Increasingly I see, in the New York Times as well as other major media, articles taking a Regressive Left point of view, or at least reporting uncritically on that ideology without criticizing it elsewhere to provide some journalistic “balance”.
An example of a problematic article was one by Stephanie Saul in the Times two days ago: “Campuses cautiously train freshmen against subtle insults“. Reporting on the training (some would say “indoctrination”) that many incoming university get about microaggressions, diversity, sexual behavior and so on, Saul offers a mixture of good, questionable, and bad stuff.
Let me first say that while some kind of orientation is necessary for students, many of whom were sheltered and are now away from home—for good—for the first time. And yes, that training should help students not only navigate the confusing maelstrom that sweeps up new students, but helps them deal with others who are different from them. All too often, though, it does involve a kind of indoctrination in behavior that they should learn on their own. For example, in some places students are asked to play the role of minority students, and then are vilified by other students (yes, yelled at and called racist epithets) so they can experience what ostracism or oppression is like. Or they are exposed to lists of “microagressions”—some truly offensive, some bizarre (see below)—and told not to commit them (remember the “social justice” placemats handed out at Harvard that the University, embarrassed, later revoked).
In other words, in many places first-year orientation is directed towards inculcating students with certain ideologies and behaviors, although the effort is meant well. Yet I see this as somewhat is demeaning, for the college is continuing the role of parents whom the student has just left behind. As Jon Haidt and Greg Lukianoff have suggested, perhaps orientation should include some information about Cognitive Behavior Therapy to help students deal with the many psychological challenges they’ll face (see their discussion here).
Saul’s article is a mixture of good, bad, and questionable advice, much of it dispensed by Sheree Marlow, the new “chief diversity officer” at Clark University (many universities are hiring for such positions now) and an African American. I’ll divide up the advice, and the guidance purveyed in the article, into the good, questionable, and bad bits.
While the concept of “microaggressions” can be overly broad, there’s little doubt that an onslaught of unthinking comments made to minorities, which may be well meant but are actually demeaning, can erode their well being. The article gives a list of these comments (below), and I find them all offensive and to be avoided:
All of these are cringeworthy, and some bespeak bigotry while others bespeak simple thoughtlessness. The question is whether students need to be given lists of these, or whether they should learn instead to call other students out if they say something hurtful. The latter, after all, is the way we learn to avoid offending others in a normal, non-college context.
But not all “microaggressions” should be accepted uncritically. Here are two.
One are “microaggressions” like the utterance, “I don’t see color”—said by someone who is claiming that they don’t consider someone’s ethnicity when talking to them. That might, in fact, be true, and reflects Martin Luther King’s famous dictum that we’re supposed to judge people not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. Now, however, we’re told that we always not only see color, but change our behavior when we do—that all white people (but not others) are bigots, at least to a degree.
Here’s one more, an “environmental microaggression”:
“What’s an environmental microaggression?” Ms. Marlowe asked the auditorium of about 525 new students. She gave an example. “On your first day of class, you enter the chemistry building and all of the pictures on the wall are scientists who are white and male,” she said. “If you’re a female, or you just don’t identify as a white male, that space automatically shows that you’re not represented.”
I see this every time when I go to the hospital where the Dean’s office is located. Lining the walls are pictures of every medical school class from the 1940s on, and you can see the mixture changing over time. Early classes comprised all white males; there were no blacks, and few Jews or women. Now things are improving, and it’s heartening to see that. Still, if the famous chemists from your university, who are commemorated on the walls, are all white, is that really a microaggression? Yes, that whiteness surely reflects biases of earlier times, but still. Take it as a measure of how far we can still go, but not—as Marlowe seems to be telling the students—as an insult to your identity.
Other good stuff:
In addition to diversity sessions, many campuses train students on exactly what constitutes sexual consent as well as how to intervene when they see fellow students drinking excessively or poised to engage in nonconsensual sexual behavior.
Students do need to learn, I think, what constitutes sexual harassment and rape, both from the University standpoint and from the legal standpoint. Many first-years are sexually inexperienced, and do need to learn about consent. Things that they might think are fine could actually be infringements on somebody else’s autonomy, illegal, or Title IX violations.
Here’s some advice that I’m not completely down with:
And don’t say “you guys.” It could be interpreted as leaving out women, said Ms. Marlowe, who realized it was offensive only when someone confronted her for saying it during a presentation.
. . . Ms. Martinez, a sophomore transfer student, also realized that she, too, was guilty of microaggressions, because she frequently uses the phrase “you guys,” she said. “This helped me see that I’m a microaggressor, too.”
I hear “you guys” most often coming from women, not men. If one person considers it offensive but the majority of other people find it innocuous, are we supposed to accept and defer to the one person who finds it offensive? That’s a matter for discussion. But it’s clear that Marlowe, by uncritically branding relatively innocuous phrases like “you guys” as microaggressions, wants to imbue many students like Martinez with a sense of guilt and undeserved entitlement. We simply cannot police every word that people utter.
Another subset of microaggression is known as the microinvalidation, which includes comments suggesting that race plays a minor role in life’s outcomes, like “Everyone can succeed in this society if they work hard enough.”
The role of race in life’s outcomes is undeniable, but I’m not sure it’s a college’s duty to inculcate in their students the narrative that oppression is universal and will affect everyone in a minority group. In other words, I’m not sure I want a constant emphasis on ethnicity, race, gender, or whatever, so that students, both white and nonwhite, both male and female, become conditioned to view the world through competing narratives of oppression and victimhood.
Here’s something that’s always puzzled me:
But, Ms. Marlowe said, while it is sometimes difficult to identify a person’s racial or ethnic background based on appearance, she does not believe that gives license to people like Rachel A. Dolezal, the white woman who claimed to be African-American while working for the N.A.A.C.P. in Spokane, Wash. “You can’t say you’re black if you’re not, historically.”
This seems to fly in the face of liberal views about gender: that if someone feels as if they are members of a gender that doesn’t correspond to their biological sex, you should accept their own designation. A man, for example, even if bald and bearded, can claim that “he” feels as if he is a woman, and should be called a woman and treated like a woman. The same goes for trans men.
In general I agree with this. But why are races different? Dolezal, as far as I can see, really did feel she was African-American, and even darkened her skin and fixed her hair to fit in as a black woman (that’s analogous to the surgeries and other changes that trans people undergo). Why can’t she be regarded as black? What is the difference between feeling you’re a woman if you’re a man, like Caitlin Jenner, which is laudable, and feeling that you’re black if you’re white, which is seen as reprehensible. Perhaps someone can explain it to me in the comments. What does “historically” black mean as opposed to “historically female”?
Finally in the “questionable” category, the Times argues that universities that don’t give students this kind of orientation may lose funding:
Fresh on the minds of university officials are last year’s highly publicized episodes involving racist taunts at the University of Missouri — which appear to have contributed to a precipitous decline in enrollment there this fall.
“That closes your doors,” said Archie Ervin, the vice president for institute diversity at Georgia Institute of Technology and president of the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education. “If you have sustained enrollment drops and disproportionately full-paying students such as out-of-state, the state legislature can’t make up the gap.”
I think it’s a valid hypothesis to claim that Missouri’s decline in enrollment came from the bad reputation it got for overly paternalistic behavior and over-the-top social justice activism, not from fear of racism. The Melissa Click episode, for instance, in which a faculty member was fired for trying to “muscle” a photographer away from a demonstration, put Missouri in particularly bad odor (she just found another job). The “bad odor” didn’t come from the perception of racism, but from the perception by parents and students of regressive and extreme protests against racism that might diminish a student’s learning experience in college.
Two things here:
A freshman tentatively raises her hand and takes the microphone. “I’m really scared to ask this,” she begins. “When I, as a white female, listen to music that uses the N word, and I’m in the car, or, especially when I’m with all white friends, is it O.K. to sing along?”
The answer, from Sheree Marlowe, the new chief diversity officer at Clark University, is an unequivocal “no.”
Seriously? The university wants students to feel like racists because they’re singing along to songs (often by themselves), written and performed by blacks, that contain the word “nigger’? Are you supposed to not sing along, or simply remain silent when the “n-word” is sung? I can see some hyperoffended students calling out this behavior as “cultural appropriation”—I do not agree, as it’s an appreciation of culture—but not as an enabler of racism.
Ms. Marlowe said she questioned the validity of the concept of reverse racism, arguing that racism is a system in which a dominant race benefits from the oppression of others.
This is the shopworn assertion that “racism equals power plus privilege.” Ergo, blacks can’t be racist towards whites, nor Hispanics towards blacks. I don’t agree. Racism is simply bigotry towards people who belong to another “race” (or, if you reject the concept of “race”, towards members of another ethnic group). Anybody can be a racist, and the concept of “reverse racism” has little meaning to me. To claim that only white people, for example, can be bigots against members of other groups is not only empirically untrue, but an attempt to change the meaning of a term so that “the oppressed” are immune to accusations that tar others. It’s paternalistic.
You can argue this stuff out in the comments below; as for me, I’m going downtown to have a big steak for lunch.