We have previously discussed the growing list of microaggressive language deemed inappropriate at colleges and universities. From a free speech perspective, the concern is that this category of prescribed language is often ill-defined and subjective, including seating decisions or eye-contact. Mount Holyoke College’s Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion just added new terms to this list with a guide on social media listing “fatphobic language” that will now be deemed microaggressive. The terms include such phrases as “I’m so bad for eating this” or “you have such a pretty face.”
Saying that “I’m so bad for eating this” is, according to Mount Holyoke, “incredibly triggering, but it also feeds into a harmful narrative created by diet culture that teaches ‘good’ foods versus ‘bad’ foods.”
The office acknowledged that the guide was originally posted on the Instagram account The Power of Plus, which, according to the account’s description, is “a size-inclusive digital community proving that fashion is for every body…”
The diversity office asked students to take “time to reflect on these everyday comments/phrases that are microaggressions.”
I have no objection to the office seeking to share the views of others on how certain phrases are received. I have dropped certain terms or phrases even though I did not see why a term or phrase is insulting. It was enough that others find certain language to be insulting and I do not want to make them feel uncomfortable. For example, I would not use some of the phrases identified because they could be taken the wrong way.
Thus, there is a clearly positive element of a school like Mount Holyoke posting such information to share a perspective that some of us may not have. The free speech concern is how such microaggressive terms can be used to curtail or punish speech, including supporting complaints for formal investigations. Many people likely disagree with the position of the office on these terms. How does the listing then play out when a complaint is filed? Disciplinary actions often seem based on how language is received rather than intended. Schools need to be clear as to whether microaggressive language can be the basis for bias complaints and actions.
The Student Handbook warns‘[h]ostile or hateful speech or other discriminatory behavior may be considered a bias incident, but under certain conditions may also be a hate crime.”
The Handbook warns of possible discipline without clearly defining what speech is hostile or biased:
“A bias incident at Mount Holyoke is an act of bigotry, harassment or intimidation that occurs on the Mount Holyoke College campus that is directed at a member or group of the Mount Holyoke community because of that individual’s or group’s actual or perceived age, color, creed, disability, ethnicity, gender, gender identity/presentation, marital status, national origin, race, religion, sexual orientation, social class, veteran status, or any combination of these or related factors. In a bias incident the perpetrator may be known or unknown. (adapted from Cornell University)
Note that there are broader categories utilized here than what appears in the College’s Statement of Nondiscrimination. The Statement of Nondiscrimination only focuses on categories that are protected by law, while the College’s bias incident definition covers categories that are not covered by law, but that are covered under College policies.”