Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Friday, September 11, 2015

on microaggressions and administrative power

Let’s try to put a few things together that need to be put together.

First, read this post by Jonathan Haidt excerpting and summarizing this article on the culture of campus microaggressions. A key passage:

Campbell and Manning describe how this culture of dignity is now giving way to a new culture of victimhood in which people are encouraged to respond to even the slightest unintentional offense, as in an honor culture. But they must not obtain redress on their own; they must appeal for help to powerful others or administrative bodies, to whom they must make the case that they have been victimized. It is the very presence of such administrative bodies, within a culture that is highly egalitarian and diverse (i.e., many college campuses) that gives rise to intense efforts to identify oneself as a fragile and aggrieved victim. This is why we have seen the recent explosion of concerns about microaggressions, combined with demands for trigger warnings and safe spaces, that Greg Lukianoff and I wrote about in The Coddling of the American Mind.

Now, take a look at this post by Conor Friedersdorf illustrating how this kind of thing works in practice. Note especially the account of an Oberlin student accused of microaggression and the way the conflict escalates.

And finally, to give you the proper socio-political context for all this, please read Freddie deBoer’s outstanding essay in the New York Times Magazine. Here’s an absolutely vital passage:

Current conditions result in neither the muscular and effective student activism favored by the defenders of current campus politics nor the emboldened, challenging professors that critics prefer. Instead, both sides seem to be gradually marginalized in favor of the growing managerial class that dominates so many campuses. Yes, students get to dictate increasingly elaborate and punitive speech codes that some of them prefer. But what could be more corporate or bureaucratic than the increasingly tight control on language and culture in the workplace? Those efforts both divert attention from the material politics that the administration often strenuously opposes (like divestment campaigns) and contribute to a deepening cultural disrespect for student activism. Professors, meanwhile, cling for dear life, trying merely to preserve whatever tenure track they can, prevented by academic culture, a lack of coordination and interdepartmental resentments from rallying together as labor activists. That the contemporary campus quiets the voices of both students and teachers — the two indispensable actors in the educational exchange — speaks to the funhouse-mirror quality of today’s academy.

I wish that committed student activists would recognize that the administrators who run their universities, no matter how convenient a recipient of their appeals, are not their friends. I want these bright, passionate students to remember that the best legacy of student activism lies in shaking up administrators, not in making appeals to them. At its worst, this tendency results in something like collusion between activists and administrators.

This is brilliantly incisive stuff by Freddie, and anyone who cares about the state of American higher education needs to reflect on it. When students demand the intervention of administrative authority to solve every little conflict, they end up simply reinforcing a power structure in which students and faculty alike are stripped of moral agency, in which all of us in the university — including the administrators themselves, since they’re typically reading responses from an instruction manual prepared in close consultation with university lawyers — are instruments in the hands of a self-perpetuating bureaucratic regime. Few social structures could be more alien to the character of true education.

Friedersdorf’s post encourages us to consider whether these habits of mind are characteristic of society as a whole. That seems indubitable to me. When people in the workplace routinely make complaints to HR officers instead of dealing directly with their colleagues, or calling the police when they see kids out on their own rather than talking to the parents, they’re employing the same strategy of enlisting Authority to fight their battles for them — and thereby consolidating the power of those who are currently in charge. Not exactly a strategy for changing the world. Nor for creating a minimally responsible citizenry.

In a fascinating article called “The Japanese Preschool’s Pedagogy of Peripheral Participation,”, Akiko Hayashi and Joseph Tobin describe a twofold strategy commonly deployed in Japan to deal with preschoolers’ conflicts: machi no hoiku and mimamoru. The former means “caring by waiting”; the second means “standing guard.” When children come into conflict, the teacher makes sure the students know that she is present, that she is watching — she may even add, kamisama datte miterun, daiyo (the gods too are watching) — but she does not intervene unless absolutely necessary. Even if the children start to fight she may not intervene; that will depend on whether a child is genuinely attempting to hurt another or the two are halfheartedly “play-fighting.”

The idea is to give children every possible opportunity to resolve their own conflicts — even past the point at which it might, to an American observer, seem that a conflict is irresolvable. This requires patient waiting; and of course one can wait too long — just as one can intervene too quickly. The mimamoru strategy is meant to reassure children that their authorities will not allow anything really bad to happen to them, though perhaps some unpleasant moments may arise. But those unpleasant moments must be tolerated, else how will the children learn to respond constructively and effectively to conflict — conflict which is, after all, inevitable in any social environment? And if children don't begin to learn such responses in preschool when will they learn it? Imagine if at university, or even in the workplace, they had developed no such abilities and were constantly dependent on authorities to ease every instance of social friction. What a mess that would be.

UPDATE: Please see Josh's comment below.


  • In Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, Samuel R. Delany contrasts two types of social interaction — "contact" versus "networking." He's careful not to position either as better than the other, but suggests that power is increasingly shifting in favor of networking. Contact is serendipitous and arises out of the presence of unmediated spaces in which people can meet; it allows for encounters between citizens of different social status, race, etc. — people bumping into each other in their neighborhood or, to take the main example from the book, white-collar and blue-collar men enjoying trysts in a porn theater. Networking is more controlled, and almost always involves the flow of power in one direction — he compares (1) going to writers' conferences and trying desperately to get the attention of the handful of publishing folk there, among all the young writers doing the same, with (2) a young Ray Bradbury just happening to bump into the established Charles Isherwood (in a bookstore, I think?) and thereby getting a huge boost to his career almost accidentally.

    In Delany's view, contact offers a lot more opportunities for social friction and he makes a strong case for why that friction is so important, and also argues that American society has been an exercise in smoothing out and eradicating places where contact can happen, especially in the last few decades. He published the book in 1999, just as the popular internet was taking hold, and it's been very interesting to watch how the internet has seemingly accelerated the rise of networking. Anyway, there seems to be a connection between his idea and the stuff covered in the post here, inasmuch as networking is so reliant on central authority.

  • Just pausing to say: both this post and Josh's comment above are terrific. Meaty & provocative.

  • I'm no academic, but I am a Christian, so I might profit from seeing if there's a beam in my own eye that fits Freddie's analysis. Here goes: As Christians, I think it's worthwhile to think about how Freddie's critique can serve as an indictment of clericalism (as in the abuse catastrophe in my own Catholic Church), which often had a similar "institutions over individuals" dynamic. Certainly, much of what is best in the "corporate person" (e.g., parishes and congregations, guilds and labor unions, and indeed the medieval university) began in explicitly Christian contexts. And while there can be a sort of Chestertonian "happy hobbits" vibe about the "little platoons" of civic (non-state, non-commercial) corporatism, there are also, I fear, moments when we Christians (perhaps especially trads like me) are apt to take toward our corporate religious institutions an attitude less distributist than corporate welfarist, of the worst sort of "What's good for GM" variety, a kind of jingoism of the church.

  • This expression from the second quote stood out for me: " increasingly tight control on language and culture". US (both parties) seems to be moving in the direction of imposing tougher and tougher controls on "symbols" (the surface of culture). For individuals, we know that this type of control has limited benefits and deep, troubling unintended consequences.

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