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I’ve encountered some excellent reading and viewing on the subject recently. For one,

I, too, have sometimes made what turned out to be deeply offensive remarks unintentionally. So I am in no rush to conclude that any of these people harbor ill intent. In fact, they’re probably well-meaning and good-hearted people.

But the fact remains that those words were fundamentally inappropriate and offensive. Even though I don’t think the student really meant to compare me to a dog, the incident nonetheless stayed with me. The impact of her words and actions mattered more than her intent. It is all too easy to hurt and insult others without exercising vigilance in interacting with those whose lived experiences are different than our own.

But the author, Simba Runyowa, surprised me by curving the discussion into the academy.

This is because microaggressions point out cultural difference in ways that put the recipient’s non-conformity into sharp relief, often causing anxiety and crises of belonging on the part of minorities. When your peers at a prestigious university express dismay at the ability of a person of color to master English, it calls your presence in that institution into question and magnifies your difference in ways that can be alienating. It can even induce imposter syndrome or stereotype threat, both of which I have felt while studying at Oberlin. The former is feeling insecure, undeserving, or unaccomplished enough to be in a particular setting while latter is the debilitation that can arise from the constant fear of validating a stereotype about people from your identity groupings.

There’s also a discussion of the recent freak-out over political correctness on campuses.

What these critics miss is that the striving for “PC culture” on college campuses is actually rooted in empathy. The basic tenets of this culture are predicated on the powerful impulse to usher both justice and humanity into everyday social transactions. Given the visible (albeit slow) rise in diversity on campuses, the lexicon of social justice invites students to engage with difference in more intelligent and nuanced ways, and to train their minds to entertain more complex views of the world.

It’s all excellent, and well worth a read, but it also reminded me of the Idea Channel episode on trigger warnings. The short version is that they actually increase discussion of sensitive topics, by giving a heads-up on what’s coming and allowing for preparations. This leads to more thoughtful commentary, rather than knee-jerk reactions. People who can’t take the discussion are allowed to steer around it until they can.

It’s counter-intuitive, much like the parable of the bullet holes, but when you look at the logic with care it reveals itself to be quite solid.

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