Some of My Best Friends Are Academics

(By Christopher Campbell, Queen’s University)

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not a theorist. Some of my best friends are academics. Hell, even my partner is an academic. They just don’t have to be so open with their theorizing. Sometimes I just think that academics should leave our children alone.

True, our children’s minds are gardens that must be tilled, and where better to fertilize young brains than universities? There, our children can rub mental shoulders with bright minds, aspiring minds, and, above all, like minds. But something has disrupted the university process. Universities were meant to establish free thought and discussion, but campuses are now arenas of offence, where accusations attract the attention of academically enthused students and their institutional overseers. And once the academics get a hold of you, their all-persuasive normalizing powers eagerly await your extracted apology.

Really, my words may sound tough, but I tell you I’m not a theorist. Some of my best friends are academics. I realize how harsh this must sound to them, my attacking the space where their kind is allowed to roam uncontested, where the disagreements that fuel discussion are stifled until all are of one timid, sensitive mind. But we must not allow the academic agenda to dampen us with its theories.

Take the case of Brian Farnan, a vice-president in the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU). Farnan distributed an email in October with a link to a doctored video of President Obama kicking down a door in frustration after a news conference. His intention was to make light of student frustration with midterm exams. The video, which first appeared on The Tonight Show in 2010, and the sending of it by Farnan has been deemed an instance of microaggression.

An old theory, microaggression has had an on-campus resurgence since its coining in the 1970s by Chester Pierce, a psychiatrist at Harvard. Microaggression is an “everyday slight, putdown, indignity, or invalidation unintentionally directed toward a marginalized group,” says Dr. Derald Sue, a professor of psychology at Columbia University. According to Sue, microaggression has become one of the most researched areas in psychology literature and is now moving into popular literature.

Another day, another theory, and another apology. One single complaint was all that was needed to trigger an investigation into Farnan’s email, one complaint out of the 22,000 students who received the video. Farnan was found to have committed, unknowingly, an act of microaggression. Offence toward a group? Only one complainant. Evidence of wrongdoing? The complainant having been offended. End of story. Farnan was forced to apologize, saying,

Oppression, as outlined in SSMU’s Equity Policy, means the exercise of power by a group of people over another group of people with specific consideration of cultural, historical and living legacies. The image in question was an extension of the cultural, historical and living legacy surrounding people of color—particularly young men—being portrayed as violent in contemporary culture and media. By using this particular image of President Obama, I unknowingly perpetuated this living legacy and subsequently allowed a medium of SSMU’s communication to become the site of a microaggression; for this, I am deeply sorry.

Some of my best friends are academics, but surely this is academic theorizing gone mad. This type of hypersensitivity to anything that might distinguish one person from another will cause severe unintended consequences for society.

Allow me to demonstrate.

My friend and I played on a soccer team in Montreal. Our team was made up of eight Moroccans, three white guys, and one Asian. One night after a game, my friend, an academic, was talking with me about a great pass made by one of our teammates. It was early in the season and we didn’t know everyone’s name. I asked my friend to describe the player. After a few awkward moments of general small-stature, black-hair descriptions, I realized who he was getting at. Why didn’t you just say the Asian guy? I asked. He said he didn’t want to be racist. Another friend, also an academic, agreed that distinguishing with reference to race would be racist. I raised a hypothetical situation in which one had to distinguish a man in a group of ten similarly dressed men. The man is black while the others are white. Both my friends maintained that to distinguish the one man as black would in fact be racist. Why? Because it would mean distinguishing him due to his race.

Pick out a woman in a group of men by saying she is a woman. Sexism? Genderism? Acknowledging gender binaries is a microaggression, didn’t you know?

Another illustration.

Alec Torres at National Review describes Chester Pierce (coiner of microaggression) as “an African-American psychiatrist at Harvard,” while Torres describes Derald Sue as “a professor of psychology at Columbia University,” and all in the same article.

Why was it important for the reader to know the ethnicity of Pierce but not of Sue? So that we understand the “cultural, historical, and living legacies” that led a black academic like Pierce to such a progressive, anti-oppression theory as microaggression? Or is Torres himself guilty of microaggression in his piece entitled “Microaggression”? No wait, I get it: I’m microaggressing for bringing it up.

What a macroconundrum.

In the case of Farnan, it’s clear that had he sent a doctored video depicting Stephen Harper storming out of a news conference, nobody would have been microdiscriminated against and we wouldn’t be talking about this right now. But is it a microaggression to assume that nobody would have been offended?

Here’s the opinion of Julius Grey, a former SSMU president who taught at McGill’s law school: “There’s a political correctness that has come to dominate all issues so that it is dangerous to make any remark that has the remotest connection – not even a real connection, but an apparent connection – to race, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, whatever, because if you do, then you can suddenly be found to be insensitive.” Grey believes that campuses today are unhealthy and stifling of free speech.

I don’t want my children to grow up in a hypersensitive world. Does that make me a theorist? Some of my best friends are academics. Even my partner is an academic, but websites like McGill’s Microaggressions website – where students and staff are invited to report instances of “sexism, heteropatriarchy, transphobia, classism, racism, ableism” (is that all?) – trouble me. I’ve always thought of myself as progressive, but I’m starting to think I might be a theorist. After all, I do have an aversion to the academic mind and all the groupthinking and thought-policing involved in the seedy world of academic bathhouses (universities).

Don’t misunderstand me. I don’t mean to make light of the situation, but we don’t need to be so heavy about all this race and sex and class and gender. So heavy and sensitive are we that an email expressing the frustration of midterms has become a public show of apology and atonement to acquiesce the oppressive anti-oppression camp. So committed are we that our friends, teachers, and colleagues are encouraged to observe our words and actions and report our misdoings to the public, where the normalizing force of academic agreement will properly admonish and align inappropriate behaviour.

Racism, sexism, and all the isms are serious issues. Trifling with the micro versions can dilute and deflect from real instances of discrimination. I’m not saying that microaggressions don’t exist, or that we shouldn’t reflect on and be aware of them, but race, sex, class, gender, these are real. As much as theorizing academics will try to persuade us that these features that distinguish groups and individuals are nothing more than socially reinforced and culturally stigmatized abstractions, we have to deal with them in real life nonetheless.

Deal with them is an important phrase. Dealing means having the maturity to accept with an appropriate degree of sensitivity our distinguishing features and all the “cultural, historical, and living legacies” that come with them. Dealing with uncomfortable cultural and historical legacies of race, sexual orientation, gender, etc. requires judgement – the judgement to recognize real racism, real sexism, the type of discrimination that warrants an apology or prosecution. The forced apology from Farnan only serves to remove any individual judgement from the situation and teaches the younger minds observing this debacle that any mention of gender, race, or sexual orientation is taboo. Soon the academics will have succeeded in theorizing everyone into timid, hypersensitive people who are afraid to describe a gay black man as black or gay because our vision should be appropriately grey, our understanding of gender and sexuality suitably unconstrained by heteropatriachical social constructs, and our senses of humour sufficiently bland that our pastors look like stand-up comics.

Even though some of my best friends are academics, I suppose I am a theorist. I’d like my children to grow up learning to have (in my view) judgement. I’d like them to be able to speak freely about controversial issues, to share a video in good spirit with their friends and colleagues without first having to study the innumerable ways it might microhurt a hypersensitive person. We still have a chance to take the reins back before the academic agenda decides for us what level of sensitivity is appropriate. If microaggression becomes a widespread popular term, there will be no end to the accusations, the apologies, and the continued academic engineering of an oversensitive society.