I have been a long critic of the erosion of free speech on college campuses and the use of the ill-defined concept of “micro aggressions” to sanction students and faculty alike. Those concerns were magnified with the release of a guide by The New School, a university in New York City, on avoiding microaggressions. There are now a variety of such aggressions from “microinsults” to “microassaults” to “microinvalidation.” Microaggressions can now include having seats that are deemed too small or sitting too far from a homeless person on the subway.
Microaggressions as “brief and commonplace verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or not, that communicate a hostile, derogatory, or negative slight or insult toward a targeted group.” We have discussed that ambiguous standard before, including at a school where the failure to maintain eye contact has been defined as a microaggression.
A microassault is defined as “explicit degradation characterized primarily by a violent verbal or nonverbal attack meant to hurt the intended victim through name-calling, avoidant behavior, or purposeful discriminatory actions.” This includes “getting onto a subway car and sitting as far as possible from a black man, a homeless person, etc.”
However, there is hope if you come forward and address your microaggressions. The manual says “Congratulations! You realized that you microaggressed” and suggested redemptive steps.
My problem with this new array of improper language and actions is that they are highly ambiguous and often depend on how they are received as opposed to how they are intended. There are valid concerns about language that insults or demeans others. However, microaggression rules are now being used to continue the crackdown on free speech on our campuses. What someone considers insulting can vary widely and the notion that students need to be actively protected from any slight can have an impact on the educational environment and mission. No one wants to appear insensitive or someone who has “microaggressed.” So, most faculty have remained silent as these nebulous rules are promulgated and enforced. As these rules spread, more and more language is being denounced as microaggressive and we now see the expansion of proscribed language into areas of “microinsults,” “microassaults,” and “microinvalidation.”
Here is the manual.