The University of California has been the subject of derision lately for its recent faculty seminars designed to wipe out so-called "microaggressions," which the university describes as "everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs or insults" that "communicate hostile messages"to members of "marginalized" groups. These can be unintentional and even "preconscious" or "unconscious" slights.
Some of the media barbs have been focused on a fact sheet, distributed by the UC president's office, that gives examples of such behaviors that create a hostile environment — e.g., asking a person of Asian or Latino descent where they are from, saying that "America is the land of opportunity," or criticizing affirmative action as "racist." UC identifies other microaggressions as mistaking a female doctor for a nurse or "being forced to choose male or female on a form."
According to literature suggested by the university to its faculty members, such behaviors can "contribute to a diminished mortality, augmented morbidity, and flattened confidence." Are people like me — the son of an immigrant who loves to ask about people's backgrounds and celebrates the American melting pot — a danger to public health?
"Contrary to what has been reported, no one at the University of California is prohibited from making statements such as 'America is a melting pot' …," said Dianne Klein, the media relations director for UC's Office of the President. These are just voluntary seminars for deans and departments heads, she added, "to make people aware of how their words or actions may be interpreted when used in certain contexts."
But UCLA professor Eugene Volokh argued in the Washington Post recently that such an approach dampens academic freedom: "I'm afraid that many faculty members who aren't yet tenured, many adjuncts and lecturers who aren't on the tenure ladder, many staff members, and likely even many students … will get the message that certain viewpoints are best not expressed when you're working for UC."
The training seems based on Critical Race Theory, described in one article recommended by UC as a philosophy that "starts with the premise that race and racism are endemic to and permanent in U.S. society." The theory "challenges claims of objectivity, meritocracy, color blindness, race neutrality and equal opportunity, asserting that these claims camouflage the self-interest, power and privilege of dominant groups."
That's a controversial political approach, despite some associated silliness. For instance, I took an online quiz linked to by the university. One part of it showed pictures of Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. Quiz-takers were asked about their attitudes toward our current president in comparison to previous (white) presidents. Another quiz asked how strongly I agreed with statements, including this one: "Our country will be destroyed someday if we do not smash the perversions eating away at our moral fiber and traditional beliefs." Do our views toward such comic-book-type conservatism really reflect the degree of our inherent racism and phobias?
Most students and faculty — liberal, conservative and otherwise — no doubt roll their eyes and go on with their work. But many critics say it poisons the campus atmosphere.
"It promotes infantilism," said Tibor Machan, a retired Chapman University professor of business ethics. "Colleges become kindergartens. … Luckily only about 10 percent of students fall in line with this, but they are encouraged by ideological professors and administrators. … (S)imple civility gets mixed up with often-politicized civil rights."
An effort to identify "microaggressors" creates a world "where people don't talk to each other," adds William Anderson, an economics professor at Frostburg State University in Maryland. "It's absolutely destroying relationships. Anything you do (or don't do) is going to be construed as a microaggression." He points to a UCLA professor who in 2013 was accused of such aggressions and the subject of a campus sit-inbecause he corrected the spelling and grammar in papers submitted by African-American students.
Is this what our top university system should be encouraging? I'd say "no," but that's probably evidence of the hostile intellectual climate my column is creating.