What’s a mi­croag­gres­sion?

The Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia’s memo on un­ac­cept­able phrases and ques­tions goes too far.

Los Angeles Times - - OPINION -

It’s trou­bling when any in­sti­tu­tion tries to squelch de­bate or dis­cour­age con­tro­ver­sial ideas, but it’s down­right alarm­ing when this oc­curs at a univer­sity — and even worse when it is the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, whose Berke­ley cam­pus was at the cen­ter of the Free Speech Move­ment in the 1960s. Yet that’s ex­actly what’s hap­pen­ing thanks to heavy- handed sen­si­tiv­ity train­ing about so- called mi­croag­gres­sions. Univer­sity in­struc­tors ev­ery­where should feel free to say that Amer­ica is a “land of op­por­tu­nity” or that af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion is “racist” or that a stu­dent of any race or gen­der is “good in math” with­out hav­ing to worry that they might in­ad­ver­tently be of­fend­ing some­one. UC of­fi­cials should un­der­stand that and stop try­ing to de­fend their over- thetop, po­lit­i­cally cor­rect list of un­ac­cept­able top­ics and ques­tions.

The phrases quoted above were in­cluded in ma­te­rial posted on the web­site of the of­fice of UC Pres­i­dent Janet Napoli­tano as sup­ple­men­tal ma­te­rial to work­shops that deans and depart­ment heads had been in­vited to at­tend. The goal was le­git­i­mate enough — to in­crease aware­ness of racist or sex­ist com­ments that might be made un­in­ten­tion­ally. And cer­tainly, some of the ex­am­ples are in­deed the kinds of seem­ingly in­nocu­ous per­sonal com­ments that deans and depart­ment heads and other fac­ulty mem­bers should know are hurt­ful — such as say­ing to a black woman, “I would have never guessed that you were a sci­en­tist,” or ask­ing a Latino stu­dent to say some­thing in his or her “na­tive lan­guage,” as though that lan­guage couldn’t pos­si­bly be English.

But some of the sup­posed mi­croag­gres­sions are not nec­es­sar­ily ag­gres­sive at all. If a pro­fes­sor asks a Latino, Asian Amer­i­can or Na­tive Amer­i­can stu­dent to “speak up more” in class, is the pro­fes­sor re­ally say­ing that they must “as­sim­i­late to the dom­i­nant cul­ture”? If a univer­sity of­fi­cial says, “I be­lieve the most qual­i­fied can­di­date should get the job,” does that re­ally mean “peo­ple of color are given un­fair ben­e­fits?”

Worse yet, the ma­te­rial posted on the UC web­site dis­cour­ages fac­ulty mem­bers from ex­press­ing le­git­i­mate po­lit­i­cal opin­ions. Surely a pro­fes­sor ought to be able to say that Amer­ica is a melt­ing pot, or that af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion is a bad pol­icy be­cause it is in­her­ently racist. Since when are univer­si­ties afraid of clash­ing or provoca­tive be­liefs?

UC’s re­sponse has been that the list doesn’t re­flect univer­sity pol­icy and that no one is ac­tu­ally be­ing for­bid­den to use such lan­guage. That’s true, but the univer­sity is clearly dis­cour­ag­ing cer­tain kinds of state­ments, and fac­ulty will take no­tice — es­pe­cially those mem­bers with­out ten­ure.

These are dis­heart­en­ing days in academia. Some stu­dents are de­mand­ing “trig­ger warn­ings” about ma­te­rial that may be emo­tion­ally dis­tress­ing. Oth­ers in­sist that some po­lit­i­cal points of view are just too of­fen­sive to be dis­cussed. We’re all for sen­si­tiv­ity and we are against racism and sex­ism. But col­leges have al­ways been bas­tions of free ex­pres­sion be­cause the learn­ing process re­quires stu­dents to de­bate con­tro­ver­sial and oc­ca­sion­ally dis­turb­ing ideas. UC has done a dis­ser­vice to that noble aca­demic goal.

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