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Righto: UC’s Trigger Warnings and Microaggression Labels Outrage Conservatives

September 9, 2015
by Glen Martin with Marica Petrey
angry man

UC Berkeley has been a burr under the Right’s saddle ever since Mario Savio declaimed freely on free speech in Sproul Plaza back in 1964. Cal, in fact, remains the default example for conservatives fulminating about the deficiencies of American higher education. Most recently, they’ve railed against Cal policies on microaggression and trigger warnings.

Those two terms may be unfamiliar to anyone who doesn’t spend much time on campus. Cal, hoping to discourage the subtle denigration and passive-aggressive sniping now termed “microaggession,” has issued suggested guidelines for comportment, categorizing them by theme and message. For example, querying “Where are you from?” promotes the theme of “Alien in One’s Own Land,” and messages “You are not a true American.” And commenting to a woman of color, “I would never have guessed you were a scientist,” embodies the theme of Ascription of Intelligence, and conveys the message, “It is unusual for a woman to have strong mathematical skills.”

Trigger warnings, which the Associated Students of the University of California have recommended as mandatory for all Cal syllabi, consist of prefatory warnings for any material that could discomfit students, such as text or videos that address sexual assault, combat, or other violence.

Both developments have the conservative media bug-eyed with rage. The always-ready-to-rant Glenn Beck has intimated that the policies are the first step on the road to an American Gulag—or worse.

“When you’re saying that you cannot say, ‘I think the best, most qualified person should get the job’—when that’s unspeakable, you have indeed lost everything that makes us America,” Beck said on his radio show. “…It’s not unlikely that the next step is to ban books … If you’re saying that America is a melting pot, you’ve got to ban the books that originated that. … It’s not far down the road before books are banned by universities… If you can’t beat [dissenters] into silence, you just kill a few of them and everybody else shuts up…. That’s the way it has worked every time in human history. What, we’re unique somehow or another? It doesn’t end this way somehow or another? Tell me what makes us different than the Nazis when they banned thoughts. Tell me the difference….”

“There was a time, of course, when very little thought was given to students’ reactions. The idea was that everything was game, that it was the professor’s responsibility to create situations where students were forced to think.”

And even moderate media outlets have expressed alarm—or at least, irritation—at the new directives. In June, the Los Angeles Times published an editorial decrying the University’s microaggression policies. And The Daily Beast gave libertarian commentator and Reason staff editor Robby Soave space to declaim:

“Fifty years after the birth of the free speech movement, at the University of California, Berkeley, officials across the UC system are encouraging faculty and students to purge mundane, potentially offensive words and phrases from their vocabularies. Administrators want members of campus to avoid the use of racist and sexist statements, though their notions about what kinds of statements qualify are completely bonkers….”

The issues are generating genuine Sturm und Drang on campus. Earlier this year, Cal School of Social Welfare professor Steven Segal sparked outrage during a classroom discussion of the Black Lives Matter movement when he recited rap lyrics suggesting police were being scapegoated.

As reported in The Daily Cal, Emily Myer, a white undergraduate and one of the organizers of a community event on the movement, said her first reaction “was straight-up shock. That was followed by an acute awareness of raising anxiety, and a desperate need for him to stop.”

Berkeley’s Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination filed a complaint; Segal expressed deep contrition; and Jeffrey Edleson, the School of Social Welfare’s dean, likewise apologized for the “offense and great distress [caused] to some of our students,” emphasizing his regrets that Segal’s comments “made the classroom environment feel unsafe.”

But conservative academicians launched broadsides of their own over the issue:

“How quickly our major universities have caved in when hypersensitive and intolerant leftist students whine that hearing things they don’t want to hear makes them feel ‘unsafe,’ ” wrote George Leef, the director of research for the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, in The National Review. “Since ‘safety’ perceptions now trump open discussion on many campuses, such students know they have a weapon to attack anyone who disagrees with them.”

Indeed, for anyone with significant institutional memory, microaggression and trigger warnings may seem like fairly—well, slight issues, ones that don’t warrant the ponderous intrusion of the University’s administrators.  Compared to the Vietnam War, massive civil rights unrest and Watergate, concerns over hurt feelings come across as picayune. On the other hand, why would Right Wingers even care about such things? Back in the day, Berkeley, like many campuses, was in constant turmoil from marches, sit-ins, student center occupations and riots. Across the nation, quads ran incarnadine. Buildings were burned. Campuses shut down. People were killed. That’s the kind of gristly red meat you’d normally associate with Conservative rage—not mere directives asking everyone to play nice.

Further, in the 1960s and 1970s, Cal’s student body and faculty perhaps were more monolithically leftist than today. Though the orientation remains largely liberal on campus, points of view nevertheless are diverse.

So what gives? Berkeley is not what it was in the Sixties. Why can’t Conservatives just—just—let go? Why are mere policy statements on trigger alerts and microaggression somehow indicative of the imminent Fall of Western Civilization? Will warning students of disturbing material prior to employing it in the curriculum really disrupt the Socratic process? And what’s wrong with attempting to dampen veiled taunts or highly insensitive queries on campus? Isn’t the creation of a civil society a paramount goal of the best universities?

Lawrence Rosenthal, the executive director for Berkeley’s Center for Right-Wing Studies, says the Right’s ongoing preoccupation with Cal generally—and the heated reaction against trigger warnings and microaggression dictates specifically—represent a residuum of disdain for the Berkeley of the Sixties, but are also the latest manifestation of long-running culture wars.

“It’s a continuation of attacks from the Right on political correctness, on the university professoriate. There’s a cartoon quality to it, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to go away.”

Some academics think the increased emphasis on accommodating student sensitivities is warranted. Cal psychology professor Robert Levenson observes that the priorities and emphases of higher education have changed over the years, and that pedagogical techniques perforce must keep pace.

“There was a time, of course, when very little thought was given to students’ reactions,” Levenson says. “The idea was that everything was game, that it was the professor’s responsibility to create situations where students were forced to think.”

But over the past 30 years, says Levenson, educators have become sensitive to the fact that the communications between students and faculty are freighted with power differentials, that the elevated status of professors invests their words with particular significance, with mana. In other words, material that is merely disturbing in one context can become threatening, even traumatic, in a university classroom.

“So I think [trigger warnings and microaggression directives] are a positive development,” Levenson says. “They humanize the classroom in a way that is respectful of the fact that we are all people. Certain material can make people feel undermined or belittled. Say you give a lecture on sexual predators. People who have experienced sexual assault could have a very powerful reaction, so it’s not a bad thing to take some time to say, this is what’s coming, it may be graphic, you may have a reaction, so take care of yourself. It doesn’t hurt to let people know you’re approaching troubled waters. It’s like informed consent. It’s about mutual respect, and that helps the teaching experience. Berkeley is a haven where people can say what they believe, but it can also be a place where people are respectful.”

Still: How do you discuss 20th-century German history without addressing the death camps in meticulous detail? For that matter, can a course in modern gender politics avoid explicit discussions of rape? Is it really necessary to provide detailed warnings about course material for courses that are, ipso facto, disturbing? When does the obsessive hand-holding, the surrogate helicopter parenting, stop? And candidly, UC’s microaggression list reads reasonably well as a social polemic, but try applying it to the real world, where the legitimate quotidian concerns are dealing with macroaggression in a survivable manner.

Rosenthal, for his part, intimates we may have jumped the academic shark with microaggression.

“I recall a blistering piece in Inside Higher Ed on the infantilizing qualities of microaggression policies,” Rosenthal says, “and personally, I think that it is infantilizing, overstated, when professors are asked to restrain themselves in deference to people’s feelings.”

Alan Tansman, a professor in the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures, teaches some deeply disturbing material: Japanese and Jewish responses to violence and atrocity. He feels there is a widespread if largely unspoken uneasiness among faculty members about resisting the new policies, “in part because to do so might damn one as insensitive or retrograde. No one wants to say, ‘Buck up, don’t be weak.’ And it’s difficult not to take student reactions to disturbing material seriously. Undergraduates are 18 to 23, they’re post-adolescents to young adults, and a little sensitivity and agnosticism may be called for.”

Tansman says many students are deeply unsettled by his course. They are required to write 500 words a day about the presented material, “and some get a little personal about sharing their emotions. They become angry, agitated, some cry. I recall one Latina girl who had a very personal response, because she grew up with violence, and a Korean student who had some difficulty in viewing the Japanese as ‘victims.’ But we talked about the best ways to address their reactions, and they were ultimately mature enough to handle them. In any event, the material I teach is, by its very nature, painful, visually and in terms of doctrine. But I couldn’t imagine not teaching it due to sensitivity. Many things in the cultural record are painful.”

Philosophy professor Niko Kolodny says weighing the impacts of certain words, phrases or lines of inquiry won’t necessarily hamstring professors tasked with teaching emotionally incendiary subjects.

“I’m not Mr. Chips or anything,” Kolodny wrote in an email, “but I want my students to feel respected and included—provided it doesn’t compromise the content of their education (which it never has). If I’m needlessly alienating them, that’s worth knowing. In any event, informing people of the effects their words can have is a far cry from prohibiting their speech (unless—the analytical philosopher in me feels compelled to add—the stated effect is that I will penalize you for saying it).”

Further, Kolodny writes, the list of microaggression examples compiled by UC administrators generally do not address course subject matter: They mainly deal with interactions between individuals.

“The main exception seems to be the Myth of Meritocracy Section, where general claims about the fairness of certain procedures are treated … as liable to give offense. This did strike me as dangerously wrongheaded. But the rest of the document wasn’t like that.”

You’d think that UC administrators would leap at the chance to defend their newly wrought policies on microaggression and trigger warnings. But despite repeated requests for comment sent to several administrators and their staffers, California was unable to elicit any substantive response, ultimately receiving this email from Janet Gilmore, the University’s senior director of the Office of Communications and Public Affairs:

“When we get such media calls, we try to place the reporter with the appropriate connection. In my view, given this is a matter of someone speculating why a certain dynamic might be in place, this is a matter where the opinion of campus experts would be the most appropriate and useful—folks in political science, public policy or even Institutions such as the Center for Studies in Higher Ed, as opposed to comments from a campus spokesperson or campus official.”

Certainly, some Cal students are irked by the administration’s efforts to make Cal a supremely “safe place.”

“I really do think most politically engaged students support these initiatives,” says Claire Anne Chiara, a Cal senior majoring in economics and political science and the executive director of the Berkeley College Republicans and the finance director of the California Young Republican Federation. “They feel it’s ‘doing justice to students.’ They don’t think that it’s restricting speech or the educational process, but that it’s assuring student safety, that it’s about making them feel ‘comfortable.’ But I don’t think they understand the very real dangers of restricting thought or discourse, particularly in the university. It robs students, it restricts our ability to engage with the controversial aspects of our studies. Students come to the university to expand their knowledge, so you are doing them a profound disservice when you don’t provide them all with perspectives.”

Further, says Chiara, constitutional issues are involved. “Professors essentially have been given a script, with words and phrases that are forbidden,” she says. “They’re not supposed to mention the ‘American Dream,’ or say ‘the most qualified person gets the job,’ because that supposedly ignores latent biases inherent in the American political process and in hiring procedures. In my view, that’s a violation of free speech and the free exchange of ideas. I find it fascinating, and deeply ironic, that a prime mover of this trend is the University of California at Berkeley, the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement. How can you be a bastion of free speech and claim you’re encouraging the questioning of authority when you tell professors what they can and cannot say?”

But many students consider the issue more a matter of simple civility than a political litmus test.

“I understand that people are criticizing these policies as too PC,” says Sonya Zho, who is studying for a master’s degree in public health, “but I think it’s more about respect, about being open-minded, about acknowledging each others’ experience and the diversity we have at UC. I don’t think professors are being ordered to ‘not say X,’ or limit student discussion. I think they’re simply being asked to be thoughtful and considerate.”

Some students, in fact, say the new directives constitute an added incentive for applying to Cal.

“These policies reflect a concern for social justice, for making people feel safe and welcome,” says Nithi Narayanan, a freshman majoring in computer science and design. “That’s important to me. I think [the policies] are going to enhance my educational experience. They were a factor in my coming to Cal.”

Still, the hobbling of speech and ideas, however gentle and well-meaning, can’t help but send an unpleasant frisson up the spines of some civil libertarians. As Soave puts it in The Daily Beast:

“…When university administrators make preventing offense the paramount goal—and automatically apply the terms “racist” and “sexist” to perfectly mild forms of speech—free speech enthusiasts have every reason to worry. That’s because a distressingly high number of universities are perfectly willing to resort to abject censorship to protect the delicate feelings of the easily offended, even though the First Amendment expressly prohibits them from doing so.”

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