March 30, 2015
From FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education:
By Will Creeley March 26, 2015
Early last week, the Ithaca College Student Government Association passed a resolution to create an anonymous, online system for students to report “microaggressions” on campus. FIRE has closely monitored the bill’s progress, as its language presents obvious problems for freedom of expression at the private New York college.
First, the measure resolves to create a “school-wide online system to report microaggressions”—but does not define the term “microaggressions.”
This glaring lack of clarity is deeply troubling. Without a stable understanding of what a microaggression is or is not, students run the risk of being reported for speech that crosses an invisible line, drawn by and known only to the offended listener.
Well, that’s kind of the point, isn’t it?
Of course, the inherent subjectivity of microaggressions is an even bigger problem, and the squirrely elasticity of the term makes the lack of clear definition all but unavoidable. One student’s microaggression is another’s earnest attempt to discuss different life experiences. The chill on student speech would be severe. In fact, chilling speech appears to be the point; as one supporter of the bill told The Ithacan student newspaper, “Just like any other resolution that we want to pass with microaggression and diversity in the institution, what it does is it helps to make people think a little more before they do or say something.”
If the bill had included a definition, the threat to free expression would likely be clearer still. In an interview with The Ithaca Voice, one of the bill’s authors defined microaggressions as “statements by a person from a privileged group that belittles or isolates a member of an unprivileged group, as it relates to race, class, gender, sexual orientation, ability and more.” This is an unequivocal attempt to police speech, and it only prompts more questions: What groups are privileged or unprivileged? Who decides? What makes a statement “belittling” or “isolating”? Who decides? What other class statuses might make a student a member of an unprivileged group? Who decides?
Surprisingly, in practice there’s not all that much uncertainty over Victimization Pokemon Points, since the unspoken but apparent engine is anti-Core Americanism.
1. The less you are like, say, George Washington, the more points you have.
2. Further, the benefit of the doubt goes to those asserting victim status. For example, Barack Obama might seem to have a lot in common with George Washington in terms of power and privilege, what with both of them being Presidents and all. But Obama had the good sense to assert his blackness, so he gets to be an official victim while some unemployed white guy in West Virginia is just a loser.
3. Moreover, the more power and privilege a self-identified victim has, the less you’d better publicly doubt his Pokemon Points.
Again, the inescapable subjectivity of the term means that student expression is only as safe as the most sensitive student on campus allows it to be, however unreasonable his or her determination.
… The resolution further states that “the system will be set up to not identify individuals who choose to report by name but will note the demographics of people who report and the demographics of oppressors based on a coding system.” As explained by one of the bill’s authors, the bill would record the “gender, race, age and school within the college and year of both the person reporting the microaggression and the person being reported.”
In other words, the class status of student speakers (“oppressors”) who are deemed to have “belittled” or “isolated” a student member of an “unprivileged group” would be recorded. Presumably, the reporting student would be empowered to determine the oppressor’s gender, race, and age …
The Ithacan reports that the sponsors’ desire to go further by requiring that the names of the “oppressors” be recorded, too, was quelled only by “possible legal barriers.” Apparently, those barriers are currently being reviewed by college lawyers. Publicly labelling a student an “oppressor” solely on the basis of an anonymous report about speech that caused subjective offense? What could possibly go wrong?
FIRE, which is complaining about this microaggressions initiative, was founded in 1999 by civil liberties lawyer Harvey Silverglate and U. Penn intellectual history professor Alan Charles Kors.
Professor Kors, who specializes in the Enlightenment, is, despite his Bugs Bunny accent perhaps the technically best lecturer of all the many fine lecturers whose tapes are published by the Teaching Company. He’s a master at pacing and clarifying his lectures so that you can follow his complex ideas while driving or doing housework. I’ve listened to his series of lectures on Voltaire while commuting on the freeway and I never had to hit rewind, even after changing lanes.
Kors and Silverglate are representative of a once powerful tradition of Jewish civil libertarianism that felt that it was good for the Jews that universal rules of freedom of expression applied to everybody. Jazz critic Nat Hentoff, now 89, is another example. (Here’s Hentoff interviewing martyred Jewish comic Lenny Bruce.) A society in which people are not formally punished for being verbally aggressive seemed like it would be good for the Jews.
In recent decades, however, Who? Whom? thinking has become more popular. Why put up with a lot of guff when you have the power and privilege to award yourself plenty of Victimization Pokemon Points? Instead of Single Standard, why not have a Double Standard?
But successful as that has been in the short run, in the long run, will that kind of thinking be good for the Jews? Or will aggressive newcomers use the Jewish tendency toward verbal aggressiveness to take down the current top dogs, using the widespread distaste for Israel in the rest of the world as an opening wedge for dislodging American Jews from their positions of power and privilege?
Perhaps the Kors-Silverglate-Hentoff theory of liberty and objective fairness might be more prudent in the long run?