If you want to see campus political correctness run amuck, look no further than the this front page story in The New York Times describing programs by Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, to
warn college freshmen against microaggressions. For those living under a mushroom for the last few years, microaggressions, along with trigger warnings, are part of a diversity movement to create "safe spaces" on campuses by eliminating any actions that could be remotely offensive or upsetting to minority (or even majority) groups. As the term suggests, these hurts are considered tantamount to physical assault.
But the good news is that Clark, a progressive liberal arts college, may be part of a waning trend. This absurd movement is showing signs of collapsing from the weight of its own internal contradictions.
A lot of the advice colleges like Clark are dishing out is either too obvious to be worth mentioning ("You are a credit to your race") or so hypersensitive as to be overwrought, likely to paralyze more than enlighten the uninitiated. Some administrators go so far as to caution against statements like "America is a land of opportunity" or "if you work hard you can succeed" because they "microinvalidate" (yes, an actual word!) the experience of marginalized minorities. Clark even wants to push back against nonverbal microaggressions (such as when white women clutch their purses in the presence of black or Latino men) and environmental ones (like when a science class displays only pictures of white male scientists, making female students feel inferior).
These overly idealistic, zealously evangelized "no offense" policies offer a window into the impatience of campus warriors to ferret out every last vestige of sexism, racism, and all other -isms lurking in the deep structures of the human mind. But this progressive push doesn't avoid culture clashes—it heightens them. The growing and ideologically eclectic list of campus speakers who have been disinvited in recent years because some student group found them offensive has become a flashpoint in the culture wars. This is not to say that subconscious bias and bigotry don't exist or should be left unaddressed. But it needs to be tackled by reaching a higher level of mutual understanding, not shutting down speech—and minds.
Some colleges are beginning to push back. The University of Chicago got the ball rolling this year when it sent its entering class an "academic freedom letter" noting that it should not expect "trigger warnings" in classes. If individual professors want to alert students to potentially provocative or upsetting course material, they are free to do so. But there is no university policy of creating intellectual "safe spaces" on campus.
Columbia, Brown, and Claremont McKenna have also publicly committed to protecting freedom of expression on their campuses. Columbia President Lee Bollinger, who, during his stint as president of the University of Michigan vigorously and successfully defended his school's affirmative action policies before the Supreme Court on diversity grounds, made college censorship the thrust of his remarks to incoming students. He pledged not to ban speech, calling on students instead to use the power of speech to effect change.
Or consider Brown President Christina Paxon's recent op-ed in the Washington Post pledging to keep her college a "safe space for freedom of expression." This is even more remarkable than Bollinger's statement given that her school has become so repressive that some students were forced to start an underground free speech group just to discuss controversial topics!
It is becoming hard to even teach rape law in law school, Harvard Law Professor Jeanne Suk writes. Discussing the due process rights of accused rapists could strike someone as hewing to oppressive patriarchal social structures. This pits progressive civil libertarians against progressive feminists. More generally, because one in five women on campus have allegedly been sexually assaulted, the very act of teaching rape law generates mass distress.
Indeed, a movement that gives so much normative weight to subjective triggers cannot be harnessed for constructive purposes because it has as many fissures points as it has members. Furthermore, everyone has an incentive to weaponize their personal angst, turning each against the other, which is why the movement has reached a point where it is devouring its own ideological kin and threatening to finish off the progressive project. That's one reason that liberal websites like Vox are running pieces by liberal professors about how their liberal students scare them now.
It is too early to tell whether the tide has finally begun to turn on it. However, what's clear is that a movement built around freedom from speech can't help but defeat itself.
A version of this column originally appeared in The Week.