Monday, November 30, 2015

Microaggressions and Our Orwellian Future

A few years ago, I postulated that George Orwell, the author of 1984, got it wrong (Little Brother is Running Things Now).  Technology had put power in the hands of the people NOT Big Brother, said I.  It was unlikely that a central power would control our thoughts and actions a la 1984.

Now, I am not so sure.

I learned a new word this year – microaggression. defines it thus:  “a subtle but offensive comment or action directed at a minority or other non-dominant group that is often unintentional or unconsciously reinforces a stereotype”.  The origin of the word, according to the same source, goes back to 1970.  How have I survived the last 45 years without knowing it?

Buzzfeed provides us with 21 examples, some of which go beyond micro and truly display some macro-stupidity (“What do you guys speak in Japan? Asian?”).  A more institutional approach has been taken by UCLA, which has created a guideline for faculty and staff.  I’m in trouble right away as my favorite get-to-know-you opening line is “where are you from originally?”  I usually follow up with “what brought you here?”

Such questions are apparently evidence of bigotry despite my asking them of everyone including, you know, white people. 

We get a bit more casual about the way of the world as we age.  The phrase “it is what it is” was likely invented for those over 50.  We don’t worry so much about microaggressions.

On the other hand, campus life has always been the birthplace of new liberal thinking.  Winston Churchill is often quoted as saying:  “Show me a young Conservative and I’ll show you someone with no heart.  Show me an old Liberal and I’ll show you someone with no brains.”  (Although, attributes the quotation’s origin to others.)

None of this bothers me with the exception of one little tidbit: the resignation of University of Missouri president Tim Wolfe.  I am aware that there are those who think that he would not have been forced to resign if the football team hadn’t gone on strike. However, it’s worth noting that his firing (if I may call it that) was not the result of some egregious action.  It was the result of not displaying sufficient sensitivity.

Students at Columbia have taken the focus on sensitivity a step or two further.  Four members of the Multi-cultural Affairs Advisory Board wrote an op-ed protesting the assignment and classroom discussion Ovid’s Metamorphosis.  Apparently, the study of a mythological rape “triggered” negative feelings in a class that included, unbeknownst to the instructor, a survivor of sexual assault.  

The demands of student protestors at Missouri, Columbia and elsewhere (Ithaca College, Vanderbilt) often include the resignation of university presidents and faculty.  And, given the response at Mizzou, the incumbents have something to fear – the loss of their livelihoods and, perhaps, their careers.

So, as the children of helicopter parents look for administrators to protect their fragile little sensibilities from the slings and arrows of the real world, the institutions are caving rather than standing up and stating the obvious: the point of a society is that we figure out a way to live with one another despite our differences.  We use language with all its limitations to get our points across.  How you look at and assess the world is necessarily different than how I do.  Those differences are to be tolerated in a free society not suppressed.   Discuss them.  Argue your point-of-view vehemently.  Develop new opinions.  But, don’t expect institutions to enforce the repression of ideas that don’t match yours.

If the goal of these student protests is to get institutions to not only embrace political correctness but also to act as the “Thought Police”, then any violation will be punished as blasphemy.  University presidents’ losing their jobs is just the first step.  “Groupthink” will rule the day and Orwell’s vision of 1984 will arrive perhaps a bit later than he projected.



  1. It’s taken some time for me to digest this. It’s a very interesting observation about today’s culture in the US.
    Yes, people say stupid things and I get how others find that “offensive”. But, when we start muting dissension because it’s too politically incorrect or fire professors because students think they’re insensitive, we cross a dangerous line.

  2. Your's and Everett Piper's blog must have crossed in the mail.

    About time an academic of standing stood up to the pampered millennials currently enrolled in our insulated culturally protected institutions of higher learning.

  3. Thought provoking. Reminds me of what it may have been like in the 1800's and early 1900's when it was routine to ask immagrant white folks where they were from. Now we simply assume they come from one of the 50.

    I will be more sensitive to this in the future.

  4. John - right on with this one. I think the GOP has had this one wired for done time actually taking advantage of lazy intellectualism and creating a Groupthink Borg like ontology. The Dems on the other hand spend all their time attacking it rather than setting a tone of opposition of and clash of ideas which was/is the purpose of university education, is it not? Universities seem to more and more be training grounds not thinking about environments. Too bad. Thanks for the blog.

  5. A current example of a wrong-headed aggression against this country’s dominant cultural heritage is the controversy over the University of Tennessee-Knoxville Diversity and Inclusion post [] that stated:
    “Holiday parties and celebrations should celebrate and build upon workplace relationships and team morale with no emphasis on religion or culture. Ensure your holiday party is not a Christmas party in disguise.”
    According to a Dec. 4th, 2015 story in THE TENNESSEAN, Tennessee’s Senate Government Operations Committee Chairman Mike Bell [R-Riceville] reacted by writing: “This is offensive to the vast majority of Tennesseans who help fund this university through their tax dollars,” Bell said in the email. “We have lost confidence in Chancellor Cheek’s ability to lead the state’s flagship university.” Tennessee Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey [R-Blountville] responded on Facebook, saying “these ‘suggestions’ [by UT-Knoxville] call into question what purpose university offices of diversity serve.”

  6. On the surface, it looks like students are trying to restrict free speech and enforce political correctness. But there is some merit to their concerns and aggression on both sides of the argument.

    Let's say you are Jewish, as I am, and on Halloween you see people marching around with Swastikas. Or you are black and see people marching around with pitchforks and nooses.

    Do you regard this as just clean fun? Simply an opportunity to debate the issue? I think not.

    Yes, students often overgeneralize and get things somewhat wrong. I know that I did in the 60's when I wasn't quite as smart as I am now. But if you are a member of a group that is threatened with violence, saying that you want to be in a "safe space" is not unreasonable.

    I'm not defending political correctness or saying that the students are completely right. But I am saying that we should think through our indignation a bit and see that there is more than superficial narcissism in these concerns.

    When you sign a lease for an apartment, one of the clauses that's often present is a guarantee of "quiet enjoyment. In other words, your home should be a safe space.

    So should a university. It should certainly be a place where ideas are explored and fiercely debated. That's what academic freedom is all about. But it should also be a safe space where people feel respected and able to have that debate on equal terms. Just as they should in society at large.