so would be impractical. Microaggression-awareness indicates the move into a new frontier.
But what is healthy for society as a whole isn’t necessarily appropriate for every
community within. And schools, the domain in which microaggression-sensitivity is sharpest, are no place for it.
Firstly, the way universities handle microaggressions robs young people of valuable
social skills. In a 2014 paper, sociologists Jason Manning and Bradley Campbell discussed the new “Culture of Victimhood” that dictates problem-solving in universities. Victims do not confront wrongdoers directly to resolve their beef. They instead go to third parties, like authorities or the public at large, to “advertise their oppression as evidence that they deserve respect and assistance.” This etiquette has largely evolved as a way to deal with microaggressions, since they are not nasty enough to solicit retaliation but are seen as tokens of broader injustice.
We can see the Culture of Victimhood at work in a 2013 incident at Dartmouth. Two
Asian students were harassed by a white classmate who spoke to them in what was “perceived
to be mock Chinese.” Instead of settling the offense themselves, the aggrieved students
reported it to school authorities. Although the transgression did not “involve a physical threat,” according to Dartmouth’s associate director of media relations, the university launched an investigation to discover the identity of the culprit. He remains at large, and could face expulsion if caught. This offense is certainly serious — it’s overt enough to push the limit of “micro” aggressiveness. But the way it was handled shows a lack of independence that will not serve the students well outside of Dartmouth’s halls.
A Culture of Victimhood only works, after all, in an environment presided over by a
strong and sympathetic authority. Colleges are perfect because administrations have both
power and incentive to appear progressive. But when students like the Dartmouth duo graduate and no longer have a system working to ensure their comfort, they will be disadvantaged.
They’ll have grown used to the luxury of a third-party problem-solver, only to have the chair pulled out from under them. Who will they call if a coworker, friend, or even a stranger microscopically aggresses them later on?
Saying that all this coddling creates fragile kids doesn’t do the issue justice. Sure,
eliminating adversity doesn’t prepare students for “real life.” But the problem isn’t that kids will crumple upon upon contact with an unkind world — it’s that they’re missing an opportunity to grow up. College should be where a young person learns to navigate life without parental guidance. But if the life they encounter there is distilled to the point of unreality, they won’t learn a thing. The varsity team doesn’t improve by scrimmaging the JV.
As well as being impediments to maturity, microaggression complaints foster the very
discrimination they seek to repress.
Because even unintentionally offensive statements are reported directly to their
superiors, professors are extremely vulnerable. A Yale professor was pressured to resign for questioning whether the university should censor offensive Halloween costumes. He later
issued an apology, in which he expressed regret for engaging the students in dialogue rather than sympathizing with them. This is frightening. If professors are punished for challenging students on sensitive issues, there can be no meaningful conversation in classrooms. How can professors stimulate thought if their only safe option is to tell students how right they are? And if dialogue stagnates, how will we ever solve actual prejudice?
After all, unchallenged convictions never change. And without candid discussion on
issues such as race, nobody will be forced to examine their biases. Those who are tolerant will remain tolerant, and those who are bigoted will remain bigoted. But there will be no progress.
Though McClatchy is not a university, a similar phenomenon has gripped our school. I’m
not sure if a microaggression has ever been reported here, but students have certainly snuffed out conversation on loaded topics. This is particularly true in HISP, which is highly ironic because HISP kids are overwhelmingly wealthy and white in comparison to the rest of the school. We are the least credible group to battle oppression.
But still, we try. I remember when during a class discussion on political correctness, a
classmate (whom I’ll refer to as “Student A”) was shouted down by another student (“Student
B”) for asking the teacher why a white person must take pains to be politically correct, even if it was his ancestors and not he who committed grievous racial crimes. “Stop talking!” was the response he got, before the teacher had a chance to respond.
Student B meant well. I think he saw himself as nipping a misguided question at the bud,
before it flowered into offense. But suffocating disagreeable speech is a terrifically
counterproductive way to fight bias.
Firstly, Student A doesn’t get to learn from his question. Instead he gets humiliated, and
therefore becomes less likely to ask a similar question in the future. If Student B actually wanted Student A to outgrow a subconscious bias, he should realize that in this case, his progressive side is the enlightened one, and therefore intelligent conversation will move people in its direction. But by forcefully discouraging constructive dialogue, he allows the “ignorance” he abhors to go unchallenged, and thus perpetuate.
More broadly, this behavior creates environments where nobody can comfortably voice
an unpopular sentiment, lest they be shamed. The same silencing effect that befell Student A befalls everyone, and the battle against bigotry slows to a standstill. Again – without candid exchanges, there is no disruptive force to unseat prejudice. Universities are going down this path, and I believe our school already has.
This article isn’t necessarily a critique of microaggressions, or even sensitivity. It is
simply a call for prioritization. If universities’ true goal is to position their students for success,they should embrace verbal missteps as learning opportunities instead of prosecuting those who utter them. And if students’ ultimate goal is to end bigotry, they should do the same. For while there is value inherent in banishing demeaning words, doing so only engages the surface of a deep problem. And to kill a weed, you have to go for the roots.