When colleges are teaching English these days, they are not talking about the novels of Faulkner or the drama of Shakespeare. Instead, they are instructing the professors and students to avoid “microaggressions” and to give “trigger warnings.” Professors routinely defend tenure as a means of protecting academic freedom. Universities, after all, are supposed to be thriving centers of free speech. The problem is the many universities instead are striving to teach their students and faculty that the last thing they should do is express a contrary view.
The politically correct term is “microaggression”—a new word that the Oxford English Dictionary has not yet added but may do so (unless adding that word is itself a microaggression). The word has been around for decades, first coined in 1970, but only recently has it become a buzzword. It refers to verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, even unintentional, that someone might perceive as a slight. Plug it into Google and you will get about 214,000 hits. Plug in “micro aggression” and you are over 700,000 hits.
What are some microaggressions? The University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point has helpfully included a list to guide its students and professors about what not to say. For example, let us say a professor tells a student in a class on rhetoric, “You are so articulate.” That’s a microaggression. Yes it is. You may be able to get away with telling the white student in the rhetoric class that she has performed well and is articulate, but you are looking for trouble if you say that to a nonwhite student, the University of Wisconsin solemnly informs us. What if an Asian student says to the teacher, “You only call the white students articulate?” “Why don’t you ever praise an Asian?” Well, the Administration at the University of Wisconsin never gets around to answering that one.
How about this? You’re in a history class, or a civics class, and you hear a student or teacher says, “America is a melting pot.” That is another no-no. It really means that people in this country assimilate, and that is apparently very bad. What if you pull out a dollar bill and read part of the Great Seal of the United States, “E pluribus unum”? That means, “Out of many, one.” That sounds a lot like “America is a melting pot.” Yet, Wisconsin does not list that one as a microaggression. Perhaps those who make up the list don’t understand Latin.
Suppose someone says, “I think my friend will get the job because his father is a friend of the employer.” Another person responds, “I believe the most qualified person should get the job.” That is yet another no-no, according to the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point.
An example of an environmental microaggression occurs if a college or university has buildings named “after White heterosexual upper class males.” That one is really a hoot. First, one should not be surprised that college buildings are names after donors. If we have heard of the donor, we may know that the donor is male and rich. We usually don’t know their sexual orientation; perhaps because they think what they do in the bedroom is not anyone else’s business. In any event, it is still a bit surprising for the University of Wisconsin to object to buildings named after donors—all it has to do is refuse the money or return it and change the name of the building.
Wisconsin also objects to an “[o]verabundance of liquor stores in communities of color.” It does not tell us what “overabundance” means, but we do know that it offers no objection to an overabundance of liquor stores in communities with a large college population.
The University of California—the home of the free speech movement—not to be outdone, has now published its own list of microaggressions. Some parrot the Wisconsin list. Others do not. For example, California thinks it is a microaggression “Being forced to choose Male or Female when completing basic forms.” The University’s graduates will have trouble filling out census forms. California, however, does seem to understand that it should not insult its donors. Although it recognizes that microaggressions include “environmental slights, snubs,” it lists none. Apparently, California will not be returning any donors’ money or changing the names of its buildings.
The University of California assures us that it will embark on “an intensive training program on the topic for its faculty and administrators.” One wonders whether colleges should instead use their limited resources to focus on other issues, such as making sure that their expensive college degrees are worth something on the job market.
“Trigger warning” is another buzz word. Type that into Google and you get nearly a half-million hits. We are told that you should warn people if you are going to discuss an eating disorder. Like microaggression, “trigger warning” is an invitation to squelch debate and free speech. When we go through life, we will often run into discussions that describe things we do not like. If this is a private conversation, we can tell the other person to stop and polite people will do so. However, if someone is giving a speech or talking to a group, we have to realize that the Supreme Court has often said that free speech should be robust and that we protect speech that is meant to upset the hearer.
The American Association of University Professors’ Committee on Academic Freedom recently approved a report that warns about “trigger warnings.” As it explains:
A current threat to academic freedom in the classroom comes from a demand that teachers provide warnings in advance if assigned material contains anything that might trigger difficult emotional responses for students.
Many examples abound where universities enact or propose to enact rules that seek to shield people from life. Oberlin College announced a policy (now tabled) that told its faculty to “[r]emove triggering material when it does not contribute directly to the course learning goals.”
Consider the novel “Things Fall Apart,” by Chinua Achebe. This 1958 book is widely described “as the archetypal modern African novel in English, one of the first to receive global critical acclaim. It is a staple book in schools throughout Africa and is widely read and studied in English-speaking countries around the world.” Oberlin, however, advised that this novel might “trigger readers who have experienced racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence, suicide and more.” That’s right—students in schools throughout Africa reach this novel, but Oberlin is concerned that it should come with a warning label because students in the United States may have experienced “colonialism.” Yet the students living in Africa, a continent that the West colonized for many decades, do not need this trigger warning.
Wellesley College students objected to “a sculpture of a man in his underwear because it might be a source of ‘triggering thoughts regarding sexual assault.’” The sculptor wanted to show a man sleepwalking. The students insisted that Wellesley move it indoors. Apparently these students do not understand that rapes occur indoors as well as outside.
The AAUP warned that even voluntary use of trigger warnings harms academic learning and the obligation of higher education should challenge students.
If, for example, The House of Mirth or Anna Karenina carried a warning about suicide, students might overlook the other questions about wealth, love, deception, and existential anxiety that are what those books are actually about. Trigger warnings thus run the risk of reducing complex literary, historical, sociological and political insights to a few negative characterizations. By calling attention to certain content in a given work, trigger warnings also signal an expected response to the content (e.g., dismay, distress, disapproval), and eliminate the element of surprise and spontaneity that can enrich the reading experience and provide critical insight.
In other words, the goal of education is to expose students to new ideas, so some distress is inevitable.
Eugene Volokh, a distinguished law professor at UCLA who teaches free speech law, offers a useful warning. “[M]any faculty members who aren’t yet tenured, many adjuncts and lecturers who aren’t on the tenure ladder, many staff members, and likely even many students—and perhaps even quite a few tenured faculty members as well—will get the message that certain viewpoints are best not expressed when you’re working for UC, whether in the classroom, in casual discussions, in scholarship, in op-eds, on blogs, or elsewhere.”
Of course, we should all strive to be polite and we should all try to get along. There is no need to antagonize people. If people tell racist or sexist jokes, we do not have to laugh with them or invite them to our homes for dinner. Yet, that is different from trying to impose behavior by rules. These universities do not say that they will deny tenure to a professor who violates these “rules” or “guidelines.” We will have to wait until someone who does not receive tenure files suit. The litigant may claim (rightly or wrongly) that the university was really punishing him or her because they did not follow the guidelines. The University says that untenured faculty are “expected to feel uncensored, and free to express their ideas, including ones UC has labeled racist, aggressive, and hostile.” Professor Volokh’s reaction, “Really?”