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Words are violent

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APRIL 10, 2017

On Jan. 5 of last year, UC President Janet Napolitano sent letters to deans and department chairs at every UC campus asking them to attend seminars “to foster informed conversation about the best way to build and nurture a productive academic climate.” If you cut out the flowery language and the obfuscation, that means “to learn new things that can no longer be said in class.” One of the handouts distributed at that meeting was titled “Recognizing microaggressions and the message they send.” It contained a list of taboo phrases that are so innocuous in the way they are meant that it calls into question not only the rationale of a bureaucrat that might label them as objectionable but also the mental fragility of a hypothetical student who may be offended by them.

The first example of a microaggression as listed in this handout is “You speak English very well,” which the handout claims sends the message “You are not a true American.” As an international student who has been on the receiving end of this terrifying microaggression multiple times, I can confidently say that the people who make statements like that at UC Berkeley are genuinely impressed by my command over the English language and mean it as a compliment. The correct response to it is not to be offended by their surprise but to remind them that just because someone is not from the United States, that doesn’t mean they will speak English like the cast of “Slumdog Millionaire.”

The handout goes on to list “When I look at you, I don’t see color” and “There is only one race, the human race” as particularly dangerous microaggressions. Viewing these as microaggressions is yet another manifestation of the left-wing’s warped view of race relations and the flawed belief it holds that it is possible to move to a post-racial society while obsessively fixating on race and ethnicity. The goal of achieving racial equality must be to make race an insignificant aspect of a person’s image as compared to his or her merit, interests, accomplishments and so on. When being color blind is seen as a shortcoming, there is no hope for any progress on the issue of race relations.

The handout also decries the use of “I believe the most qualified person should get the job,” which Napolitano believes sends the message “People of color are given extra unfair benefits because of their race.” Why does Napolitano assume that it is “people of color” who would not ordinarily possess the requisite qualifications for the job and hence require additional benefits? Isn’t that the definition of a racist belief? If even innocuous statements such as the one mentioned above are construed as dog whistles to racists, it may be no surprise that it is only liberals who hear them.

The last “microaggression” I want to reference is “Affirmative action is racist,” which Napolitano claimed in her handout is another way of saying “People of color are lazy and/or incompetent and need to work harder.” Regardless of her interpretation, the statement in question is factual in nature. Affirmative action programs discriminate among the pool of applicants on the basis of criteria such as race. Hence, they are, by definition, racist. Now, you may argue that such racism is justified in order to counteract the residual effects of racism in the past, but that does not change the fact that the statement “Affirmative action is racist” is a statement of fact. If you find facts objectionable or unworthy of being taught in a classroom, it raises the very real possibility that your conception of the world may be divorced from reality.

The danger posed by labeling certain words or ideas as “microaggressions” is that doing so justifies, in a subtle manner, the use of real aggression in order to counter those words or ideas. If you designate certain speech as “violent” or as an act of aggression, it allows the opponents of that speech to use the rationale of retaliation to use actual physical aggression to oppose that speech. As an example, when Chancellor Nicholas Dirks reassured the hysterical loons on campus that they would be protected from Milo Yiannopoulos’ speech and announced the creation of multiple safe spaces for those who might be traumatized by his remarks, he provided a justification for the lunatics who then attacked those they perceived to be the sources of that trauma. Note to administrators: You can’t expect to continually tell students that they are victims of some sort of verbal violence and not expect them to act out against their victimizers.

Microaggressions, trigger warnings and safe spaces all share the same justification — the idea that students need to be protected from certain types of speech or certain ideas. If you are accepted to UC Berkeley, your acceptance letter should be your one and only trigger warning. Once you walk into this campus, you must understand that what you learn may offend you, anger you, terrify you and may even reduce you to tears, but those are experiences you need to cope with in the real world, a place where there is a marked absence of bureaucrats to minister to your needs. If ideas alone can pierce your skin, it is not the ideas that need to be softened — it is your skin that needs to become less fragile.

Rudra Reddy writes the Monday column on resisting indoctrination. Contact him at [email protected].

APRIL 11, 2017