Friday, June 05, 2015

the end of "microaggressions"?

There does seem to be a bit of a sea-change in some of the reporting about colleges and the idea of students wanting to avoid the "challenge" of uncomfortable ideas, or being exposed to something with which they disagree. At first, the reporting seemed to be "Oh, OF COURSE we need to ban these things, you don't want people being unhappy all the time" but now it does seem to be slowly shifting to, "These students are going to have to work in jobs some day where they may be confronted with uncomfortable ideas. Certainly they are mature enough by college age to handle them!"

And I admit, this is one of those nuanced things that some people don't necessarily do well. There's a difference between being an out-and-out jerk to people and quietly expressing who you are in a way some people might not want to see for whatever reasons. An extreme example would be this:

Quietly expressing: as a Christian, I wear a cross pendant to class some days. This becomes a "microaggression" when a student who is not a Christian says they feel excluded or hurt or whatever because I am showing off what I believe

Being a jerk: I tell students in class they all need to be Christians or they are going to Hell and I openly proselytize in class  (something I would never, ever do. If I have a student come to me and genuinely ask me - because they have genuine questions - about my faith, I will tell them. I will not say, "You need to believe like me or you will go to Hell," because that's no way to bring people to the faith and is no way to treat people.)

The thing is, though, more and more, people want to shut down the first type of expression, where a person is being themselves in an unobtrusive fashion - if I had a Muslim woman student who wore a headscarf, I would not feel uncomfortable or threatened; if I had a Jewish student who wore a star of David I would have zero problems with that.  And this is sometimes because people tend to behave in the second fashion: if, for example, a student came to my department and complained to one of the men that he couldn't take my class because his religion forbade him from being taught by a woman, and we needed to work out some kind of situation where all his classes were taught by men, that would be kind of jerky behavior - because there's no way that that demand could be met in my department, and what's more, when you go to a public state school you can't demand that level of accommodation. (I suppose, if there exists a brand of religion like that, it has its own sex-segregated universities, and that's fine, I guess).

So: don't be a jerk to other people. But likewise, don't let other people tell you that things like wearing a cross to class, or talking about evolution in a biology class, or talking about opposing political ideas in a history class, or whatever, "hurts your feelings." Well, okay: you can have hurt feelings but the way you should act on them is to realize that you're gonna hear stuff you don't like as an adult and you just deal with it, not telling other people to change who they are or what they teach in order to keep you from being hurt.

I think this actually brings up partly why I find the whole "don't do that, it's a microaggression" thing so annoying, personally: All my life I had people tell me to suck it up and deal. So there's a kid in my fifth grade class who says mean things to me? Suck it up and deal, he's jealous of you because you're smarter than he is. (I never quite bought the "the person is being nasty to you because they're jealous" argument, even though all the adults made it). Or: "You're being excluded from a playground game? Suck it up and deal, find something else to do." Or: a couple girls jump the line and get the "good" jump ropes every time? "Suck it up and deal."

I also "sucked up and dealt" during the years the idiotic "Big Johnson" double-entendre t-shirts were the fashion. I didn't like them, I thought they were gross and stupid, but I wasn't going to say anything to a student wearing one because, you know, he has the right to express himself like that. Oh, if he were applying for a job and he showed up in that shirt, I'd be less likely to hire him, but that's another thing we taught students: there was a time and a place for stuff.

So for me to be told, "You have to walk on eggshells and bubble wrap every word that comes out of your mouth, just so someone won't take offense" gets a giant rolling-of-the-eyes from me. You know what? I sucked it up and dealt so much during my previous years of life that I could be an Electrolux.

And what's more, in some cases hearing, "Well, you're the member of the 'majority' here, so you have to be sensitive" in the sense of downplaying my participation in my faith, or doing certain things (the whole idea of some schools doing away with honor rolls so the lower-achieving students "don't feel bad") is frankly kind of annoying: if you extended it out, you could see something like, "Don't show your face around there, you're a MAN and that might offend someone" or similar.

And yeah, again: not being a jerk to people is the best way to be. Not making "stupid woman" jokes, for example, if you're a man. And yeah, I've heard my share of those down through the years, my usual response is to roll my eyes and tell myself that that guy's humor isn't to my taste, or to plan to avoid him in the future if I can. But likewise, being offended because I'm on a committee that is majority men - that seems kind of useless.

And anyway, it comes down to individuals. There are some men I work with that I would like to be on a committee with, some I would loathe being on a committee with. Their gender or sex or sexual orientation or whatever has nothing to do with it; their personality or how they work - both very individual things - has everything to do with it. Same with women - there are some I'd rather extract my own teeth than serve on a committee with, there are others that are perfectly cool.

Actually, I think some of the problems of the whole mindset that contributes to the "microaggression" ideas has the problem of seeing the group only, and not the individual. And one thing I've learned in my life is that there's HUGE variation in individuals, and you can't look at someone and make a lot of assumptions about them based on group membership - their skin color, or their heritage, or their religion, or which gender they're sexually attracted to. (To a limited extent, I can make some assumptions based on dress and behavior - the guy who shows up to class in all high-dollar sports gear, some of it with the tags still hanging off of it - well, I can generally count on him having different expectations from the guy who shows up in khakis and a polo shirt, or the guys in jeans and a college t-shirt. Or the person who is chronically loud and addresses people with a lot of four-letter words tends to be less respectful of my authority in the classroom than the person who speaks respectfully to his fellow students) I have had students in all ethnic groups who were very different from each other - some were hardworking and diligent and sober and kind to the other people in class, some were not so skillful but were decent people, some were gifted students but right jerks, and some were just slackers. And I can't assign any ethnic group, necessarily, to any cluster of behaviors, because I've seen 'em all.

And what this tells me is that trying to assume, "This student is of African heritage so he or she will be made uncomfortable reading books like The Great Gastby that are about exclusively white characters" is kind of dumb. Yes, maybe some students will complain about "the canon" but they're free to read extra-canon books on their own time if they want to. Or they're free to make arguments in favor of someone new being added, or being substituted in the canon - their argument doesn't HAVE to be taken, and we don't have to go "Oh no! We might OFFEND them if we don't do what they want!" and blindly do it - or, as some schools have done, make the changes they THINK students might agitate for, before it ever comes up.

The other, larger issue here is: life is gonna offend you. There's gonna be stuff that happens that ticks you off. Sometimes it's dumb little stuff, like the guy pulling in front of me in a 40 mph zone and then slowing down to 15 because he's on his cell phone. Maybe it's big stuff, like some administrator who has some goofy beliefs about women and therefore tends to be rude to them when they have to work with them. But that's life. If the goofy administrator undercuts you, you do have processes you can follow to try to get some justice (and yes, they don't always work, but that's a lesson to). The thing is: life isn't fair and people do sucky things. You should try not to do sucky things to other people, but at the same time, calling for someone's head - or calling for only letting people speak if they agree with you - is silly, dumb, and also potentially dangerous. We need different ideas out there. (What if, for example, when fire was discovered, a critical mass of cavepeople decided it scared and threatened them and it needed to be stamped out?) Yes, dumb ideas wind up getting pushed to the side and that's how it should work (e.g., blanket anti-vaccination ideas, where people say crap like "it's not 'natural' to prevent a kid from getting these diseases"). But the ideas should be heard. (My dad is fond of saying one of the beauties of free speech is that the assholes self-identify. How much more toxic would it be if people were restrained from putting their silly ideas out into the marketplace of ideas, but they managed to work behind the scenes to get them into practice? Better to hear the silly idea and be able to argue that it's silly).

I don't know. When college becomes a "safe zone" where people are never challenged in their thinking, never presented with ideas that contradict their previously-held ones, or never challenged by being made to work hard (that's one I've sometimes heard), we might as well shut them down.

No comments: