Phi Beta Cons

Microaggressions and the Thought Police

Campuses have seen an abundance of sensitivity training and mandatory workshops.  They have started issuing ‘trigger warnings,’ and have created ‘safe spaces’ where opposing views are not allowed. Now students have found a new target. Its capacity for claiming victimhood is enormous.  Enter the minefields of “microaggression.”

The word microaggression is not itself new, but it is enjoying a great deal of cachet at the moment. Just recently, Georgia College and State University, Amherst, and Hamilton College all hosted workshops on microaggressions. The National Conference on Race & Ethnicity in American Higher Education (NCORE) has planned one for May 28.To take it a step further, Ithaca College’s student government has proposed creating a microaggression reporting system to document and highlight instances on campus. Smith College, already has one.

Dr. Derald Wing Sue, who himself does a brisk business in opining on this topic, defines microaggressions as “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.” Like poor Parsons in George Orwell’s 1984, about to be hauled off for yet more torture, today’s collegian can so easily be guilty. “’Thoughtcrime is a dreadful thing, old man,’ he said sententiously. ‘It’s insidious. It can get hold of you without your even knowing it.’”

Note what might constitute a microaggression:

  • Inquiring, “How did you get your job?”
  • Mistakenly identifying a transgender person by the wrong gender-specific pronoun or prefix.
  • Asking someone if they can translate or read a second language.

The degree of offense of these microaggresions is naturally conditioned by the perception of the offended.  And it presupposes the clairvoyance of the offended: the accuser has laid claim to the power to know what another person is thinking or implying

Questioning the extent of rape culture, glass ceilings, or, indeed, microaggressions themselves, all have been considered microaggresions. (Surely by now, this blog counts as microaggression.) It follows from this position that healthy skepticism, and inquisitive thought need to be censored, lest someone become offended. It is only a step away until thoughtcrime, too, will be identified and actionable. 

Once you have limited free speech, and curbed thought, you can force people to submit to a more appropriate and palatable way of thinking. At the center of this microdissection of words and ideas, is, of course, a play for power.

Often, individuals accused of committing microaggressions are people who object to a status quo. By calling certain ideas “microaggression” it cuts off dialogue and conversation in the very place where these conversations need to happen most. As C. Vann Woodward observed in his 1974 report to Yale, “we take a chance, as the First Amendment takes a chance, when we commit ourselves to the idea that the results of free expression are to the general benefit in the long run, however unpleasant they may appear at the time.” Academe should be enthusiastic about taking that chance. Instead of quaking in fear that by upholding the first amendment rights of their students and faculty, they are contributing to a systemic injustice or creating a negative environment.

“Es bleibet dabei, die Gedanken sind Frei: The fact remains, that thoughts are free.”  So sang the brave souls who resisted the oppression and terror of the Nazis.

It is the sacred right of the individual to determine what takes residence in the mind and soul. It has been the goal of every totalitarian and would-be totalitarian, of course, to control that space. We must remember the advice of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.; “If there is any principal of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other, it is the principal of free thought­—not free thought for those who agree with us, but freedom for the thought that we hate.”

Christine RavoldChristine Ravold works in the communications department of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) assisting with social media and writing projects. Prior to moving to the Washington, D.C., ...


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