A little over two weeks ago, I was invited to join the new Facebook group, Overheard Microaggressions at Yale. The page was constructed as a forum for members of minority communities to post anecdotes of the microaggressions they experienced at Yale. As defined by the group, microaggressions are statements that “communicate hostile, derogatory or negative racial slights and insults toward members of identity groups, especially people of color.” The cumulative effect of these microaggressions, members of the page might argue, makes the members of these identity groups feel delegitimized.
What makes a microaggression different from other forms of offensive speech is that the speaker is unaware of the harm caused by his speech. As the prefix suggests, microaggressions are unintended and subtle. They are comments which sound appropriate to the speaker but are inappropriate to the people affected by them. Microaggressions, as implied by the people posting on the page, are not bad solely because they violate the rules of etiquette. Instead, they are bad because they reflect attitudes that impede the political progress of these marginalized groups.
Microaggressions are considered intolerable both because of the content of the speech and the method of communication. These critiques are interesting in light of the fact that liberalism, which was once a champion for opening up public fora to diverse views, has somehow receded into hunts against the offensive. The New Left’s obsession with microaggressions and trigger warnings, ironically, aims to censor all views that do not share its premises. On pages like Yale PostSecret and the original Overheard at Yale, there are plenty of posts with hundreds of comments where many left-leaning students criticize posts for their lack of sensitivity and “bigoted views.”
Yet, many liberals, who were quick to repost “Je suis Charlie” posts days after the Charlie Hebdo massacres, have been virtually silent on these threads in Overheard Microagressions. Instead, they have been apologetic, contrary to their self-professed value of individual liberty. As the arguments made in a column in Thursday’s News (“The contours of liberalism,” Jan. 29, 2015) suggest, this may be due, in part, to popular misconceptions about the nature of liberalism and leftism. While liberalism is primarily concerned with the rights and privileges of individuals, leftism is primarily concerned with the status of marginalized groups. Despite this difference, both liberals and leftists post on the page.
This is not, of course, to disparage the very real harms perceived by the major exponents of Overheard Microaggressions at Yale. As someone who has experienced his own share of off-color remarks — “Oh you’re black and conservative?” — I can relate to the frustrations of the people posting on the page. Nor is it my intention to apologize for the people who say them. The encounters detailed in the posts are often in poor taste.
My concern stems, instead, from the fact that the page sensationalizes harmful prejudices without making clear what members of the page are trying to accomplish. If the purpose of the page is strictly to circulate anecdotes within members of a community, then it is doing little to actually solve the root causes of these problems. Conversely, if the purpose of the page is to educate the broader Yale community on the prejudices that many of the people committing these microaggressions assume to be extinct, then there are better ways to do so than to circulate these experiences amongst the very subset of people experiencing them. Dinner conversations, debate and even opinion columns are better forums for educating people than these Facebook groups are. As University President Peter Salovey said in a recent interview with the Huffington Post, “The most effective way to combat speech you don’t like is with speech.”
In 1971, the Yale Political Union debated Vice President Gerald Ford at the height of the Watergate scandal. Students during that period welcomed the opportunity to challenge a member of the Nixon administration through discourse and debate. Rather than avoid the offensive, they embraced it, because they felt secure in the strength of their arguments. Contrast that with campuses today. Last year alone, students boycotted visits from Condoleeza Rice, Bill Maher and Michael Bloomberg. We would be better served if we engaged with those we disagree with, rather than withdraw into our respective echo chambers.
If the purpose of Overheard Microaggressions is to preach to the choir, then it does little to solve these problems.
Ugonna Eze is a junior in Pierson College. Contact him at email@example.com.