Tag Archives: micro-aggression

Our Exquisitely Sensitive Academic Culture

Mind your Ps and Qs,” Wikipedia tells us, “is an English expression meaning ‘mind your manners,’ ‘mind your language,’ ‘be on your best behavior.’” Recent advice provided in the Chronicle of Higher Education suggests that academic conference goers also need to mind their PC.

The Chronicle’s July 7 “Daily Briefing” to subscribers links to two “Talkers” who draw, unintentionally I am sure, a chilling picture of how brittle and thin-skinned academic culture has become. In one, “April Hathcock, a librarian at New York University, writes about race fatigue after attending an academic conference,” and in the other “Lucy Allen, an English professor at the University of Cambridge, argues in her blog that you shouldn’t fall back on the common question ‘Where are you from, originally?’”

In “‘Otherness’ and Conference Advice,” Professor Allen rejects the advice given in another recent Chronicle piece, Robin Bernstein’s “How to Talk to Famous Professors.” One example Bernstein suggested was “the old standby: Where are you from originally?” I suspect that what Bernstein had in mind — certainly what she could have had in mind — was that a nervous junior convention goer could reasonably assume that famous Professor Whatshisname from the University of Virginia lives in Charlottesville, and thus asking, “Where are you from, originally?” is a perfectly natural, neutral, unloaded conversation silence filler.

Professor Allen, however, no doubt ever attuned to dog whistles, hears something sinister: “There are many ways,” she warns, “to put your foot in it at conferences. But I’m fairly sure that using a phrase that’s stereotypically associated with ingrained racism/xenophobia is one of the more easily avoided ones.”

Just as everything looks like a nail if all you have is a hammer, so, too, everything can look like a micro- or even a macro-aggression if much of your personal and professional life is spent inhaling a miasma of race, gender, and ethnicity. Thus, after spending five days at the American Library Association convention in Chicago, New York University librarian April Hathcock writes, “Race fatigue is a real physical, mental, and emotional condition that people of color experience after spending a considerable amount of time dealing with the micro- and macro-aggressions that inevitably occur when in the presence of white people. The more white people, the longer the time period, the more intense the race fatigue.”

Ms. Hathcock is tired “of being tone-policed and condescended to and ’splained to.” She’s tired “of listening to white men librarians complain about being a ‘minority’ in this 88% white profession – where they consistently hold higher positions with higher pay – because they don’t understand the basics of systemic oppression.”

They’re librarian, she adds disdainfully, “You’d think they’d know how to find and read a sociology reference, but whatever.” She’s tired, in short, of white people, even “well-meaning white people” who want to “‘hear more’ about the microaggressions you’ve suffered and witnessed, not because they want to check in on your fatigue, but because they take a weird pleasure in hearing the horror stories and feeling superior to their ‘less woke’ racial compatriots.”

But “Don’t get me wrong,” she concludes. It wasn’t all bad. “I caught up with friends and colleagues of color and met new ones. These moments kept me going. And I did have some moments of rest with a few absolutely invaluable and genuine white allies.” Who knows? Maybe even some of her best friends are white, though it sounds like whites are at best allies in “this racial battle called life.”

How sad … and depressing since her sentiments are no doubt not unique.

THE NORMALIZATION OF BAD IDEAS

By Daphne Patai

While American education goes further down the tubes, lame-brained notions are raised to levels of respectability in academe that should shock any halfway reasonable person. What has happened is the normalization of bad ideas, thanks mostly to identity politics. We constantly hear that we live in a hopelessly racist and sexist society, but the truth is that we live in such a liberal atmosphere that identity-based complaints are always taken seriously. And rarely does a student shouting obscenities at a professor or administrator get told to just “shut up and study.”

It’s worth considering how we got from there to here. Below are a few highlights from my own decades in academe, during which identity politics have spread like a contagious disease.

Remaking the World of Sex

In response to the increasing publicity over date rape, Antioch College in 1993 adopted an oddball policy requiring verbal consent at every stage of sexual activities. After a slow start, such policies, perhaps owing to absurd claims about the high rate of sexual assault on campus, are now gaining traction throughout the country.

Underlying this demand are some disturbing implications that have trickled down from radical feminists decades ago: that women don’t really want (hetero)sex, that “consent” itself is manufactured by heteronormativity, that intercourse and rape are often indistinguishable, and that sexual harassment and assault (both having undergone ever expanding definitions) are what men routinely do to women.

Let’s call these ideas the MacKinnon-Dworkinite axis. When I wrote about this problem in a 1998 book called Heterophobia: Sexual Harassment and the Future of Feminism, the notion that heterosexual relations required verbal consent was still a marginal idea. Now a negative view of heterosex seems to be everywhere, resuscitating traditional views of women as needing constant protection from predatory males.

But that protection, these days, is to be provided by the state and its eager institutions, not by individual men.  It’s as if women have totally cornered the sexual market: they’re the providers (mostly reluctant), men the consumers (avidly hungry), and the entire interaction has to be orchestrated by administrators, following the guidelines of feminists. See Cathy Young’s column, in The Washington Post.

While feminists have used the term “rape culture” for years to characterize the United States, they rarely criticize or even comment on the high incidence of rape of black women by black men. The same silence surrounds the growing incidence of rape and sexual assault in European cities with large numbers of Muslim immigrants.

Race: Concentrating on Grievance

The grievance industries have taken control of the popular discourse on race, to the point that merely to call attention to this phenomenon is to expose oneself to nasty labels. It was in the early 1990s, at a meeting of the Women’s Studies faculty (which I had joined voluntarily a couple of years after receiving tenure in the Spanish and Portuguese Department), that I first heard a colleague bluntly state:  When Blacks say they have experienced racism, they are not to be challenged.

I objected that this made actual discussion of a problem or a charge impossible. Colleagues who agreed with me behind the scenes were nonetheless unwilling to say so publicly. At the same time, racial politics were so thoroughly gripping the program that when two graduate students presented a proposal for a new course they wished to teach on indigenous women, my colleagues accepted it despite the fact that the proposal was nothing but a list of indigenous identities of North and South America. I argued that the proposal needed to be a real proposal, not merely a list. My colleagues responded, “We can’t afford not to accept it,” by which they meant that with charges of racism flying thick and fast, they dared not insist on normal academic procedures.  These were among the episodes that led to my leaving Women’s Studies not long thereafter.

The Cult of Identity 

Clearly, identity politics had become a hydra, so out of control that Women’s Studies itself was in danger of seeming parochial for concentrating on “women.”  The first thing it did to bolster its position was, as described above, embrace a stance of mea culpa in relation to white identity.

So widespread is this today that we have such innovations as whiteness studies (i.e., studies of “white privilege” and its inherent racism), which have some up-to-the-minute incarnations, as in Whiteness History Month at Portland Community College, scheduled for April 2016.  And identity programs devoted to every conceivable variation of sexual and gender identity now abound. Acronyms are de rigueur.

And Let’s Not Forget ‘Class’

Early in the days of Women’s Studies, claims about “classism” were added to charges of racism and sexism, and “white middle-class women” were denounced as the illegitimate dominatrices of academic feminism.  The imperative was clear: adapt or die. As identities multiplied, the accompanying demand for appropriate “theorizing”  took the form of what academic feminists claimed was a new “integrated analysis,” by which various supposedly oppressed identities had to be incorporated into one package.

More recently, this has been renamed “intersectional analysis” (borrowing Kimberlé Crenshaw’s use in a 1989 essay of the term “intersectionality”).  This is now an obligatory approach in Women’s Studies and other identity fields, designed to address the special marginalization suffered by people with multiple oppressed identities. Such an approach has the great advantage that new categories can always be added as they are discovered.

The Compulsion to Reinvent Oneself

Along with this came a change in the very name of Women’s Studies programs.  All over the country in the past decade these programs and departments retitled themselves as some variation of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies.  And indeed, sexuality – that is, the critique of heterosexuality and promotion of alternatives – became, along with racism and anti-capitalism, the predominant focus of academic feminism, as is evident today in course offerings and programmatic statements.

Befitting a postmodernist age, redefinitions of all categories prevailed:  Where originally gender identity was seen as socially constructed, and sexual identity was viewed as biological, biology itself came increasingly, if inconsistently, under attack.  Noretta Koertge and I called this development “biodenial” (see Professing Feminism: Education and Indoctrination in Women’s Studies), and noted how opportunistically the technique was used.

In a fascinating more recent development, it has become clear that while minority racial identity is so treasured that fraudulent claims (on grounds of biology, i.e., racial heritage!) are denounced, sexual identity has moved in an opposite direction, toward ever greater fluidity. Thus, for example, Smith College announced in May 2015 that, though reaffirming its “unwavering mission and identity as a women’s college,” its commitment to access and diversity required recognition that “concepts of female identity have evolved.”

Henceforth, Smith will consider applicants who “self-identify” as female, even if they “were assigned male at birth” — but not the reverse.  Thoughtfully, this policy “does not affect students who transition during their time at Smith.” Is this an abandonment or an intensification of identititis?

Firmly Stamping out Unwanted Speech

Of course, none of the above shifts could occur successfully without policing of everyday language. And as the very notion of discrimination (which was initially the legal basis for criminalizing “sexual harassment”) underwent extensive concept-stretching, demands for verbal conformity have intensified, proscribing certain terms and prescribing others.

Schools have sometimes tried to create lists of offensive and impermissible terms, and though these have no legal standing, such details don’t seem to have dissuaded many colleges.  But even where certain terms are not officially prohibited, conformity has been expected for decades now.

I remember a speaker in the early 1990s, at a Women’s Studies brown-bag lunch, in passing using the expression “to see” in the sense of “to understand.” A student in the audience interrupted her to say this was “ablest.” The speaker apologized.  As categories of oppression have multiplied, so, obviously, are the terms that must be avoided.  For several decades now, students and faculty have gotten into serious trouble for saying something perceived as offensive.

This creeping censorship was highlighted in the indispensable book by Alan Charles Kors and Harvey A. Silverglate, The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America’s Campuses (1998). Initially inspired by the famous “water buffalo” case at the University of Pennsylvania in 1993, the book tracked the rapid multiplication of such instances throughout the 1990s.

The avalanche of cases Kors and Silverglate heard about in response to their book led them in 1999 to found FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (on whose Board I have served ever since).  FIRE has been instrumental in combatting speech codes on American campuses by insisting on reason and actual adherence to the First Amendment, and by holding universities to account.

The cases on the website, thefire.org, read like a parody of academic inanities – but the consequences to those charged with speech infractions have been all too real – thanks to the Departments of Education’s and Justice’s 2013 “blueprint” invoking unconstitutionally broad definitions of sexual harassment. For students and faculty, this usually means absence of due process.

FIRE has had to pursue free speech on a case-by-case basis, preferring suasion to lawsuits wherever possible.  But despite their numerous successes, the general atmosphere on campus has not improved. On the contrary, university administrators, as we have seen again in recent months, have become ever more craven conformists.

Recently, I received a mailing from FIRE about the case of a Colorado College student who was suspended and banned from campus for two years for having posted a six-word comment on Yik Yak.  FIRE’s intervention got the ban reduced to six months, and they are still fighting on his behalf.

And the struggle continues: On Jan 20, 2016, supported by FIRE, Professor Teresa Buchanan filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Louisiana State University for infringement of her rights by firing her for profanity she used in class.

Creeping Totalitarianism

Over the past few decades, then, we have seen a massive normalization of bad ideas that were first promoted by identity programs such as Women’s Studies and Black Studies. This could not have been accomplished without academic institutions willingly, and by now enthusiastically, embracing what Lawrence Summers (and he should know) recently called academe’s “creeping totalitarianism.”  Far from embracing free debate of challenging ideas and the free speech necessary to pursue them, university life today is characterized by policies governing every aspect of college life, in the classroom and out, and offices to enforce them.

At the macro level, universities have adopted “social justice” as a supposed core mission, in the name of which policing of speech and behavior has become ever more intense.  Education itself may be more debased and less demanding, yet universities focus not on this extremely serious problem but on the level of comfort of those supersensitive souls who are empowered by identity politics.

With intrusive training and orientation sessions, often obligatory, along with endless expansion of administrative fiefdoms devoted to supposed justice, inclusivity, and equality, schools augment the problem by embracing and imposing rules and regulations, however blatantly unconstitutional and in defiance of their own stated commitments to free speech and academic freedom.

Instead, in the new world in which “oppression studies” (to use Alan Kors’ prescient phrase) rule, we find ever more hysterical searches for grievances, to the point that students now need to be protected from offenses or mere upset feelings yet to come, and thus demand “trigger warnings” about class material.  They learn how to apply the concept of “bullying,” the latest catch-all offense to watch for in the new kindergarten that the university has become.

It’s as if universities have been transformed from institutions dedicated to learning into holding tanks for fragile and shattered selves – not so fragile, however, that they’re unable to mobilize and scream until they get their way, all the while claiming to be silenced and abused.

We have reached the point today where the erosion of civil rights, along with the evaporation of common sense, is not only taken for granted but actively encouraged by many college administrators eager to demonstrate their commitment to a better (that is, more minutely controlled) society.  Or perhaps they are just eager to keep their jobs — a futile endeavor since, as they are learning the hard way, no one has an unassailable identity once identitarians get busy.

Meanwhile, universities recklessly follow the spread of inventive concepts such as “micro-aggression.” This term was coined in 1970 by professor and psychiatrist Chester M. Pierce, but was not widely used until the last few years. Why might that be? Perhaps because there were more important battles to be fought then.  But, let’s face it, micro-aggression is becoming hackneyed, for it is only the more overt form of those ubiquitous and diabolical — because ever less visible — offenses that so plague our society.  No one should be content to stop there.

Can nano-aggression be far behind?


 

Daphne Patai is a professor in the Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

How Political Correctness Corrupted the Colleges

How can it be that, in the face of daily news of murders, grotesque punishments, and open oppression by radicals abroad, here at home American college students, who have grown up with degrees of freedom and autonomy virtually unknown in most times and places, agitate for restrictions on their own campuses, demand rules, regulations, and censorship in the name of their versions of justice?

I don’t think the answer to this question is that “this generation” of American college students is just more authoritarian in their way of thinking than their predecessors, or more impassioned about their political commitments. Nor do I think that they have been brainwashed by their families or school teachers – though this too plays a role.

Related: Limp Administrators Let the Angry Few Take Over

What has happened is that over the past couple of decades “political correctness” became mainstreamed: it went from characterizing only certain parts of the university (above all “identity” programs, such as women’s studies, openly committed to particular kinds of social change and intolerant of divergent views) to enjoying an obligatory and sincere endorsement by many faculty and administrators. This involves a massive redefinition of what higher education is and ought to be.

All the Dread Isms

Not that this is news. In the early 1990s, when I was still in women’s studies, some professors required their white students to disclose their first experience with blacks, and, if they declined to do so, the recalcitrant students were accused of being “in denial”  about their own racism.  Charges of racism were proving very effective in shutting down discussion and leaving even people who knew better speechless.

What has changed since is that charges of racism, sexism, and other dreaded –isms have become ever more commonplace, so that entire institutions, not just individual professors and administrators, live in fear of having such charges lobbed their way. Thus, today, it is common for universities to have orientation programs for first-year students that explicitly aim to indoctrinate them about the attitudes and words considered not just rude or thoughtless but actionable. And to have speech codes and harassment policies that all too often are in clear violation of the Constitution.

Related: The Modern Campus as North Korea

The brouhaha at the University of Missouri and at Yale, for example, perfectly illustrates the shift: what a heady feeling, to be able to push administrators and faculty into resigning, with or without official self-abnegation. And with proliferating protective measures undertaken by universities (with their ever-expanding corps of administrators), is it any wonder that the supposed adults in academe become more disempowered, more fearful of being charged with one of the stigmatizing –isms?

Somehow, in America, the more students in fact enter universities, the more “flexible” our course offerings and activities, the easier it is to get a degree, the more aggrieved students feel by the persistence of complexity in their social environment. And the unsurprising result for students who know little history and less world politics is clear: what is being demanded by protesting students is a kind of control over others that would seem to have no place in a free society. But how are they to know this, if they have little knowledge and simple views of their own society and its place in the world?

The situation is not helped by the readiness with which what used to be serious intellectual venues now join in the fray. In The New Yorker, on Nov. 10, 2015, for example, Jelani Cobb has an article whose very title lays out the parameters of acceptable speech.  It is called “Race and the Free-Speech Diversion.” Such a juxtaposition both dismisses free speech and delegitimizes concerns about it at the outset.

Related: What Students Are Demanding Now

It’s hard to believe Americans would be so quick to adopt such a cavalier attitude toward one of our most valuable rights if they had actual experience of the repressive dictatorships that existed and still exist in various parts of the world. But the worst part is that these angry students and their academic abettors know and understand the First Amendment. Yet, they actively and open blatantly oppose it, believing that only the speech they approve of should be protected. The same attitudes prevail with rights of due process, routinely violated on college campuses. Why should those accused of using a racist slur or engaging in an unwanted touch or tasteless joke have any rights? Why shouldn’t they at once be punished? Forced to apologize, to grovel, to resign? This is the climate of vigilantism and instant (in) justice that prevails. And it should surprise no one that students will use whatever weapons come their way.

The Oppression Sweepstakes

Way back in 1994, Noretta Koertge, a philosopher of science and I used the term “oppression sweepstakes” in our book Professing Feminism to describe the unseemly competition in academe (though not only there) for most oppressed status. We lamented that young women were opportunistically embracing the rhetoric of victimhood. Students were also learning to spot “sexual harassment” everywhere around them, thanks to regulations that became ever broader and looser, the better to catch any offending word, look, innuendo, or gesture. Due process, like First Amendment rights, became just another quaint notion to be despised by campus justice warriors.

I remember the first time that a student asked me (in class) to give “trigger warnings” about material I was assigning.  That was perhaps ten years ago. Now that term, too, is commonplace.  Since then, hypersensitivity and the search for grievances have only intensified. As big problems disappear, little ones are forced into their place, and so we get “micro-aggression,” a sublime new term by which victim groups can keep complaining when the main sources of complaint have all but disappeared. Imagine the difficulty if one had to give up victimhood.

What are the implications of the fact that accusations of racism and sexism are so popular?  One obvious one is that, far from being a society riddled with social injustice, the U.S. has made so much progress that such charges are cast routinely and fearlessly for they prove amazingly effective in delegitimizing others. A neat one-up move that has effortlessly worked its way into our culture.

Being called a racist automatically cripples (excuse the ableist language) the accused, since any response is immediately cast as evidence that one is simply in denial and trying to protect one’s privilege. And having “privilege” has itself become a slur, another tool in the arsenal designed to impede opposing, or even just differing, points of views. Scores of dystopian fictions, films, and realities have done little to dissuade these campus rebels from a belief that their version of equality and justice can be imposed by fiat, with no serious negative consequences to themselves.

It’s Who Says It, Not What’s Said

Identity politics, rooted in race, gender, sexual orientation (and an ever-expanding list of other protected categories), creates a climate in which the key element is not what one says but who says it. The result: only certain people have the right to say certain things.  And since identity in fact does not tell us all we need to know about a person’s views, beliefs, commitments, or actions,  many additional terms have been created to curtail the speech and attack the legitimacy of those with dissenting views, terms like “Uncle Tom,”  “Oreo,”  “not a real woman,”  or “heteronormativity.”    Thus, identity politics has morphed from actually requiring evidence of discrimination to merely verbalizing the claim to a supposedly oppressed identity and constantly hurt feelings.

When truth and falsity are determined by who speaks, not what is said or what relationship it bears to reality, we’re in free fall, and one can expect that those who yell loudest and claim the greatest oppression will rule. Not a pretty picture, and certainly not the way a democracy is supposed to function. Bertrand Russell referred to this many years ago with his ironic phrase regarding “the superior virtue of the oppressed.”

Intolerance with Moral Superiority

But this snapshot of some of the most popular gotcha games of our time does not suggest to me that students want to be treated like children, or that they genuinely want university administrators to protect them from unpleasantness and discomfort.

That is far too innocent a view of their energetic protests.  Their actions suggest more worldly aims:  they want to be tyrants, able to impose their will while disguising that drive with claims of moral superiority to those around them.

And a good deal of the responsibility for this state of affairs rests with faculty and administrators.  Universities are not the only places attacking liberal values and the Western tradition, but what is perhaps surprising is that they’re not even willing to defend themselves as places where serious learning intellectual efforts are supposed to go on. What else does their desperate commitment to so-called social justice, community activism, and all the rest of the litany amount to? Having long ago abdicated intellectual leadership in favor of feel-good phony politics and self-defeating new definitions of their missions, these agents of the university are hardly in a position to protest students’ endless pursuits of these selfsame goals, which must rest on grievances and slights, real or imagined.

But, alas, when professors stop defending their academic endeavors  in intellectual terms and opt instead for ersatz politics, they are rapidly outclassed by young people who can do that better: with more energy, more time, more anger. Hence, unable to compete, professors instead attempt to ingratiate ourselves with students, hoping (not very effectively, it turns out) to avoid getting caught up in their attacks.

Related: A Targeted Teacher at Yale Quits

Why, then, be surprised when students use turn against those very administrators and faculty who have been capitulating to them for years?  And so students demand respect without earning it, status without achievement, and instantaneous action against the offenses they ferret out all around them.

Like other tyrants, petty or not, students engaging in phony revolutionary claims, these students just want to have their own way, impose their ideas, and be done with it.  Hence they shout down speakers, get invitations rescinded, and disrupt campus activities.

They may be infantile in their yelling and screaming, but that doesn’t mean they are actually seeking adult guidance. Not at all — they’re trying to intimidate their elders into further subjection and are achieving marked success. And they bravely do this in the comfy atmosphere of the modern university.

Isn’t it time for faculty to say:  How you feel is your own affair. Feelings get hurt; that’s life. People can be unpleasant, true.  But what matters here is what you do. You’re here to learn, to develop intellectually, and that requires effort and commitment, not moments of high drama and self-exaltation. Not every slight is an assault, every unkind word an instance of discrimination.

You want to know about inequality and pain? Just travel around the world and see what the absence of liberal values and functioning civil rights leads to, and then come back and see if continuing to complain about the horrendous inequities of your university is still your best bet for creating a better world.

A Targeted Teacher at Yale Quits

The problem of political correctness at Yale has comes up again because it let a good scholar quit teaching under heavy pressure from students over a very mild email she wrote about Halloween costumes at Yale.

The email said she thought that an official campus group really shouldn’t be telling students what costumes to avoid. PC people have been labeling the wearing of various costumes as “cultural appropriation”– for instance, only a pirate should be wearing a pirate’s costume. Nicholas Christakis and his wife, Erika Christakis, a lecturer in psychology and early childhood development at Yale’s Child Study Center, emerged as targets of black students and other “marginalized” students and their allies. Her message lamented what she called an increasingly censorial and prohibitory climate at American universities.”

A group of angry students confronted Nicholas Christakis, master of Silliman College, one of the residential Yale houses. A few of the students cursed him out and seemed to threaten him (“We know where you live”) because he and his wife, the associate master of Silliman, had failed to provide them proper comfort and a safe space.

Peter Salovey, president of Yale, and Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway, the highest-ranking black official at Yale, both issued notably cold and feeble responses to Christakis’ decision to quit teaching at the university.

The Yale Daily News reported:

Among the demands made by Next Yale, a fledgling campus activist group that addresses issues of race on campus was the removal of Nicholas and Erika Christakis from the positions of master and associate master of Silliman College, respectively. The demands, presented to University President Peter Salovey at his home at around midnight on Nov. 12, do not mention the Christakies’ roles as Yale educators.

On Nov. 17, Salovey and Holloway wrote that they “fully support” the Christakises’ mastership in a joint email to Silliman students.

Two open letters published last months by various professors — one supporting student concerns about racism and marginalization, and another standing in solidarity with the Christakises — gave voice to multiple sides of a heated debate over free speech, sensitivity and racism on Yale’s campus. The first letter was signed by several hundred faculty members, including the Christakises. The second, authored by physics professor Douglas Stone and signed by 69 faculty members, said those who have mounted a campaign against Erika Christakis have reduced the “educational variety” for all Yale undergraduates.

“As faculty colleagues we wish to express our strong support of the right of Erika and Nicholas Christakis to free speech and freedom of intellectual expression,” the letter stated.

In past years, hundreds of students shopped each of Erika Christakis’ classes, Stone said, adding that she planned to teach additional seminar sections this year to handle the demand. He added that attacks, not just on Christakis’ email, but on her character and integrity as well, have led to her decision not to teach. Stone said he encouraged Christakis to reconsider her decision to stop teaching after a “cooling off period.”

Although Stone said he welcomes criticism by students and faculty as part of a respectful dialogue, he said he thought the response to Christakis’ letter unfairly characterized her words as racist.

“It goes without saying that faculty using racial epithets or harassing speech … should not be tolerated or defended in any way,” Stone said. “I don’t think that is at issue in the current situation.”

What the President of Yale Should Have Said

On November 10, following the campus thousand-member “March for Resilience” over racial insensitivity, Yale president, Peter Salovey and Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway emailed those of us in the Yale community. affirming “the importance we put on our community’s diversity, and the need to increase it, support it, and respect it.”

The email embraced “the right of every member of this community to engage in protest,” noted that “threats, coercion, and overtly disrespectful acts” are “unacceptable,” and praised the “affirming and effective forms of protest” in Monday’s march. This can best be read as a well-intentioned effort to assure students, faculty, and alumni that the University administration is on top of the problem.

Related: Snowflake Totalitarians at Yale  

But what, exactly, is the problem?  According to the email, the problem is how to “increase, support, and respect” Yale’s “diversity.”  Just before Halloween, Yale’s “intercultural affairs council” emailed students urging them to select their Halloween costumes with sensitivity to the feelings of minorities.  Those with a sense of humor will enjoy this earnest email. In response, Erica Christakis, who is associate “master” of Silliman, one of Yale’s residential colleges, emailed its students.  Combining common sense, respect for students’ maturity and moderation, she urged students to decide for themselves on appropriate costumes and if they found one offensive, either speak about it directly to the offender or ignore it.

This advice, ostensibly, is what unleashed the students’ fury as they vilified, traduced, and sought to intimidate the Christakis’s, Erica and her husband Nicholas, “master’ of Silliman, demanding their resignations. According to a Yale Daily News observer, “This man was surrounded outside his own home by dozens of students, who called him “f—king disgusting.” They jeered, in clearly implied threat, ‘We know where you live.’” Here are some other points that I wish the Salovey-Holloway email had made in the strongest possible terms.

1.  The fact that students complain of rampant racism on campus does not mean that it is true.  Yale — and virtually every other old institution – countenanced racism and even practiced it, but that period is long gone. Indeed, it is hard to think of an institution that tries harder than Yale does to make students of all backgrounds feel at home, an effort underwritten by a recent $50 million commitment to increase diversity there and by the support of four ethno-specific cultural houses. Much the same is true on other elite campuses. Yes, Yale calls its residential college leaders “masters” and, contrary to student protests, this title is entirely benign, not a vestige of slavery, as some seem to think.  (Whether Calhoun College should change its name in light of its eponym’s defense of slavery is a more serious question).  Historical context – how and why earlier generations saw the world as they did — is part of the moral reasoning process that a university teaches.  Condemning what now seems like obvious racism, while entirely appropriate, is the easiest part of such moral reasoning, requiring little insight.

Related: Voices of the Yale-Mizzou Eruptions

2.  The purpose of a great university like ours is not to make students feel comfortable in their views but to unsettle those views with fine teaching and scholarship.  Only then can students learn to confront uncomfortable data and ideas and make up their own minds.  Mature convictions must be earned through a lifetime of grappling with what is discomfiting and engaging in the kind of reading, listening, and arguing that is a privilege and duty of serious citizenship. A great university must defend itself for what it is and should be – a sanctuary for study and engagement – not a comfortable and comforting cocoon.  Students who come with a hypersensitive aversion to conflict and to intellectual diversity (as distinct from the easy, faux diversity of skin color and surname) are in the wrong place

3.  Students state (or shout) many grievances, often in the form of slogans.  Some are plausibly justified, others are gross exaggerations or simply false.  Some seek genuine dialogue; others seek power grabs and shakedowns meant to foreclose conversation.  The university community should demand to know the factual bases for those grievances, examine them on their merits, remedy them if warranted, and reject them if not.  Reflexive mea culpae may buy temporary peace and goodwill but only invite more extreme demands. As Yeats warned, passionate intensity can undermine both truth and civility.

4.  Mob psychology, whether created by students or others, is a kind of crypto-violent form of politics using shouts, threats, and lies as weapons.  Honeyed words and apologies cannot mollify it.  It thrives when it does not get its way, and failure simply confirms its grievances.  The hostility to reason negates the university’s very purpose. Salovey, an eminent psychologist, surely knows all this but has not said it. Among this psychology’s other tics, it fastens on stupid, hurtful comments by fools and bigots (perhaps not even members of the university community, ascribes these views to many others who in fact condemn them, impugns the university for tolerating racism, and excoriates those on the sidelines as equivocating enemies of the cause.  But every community has fools and bigots and must deal with them in its own way. Yale, a community of trained skeptics, eschews authoritarian solutions to questions of truth, relying instead on open, disciplined discourse to discredit error – even as we know that some of this discourse will itself be false.

5.  America’s diversity is one of its greatest gifts to the world, and institutions like Yale are right to seek and protect it. But how we define and implement diversity is crucial to its real value in campuses, workplaces, politics, and elsewhere.  Getting diversity management right is difficult; good intentions can easily backfire. Diversity in America: Keeping Government at a Safe Distance.

Racism, sexism and other odious isms obviously exist, and we should firmly reject them. But combating these isms is especially hard for a university.  They are ill-defined and based on subjective intent, so reasonable people disagree about whether they exist in almost any particular case.  For the same reason, an accused cannot disprove them. Because many attributes are distributed differently among different groups, and because generalizations are useful, indeed inescapable, it is often unclear – even to the Supreme Court — when a judgment is just a useful generalization or instead reflects invidious bigotry and hostility. This ensures lots of false positives and false negatives.  One who feels victimized by an ism resents being told that he is over-reacting and mistaken.  His hurt seems like proof enough of intentional harm.  On the other side, being falsely accused of an ism today is equally or more damaging socially than the hurt or indignity felt by the complainant.

Obsessive Ethnic Emphasis

6.  University officials like us bear some responsibility for the aggressive, obsessive ethnic emphasis practiced on our campus.  Through some mixture of cowardice, complaisance, and genuine conviction, we cater to the sensibilities of the most outspoken, politicized students by donning a kind of “kick me” sign. In this identity politics, students have strong incentives to dramatize their wounds as proof of the authenticity of a larger, more heroic social agenda — here, the extirpation of isms.

7.  The only way out of this gyre of recrimination and misunderstanding is to cultivate two qualities that are sorely lacking in diversity discourse on campus: candor and thicker skins.  On campus, candor should be the easiest virtue, but in fact there is remarkably little of it.  Few are willing to concede the deep tensions among diversity, liberty, and equality – and thus the costs to precious values of one position or another.  By thicker skins, I mean that we should cultivate a capacity for greater resilience, not greater delicacy.  As one commentator put it, the U.S. today has become “a world of endless slights.”  (Even that comment will elicit anger for suggesting that putative isms are merely slights).  This is corrosive in a society as diverse, interactive, plainspoken, casual, and freewheeling as ours.  It chills personal interactions by denying them the lubricating pleasure of spontaneity.

It discourages candid discussion or artistic expression on vital public issues. It enlists formal and informal sanctions in order to reduce what should be robust give-and-take. It invites us to open our wounds, magnify our fears, and parade our sensitivities, to imagine injuries and motivations that do not exist and to view others, without basis, as enemies.  It rewards cant, hyperbole, and reductive rhetoric while penalizing moderation and reason.  It encourages us to seek security in groups of people who look, think, or worship like us rather than to venture out in the more diverse public square where our common citizenship is forged.  It makes a mockery of rules that are brandished to penalize what is often just ignorance, boorishness, interpretive confusion, ill-considered speech, clumsy provocation, misjudgment, rough or poor humor and other unfortunate infelicities.

8. We do better to respond to such conduct with constructive engagement, forceful rebuke, pointed rebuttal, and mental shrugging of shoulders and biting of tongues.  It is unfair that the people who need the thickest skins are often those who already feel under siege. Two factors, however, can help palliate this unfairness, if not assuage their hurt and indignation.  The informal social norms condemning hateful attitudes and conduct are stronger today than ever before.  And the alternatives to developing thicker skins are all unappealing, unconstitutional, or unworkable.

9. Our administration pledges to be wiser in the future, though no less committed to lux et veritas. Let our students pledge to do the same.”

‘Dignity,’ Another Legal Trojan Horse

“Dignity” has been taken out for another walk around the block.  In February 2014, I wrote an essay on Minding the Campus in which I commented on Attorney General Eric Holder’s speech to the Swedish Parliament, wherein he spoke of his nation’s commitment to the “dignity” of “every human being.”

Over the last couples of decades, “dignity” acquired a secondary meaning something like “the intrinsic integrity of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and related sexual minority lifestyles.”  The word has become an assertion, first, of equality, as in ‘We all have human dignity and therefore a legitimate right to participate fully in society.’  But the word also asserts, rather aggressively, a moral authority to silence and to punish those who in some way endanger an individual’s experience of “dignity.”  Here the word drifts into the sphere of reasons why people need “safe spaces,” “trigger warnings,” and protection against “micro aggressions.”

The invocation of dignity, I wrote last year, has become an escalation in the rhetorical arms race.

It appears Jeffrey Rosen, the George Washington University law professor and ubiquitous liberal commenter on all things legal, has stumbled into agreement with me.  Writing in The Atlantic on “The Dangers of a Constitutional ‘Right to Dignity,’” Rosen considers what will follow if the Supreme Court “strikes down same-sex marriage bans […] on the grounds that they violate the dignity of gay couples.”

As I pointed out last year, “dignity” is an extra-Constitutional principle in the United States, and one with only a sketchy presence in case law.  If the high court finds a right to gay marriage on the basis of “dignity,” it will be conjuring a new fundamental principle into our legal system.  Justice Kennedy seems eager to do just that, and it rightly worries Rosen.  Rosen notes that the word has appeared in more than 900 Supreme Court decisions.   But that’s misleading.  “Dignity” isn’t to be found in the Declaration, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, or anywhere really, until it was invoked in 1944 by Justice Frankfurter.  After Frankfurter’s opinion, it furtively hung around until our legal elites found themselves in need of rhetoric that would justify making up new law to support the overarching claims of sexual autonomy.  Rosen quotes the Kennedy’s opinion in the 1992 abortion case, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, where he invoked “choices central to personal dignity and autonomy,” as the ground of the “liberty” to abort.  Kennedy also invoked “dignity” in his 2003 Lawrence decision, sweeping away legal bans on homosexual behavior.

Rosen provides a phrase I had not seen before to describe the matters that Casey and Lawrence now put at the discretion of judges:  curing “dignitary harm.”  If “dignity” were to be further elevated as a principle (“Kennedy’s new synthesis of dignity with liberty and equality”) we will well and truly be launched into a voyage on the high seas of legal improvisation.  Rosen observes that in Kennedy’s mind the dignity that follows an individual’s efforts to gratify his sexual appetites (his “interest in dignity”) trumps “traditional moral values.”

What is to constrain “dignity” as the all-purpose demand that the state protect the sexual adventurer from any and all forms of social disapproval?  The court may yet find a limiting counter principle, but it hasn’t found one yet.  Protecting procreation and preserving “tradition” as such have been “ruled out of bounds.”

So why is Rosen, who is all in favor of gay marriage, worried about the direction of the Court?  He is worried that Constitutionalizing “dignity” would undermine First Amendment rights to free speech.  He also thinks that conservatives could discover their own ways to weaponize the concept, as when Justice Scalia found “a dignitary interest attached to the right to bear arms.”  And Rosen observes, correctly, that the concept is vague and ill-defined.  So vague that conservatives might use it to strike down “progressive legislation.”

Right about that.  If we get stuck with this as a Constitutional principle, I’m not going to waste time fighting it.  I will be lining up with those to express the profound injury to my dignity caused by campus leftists who say mean things about me and in sundry ways show disrespect for my ideas.  Maybe I can get a class action suit going with the other contributors of Minding the Campus who are similarly situated in “dignitary harm” from left-leaning faculty councils and progressive editorial pages.

In truth, I’d rather the Supreme Court back away from making an overriding principle of dignity, and I’m glad Rosen sees it as folly as well.  Rosen and I disagree on the reasons.  In my view, the core                  Constitutional principles of liberty and equality are ample and introducing a Kennedy amendment to our basic law by making “dignity” coordinate with liberty and equality would profoundly undermine our basic freedoms.  At a still deeper level, I don’t believe there is such a thing as a “right to dignity” that can legislated or promulgated by courts.  Not for lack of trying, of course.  The EU recognizes such a right, but the EU case also demonstrates that, as a legal right, human dignity is reduced to mere superficialities.

Actual human dignity exists, where it does exist, in the composure of the individual regardless of his circumstances.  It cannot be conferred by a legal decision or a law.  The attempt to confer it that way is doomed to failure but it won’t be a clean failure.  It will take the tablecloth, the glassware, and the soup down with it.