Micro-aggressions are big right now in US universities. The term was coined in 1970 by an academic psychiatrist at Harvard to refer to unintentional discrimination, dismissals and insults against black people but the term was extended to encompass insults against women and now includes any marginalised group such as poor people, disabled people and sexual minorities.
Lists have been compiled by universities offering examples of micro-aggressions and how to avoid them. In New Hampshire a bias-free language guide compiled by students with staff advised against using the term American because it failed to recognise South America.
Rich students should be called “persons of material wealth” and poor students “a person who lacks advantages that others have”. The guide also recommended that when introducing yourself you should advise which pronoun you would prefer to be used when being referred to in the this person e.g. he, she, or the non-binary zie.
You get the gist?
At the University of California students were warned that saying “America is the land of opportunity” might upset students who believed that their race or gender had been a disadvantage.
At New Hampshire the University President said he was offended by the guide. He may be in the minority. Proponents argue that tackling micro-aggressions is an integral part of tackling prejudice in the way that zero-tolerance policies helped to reduce crime. But critics say these measures are discouraging free speech and students will be inhibited from challenging each other’s ideas.
President Obama said “I don’t agree that … when you become students at colleges you have to be coddled and protected from different points of view” He thought people should be able to disagree and have an argument. “You shouldn’t silence them by saying … I’m too sensitive to hear what you have to say. That’s not the way we learn.”
Not all students are in favour either. Some complain about debates being stopped because of complaints about micro-aggressions.
Other typical micro-aggressions are: (Source: The Times)
- Referring to people as old, elders, seniors or senior citizens. Instead say people of advanced age.
- Don’t say homeless but person experiencing homelessness
- Don’t say obese or overweight but people of size
- Don’t say able-bodied but non-disabled
- Don’t say foreigner but international people.
- Don’t use one word when you can stretch it to several (I made that up)
Some of these are palpable nonsense. People of size includes all sizes and completely loses the reference to the person being fat. And why refer to able-bodied by a negative and what counts as a disability anyway?
In some senses this is nothing new. One of the first posts I blogged was about Salford University banning the use of the word pigmy. You were supposed to say “little people of the rain forest” instead. Not Mambuti or Efe or other tribal name. I can’t recall there ever being any pigmies in Salford so it all seemed a bit unnecessary.
And don’t get me started on cultural appropriation! Only Mexicans can wear sombreros according to student union officials. Tell that to the souvenir shop owners in Mexico who are happy to sell sombreros to gringos.