By Merritt Enright
Two new terms have risen to prominence in college culture. A “microaggression” refers to brief, everyday phrases that subtly demean or discriminate against a group of people. Likewise, “trigger warnings” are warning labels used for the benefit of people with PTSD to avoid traumatizing content, now used by college professors to warn students of potentially offensive academic topics.
After being coined by a Harvard professor in the 70s, both terms have effectively shaped our educational system by regulating students’ exposure to content and preventing offensive speech.
In January of 2015, the University of California Berkeley hosted an administrative seminar, in which phrases such as “America is the land of opportunity” and “I believe the most qualified person should get the job” were dubbed as microaggressive and not be tolerated in educational settings. Likewise, some schools are removing F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby from reading lists because it indicates misogyny and physical abuse.
This attempt to prevent unintentional offense is plausible. In the words of UC President Janet Napolitano, the idea is to “build and nurture a productive academic climate” where political correctness is a priority and ideological threats are avoided.
But a problem occurs when subtle offense prevention becomes a censorship of free speech. According to the UC seminar packet, certain viewpoints are invalid by default. For example, any opposing arguments to affirmative action or feminism are to be slated as microaggressive because they ignore the movements’ initial purpose.
Unfortunately, the result of this censorship is a highly politicized educational system. Instead of encouraging students to think critically and develop open-minded perspectives, colleges operate with an agenda to turn campuses into “safe spaces” where students are protected from words and ideas that make them uncomfortable.
Powerbrokers justify censorship in the name of diversity and inclusion; however, the diversity does not extend beyond what they deem acceptable. Ideological liberals may advocate free speech, but any ideas that contradict their dogma are often immediately dubbed as intolerant or bigoted.
If we are truly an institution of unfettered intellectual expansion, shouldn’t we be inclusive of all viewpoints? The premise of higher education is to prepare students for the real world, which is a sea of intellectual hurdles and offensive content – not the safe haven of a liberal arts institution.
If we are to engage in constructive discussion, we should be tolerant and receptive of other views. Liberals and conservatives. Republicans and democrats. Sexual orientations and preferences. Religion. Race. We might feel uncomfortable, and that discomfort is a vital part of the educational process. By the time of graduation, we should feel experienced in critical reasoning and confident in our beliefs as a result. Education is effective in shaping intellectual confidence because encourages students to question different perspectives, receive wisdom from others, and formulate their own views.
If liberal arts institutions want to truly embrace open-mindedness, students should feel empowered to share their ideas and not be chastised for freedom of expression.
So instead of shying away from what is ideologically threatening, let’s value free speech. Let’s allow unrestricted dialogue and intellectual expansion. Let’s reinstitute college as place of personal development and unencumbered intellectual growth – doing ourselves a favor and future generations as well.