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. Dictionary.com 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, wikiquote.org 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.
WHO WILL LEAD?