Microaggression / Macro-aggravation

Of late, the concept of “microaggression” has emerged as the hot, new PC boogeyman. In today’s Washington Post law professor Eugene Volokh chimes in, discussing recent efforts by UC-Berkeley to dissuade faculty from saying things like “America is a melting pot” for fear that such statements may alienate students of color. Is this censorship? Suppression of ideas? Let’s discuss.

At the heart of Volokh’s article is a worksheet distributed by UC-Berkeley to inform faculty about unintended discrimination. This is fascinating document. It defines microaggressions as actions, intentional or otherwise, which “communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership.” This includes (obviously problematic) stuff like clutching one’s purse when a black person walks by. It also includes statements which act to deny the existence of racial/gender discrimination. For example, one should be wary of telling a person of color that “in this society, everyone can succeed.”

Prof. Volokh’s main concern is that efforts to prevent professors from talking like Republican presidential candidates represent a suppression of certain viewpoints. I agree that taken out of context a prohibition on statements such as “there’s only one race, the human race” sounds ridiculous. Prof. Volokh perhaps feels that this is a true statement. Great. Of course he should be able to think and talk and theorize about our fundamental oneness.

At the same time though, perhaps Volokh, as a sophisticated reader and thinker, is being slightly disingenuous. The document he cites clearly states the importance of context. Of course, not every humanistic platitude is an act of racialized violence. No one is claiming this. Instead, the cited worksheet simply tries to explain (presumably to a white reader) how certain statements, in certain contexts, might be construed. When her professor asserts “color-blindness,” for example, a certain brand of prickly activist (I know the type, trust me) might hear “this white man thinks he doesn’t have to acknowledge my truth.” Such a response, even if silly, is real. It can impact the educational relationship and therefore must be respected.

To get a little more general, I think it’s important to draw a distinction between “truth” and consequences. In the university environment, all parties (ideally) are entitled to their own truth. Prof. Volokh can believe that “America is a melting pot” and the student activist can believe that “America is a cesspool of oppression” and AMAZINGLY they can both be right. This is pluralism. This is a good thing.

At the same time though, in exchange for the right to be right, both actors must be aware of the consequences of their statements. Volokh and the student activist must recognize that their truth is not necessarily shared. Therefore, that truth must be presented with a certain amount of rhetorical nuance. If anything, the statements on the worksheet lack this nuance. It is that, not their validity or lack therefore which makes them offensive.¹

So to summarize, as long as we keep it at the level of rhetorical etiquette, I see no problem with the policing of “microaggressions.” On the other hand, if such policies work to restrict what truths can be held and promulgated, they must be resisted.

1. Admittedly the text of the worksheet does not make this distinction. I’m reading it generously.

Are Teachers Really Afraid of Their Students?

A lot has been written lately about hyper-sensitivity on college campuses. The latest entry in this genre is a long, rather complex analysis on Vox.com, published anonymously by a professor at a “midsize state school.” This writer’s claim is that a reductive vision of social justice, one based on feelings rather than objective analysis, is making for a toxic learning environment and ultimately harming the progressive cause. Feelings can’t be wrong. So, this logic goes, the only way to win a debate is to yell really loud.

Ironically, this article resulted in something of a backlash, with a social media figure yelling about how she shouldn’t be quoted without her consent. That’s an interesting position. And seems to prove the writer’s point about hyper-sensitivity. On the internet. What about in the classroom though? Are things really as bad as they seem? Are teachers really afraid of students?

In my experience, no. I’m a (white male) teacher at a major public university. My (grad student) colleagues and I complain about a lot of stuff, but getting in trouble for offending our students isn’t very high on the list. Still, many teachers obviously feel differently. Perhaps they’re justified. Perhaps my colleagues and I are naïve. Still though, I can’t help but think that the hysterical online environment is unduly tinting their perception of the classroom situation.

Of course, as a teacher you will occasionally encounter prickly, hyper-politically correct (or politically incorrect) students. Part of being an educator though is learning how to negotiate with such people. As an example, let’s look at a situation described in the Vox article.

During a discussion of the 2008 financial crisis, a student voices his opinion that said crisis was caused by “Fanny and Freddy giving homes to black people.” This is a big, obviously problematic claim. Note how the Vox commentator responds though. Instead of seeking to engage the student, to bring out the causes and potential effects of such a belief, the teacher instead attempts to “state the facts,” telling the student that his view is “an oversimplification, and pretty dishonest.” The student feels disrespected and files a complaint, accusing the teacher of bias.

I understand the teacher’s frustration: the student hijacked his lesson plan. The administrative complaint could have been avoided though through proper pedagogical practice. Instead of positioning himself as “the subject who knows,” to misquote Lacan, this teacher should have sought to explore, with his students, the gap between their varying perspectives. In short, when yelled at he shouldn’t have yelled back. Instead, he should have practiced what he preaches in the Vox article.

My larger point here is that digital discourse seems to encourage a certain sort of rhetorical behavior. This, as the Vox commentator correctly notes, often involves yelling really loud about your feelings. Teachers must work to counter this influence. We need to cultivate listening, understanding and collaborative, critical exploration. And the place to start is with our own practice, both online and in the classroom. If we do this day-in-day-out, we have nothing to fear from our students.