A few buzzwords emanating from college campuses have been gaining traction lately. What do they mean? Is the hype legit? Or is it all baloney? I tried to sift through it all to gain some perspective. My conclusion is that while knowing what the terms refer to is helpful, the language and sentiment behind the words are a tad hyperbolic and overly dramatic. They seem to be more about enforcing political correctness than bridging gaps between people.
As a teacher, you want to provide an environment conducive to learning. If a teacher can avoid setting someone off, things usually go smoothly. A lot of students aren’t too sensitive and as long as you exercise reasonable judgment, you’re not going to have a lot of problems. But there are always the touchy ones, and of course, there are always those who may have experienced real trauma and you want to do your best to make them feel comfortable. Sometimes shit happens that you can’t control, but with a little common sense, you can mitigate a lot of conflict.
For example, in the face of taboo subjects you might say something like, “We’re going to talk about different religions, today. I trust everyone will feel free to voice their opinion and experience while also respecting others.” It doesn’t have to be much more than that.
If a class reading deals with sexual assault, you might make an announcement: “There is a part in tomorrow’s reading that briefly describes an instance of sexual assault. I realize this may be a difficult subject, so please let me know if this is a problem for you.”
This is basically what trigger warnings do – provide a warning that some potentially difficult subject matter is going to be discussed.
The problem is that the wording is a bit much. This is nothing more than a fair warning or a heads-up, expressions that have been around for a long time. The word trigger carries too much of a negative connotation. The word is associated with guns. There are triggers used in traps. It conjures up reactionary imagery when that is exactly what the word is trying to prevent. If you’re trying to prevent something from happening, it’s best not to shove it in people’s faces. By doing so, you are inviting people to get offended, which is one of the underlying problems with this and the other two expressions. People are choosing to become offended instead of engaging in a legitimate dialogue.
Essentially, microaggressions are those things people say when they’re not trying to be racist but are too ignorant to realize their own prejudice. This definitely happens and it’s a real thing. There’s no argument there, but of course, there are problems.
Number one, we’ve got a lot of hypersensitive people out there are who are quick to label someone’s comment or action a microaggression. They get offended easily and want to make sure others adhere to a strict form of political correctness.
Second, there is the problem of subjectivity. We all have our own subjective value system we use to make judgments about different people and situations. This becomes a part of who we are, and it’s reflected in how we think, what we do and what we say. A lower-class black male student from the inner city might think about things differently than an upper-middle class white female from a nice neighborhood. It should come as no surprise if they say something that offends the other. As long as people are free to have their own opinions, people will disagree on what’s offensive. Shaming people for their perceived microaggressions is not going to change anything.
On top of all that, the word doesn’t accurately describe what is happening. It’s a misnomer. Microaggressions describe subtle barbs at groups of people that go unnoticed by whoever is making them. They go unnoticed because these people aren’t trying to be offensive or aggressive; it happens from a lack of awareness. That’s called being ignorant, or if you prefer a more polite way of saying it, it’s being unaware of how others live. It’s not people being aggressive in a smaller, reduced capacity, which the name implies.
The bottom line is you can’t expect every group of people to understand every other group of people. Ignorance happens, and you can’t always blame a person for not knowing. Instead of making the issue about microaggressions, we should be focusing on real ways at of understanding the differences between ourselves.
When we leave the comforts of our own home, we must be prepared for the possibility of having a big old pile of reality hit us in the face. This does not justify people going out and being jerks for the sake of it, but at a certain point people have got to realize you can’t control every situation and shit happens. The idea that we can create safe spaces, even in academia, where we are free from anything that might be offensive is not only impossible but naïve.
Of course, teachers have the responsibility to create an environment favorable to learning in order minimize problems. Your life as a teacher and the lives of students go by a lot more easily if you can do this. But a safe space is never an excuse to shield yourself from real debate and things you disagree with, and that’s what a lot of this nonsense feels like. It’s an insult to the intellectual integrity universities should hold themselves to. What kind of progress would we have made with this as our standard?
We need to move beyond reactionary words and not enforce a brand of political correctness at the expense of real debate. These terms do refer to real things we can learn from, but because of their hyperbolic nature, they don’t always accomplish what they set out to achieve, which is the consideration and understanding of different groups of people. Instead, they attack anything that might be the slightest bit offensive. As a result, these words end up contributing to the plethora of divisive language that is already out there. In order to progress, we have to face the uncomfortable and the offensive. We have a lot of rights in this country, but the right not to get offended isn’t one of them.