The Microagression Generation

A strange phenomenon has taken place recently on American college campuses. The pendulum has swung from the protection of inappropriate speech and racial slurs to faculty resignations on elite college campuses over things like emails questioning the wisdom of over-regulating college student’s choices. Now, the tolerance of intolerance movement even has it’s own terms.

Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s September, 2015 article in The Atlantic highlighted how the microaggression mindset is presenting dangerous ideas and how solidifying misconceptions have lasting psychological effects.

Microaggressions, according to Lukianoff and Haidt, are outwardly harmless words or actions that are taken as a personal attack on an individual or group of people, usually, designated by ethnicity or gender. As the microaggression attitude progresses, it turns into what Lukinaoff and Haidt coined, vindictive protectiveness.

The concept of college “safe spaces” is a perfect example of the microaggressions mindset turned vindictive protectiveness. As students seek designated “protected” spaces on campuses, free of perceived offence and divergent ideas, anyone who makes another person uncomfortable, even inadvertently, may find themselves on the receiving end of being called insensitive, intolerant – or worse.

In response to the protests and resignations, Washington State Rep. Matt Manweller told Campus Reform he plans to introduce the “Academic Bill of Rights” to the General Assembly, that would protect students and faculty from acts of vindictive protectiveness.

As the Millennials finish their collegiate careers and begin infiltrating the workforce, this mindset is bound to go with them.

Why is this mindset so dangerous? For starters, it flies in the face of cognitive behavioral therapy; the most widely studied non-pharmaceutical treatment of mental illness, said Lukianoff and Haidt.

Second, it programs young adults to see opinions that differ from theirs as an intended slight and offers no room for conflict resolution amongst peers.

One fundamental problem with this line of thinking is that there is no such thing as a space that is “safe” from the opinions of others. That may be where the confusion about “safe spaces” and microaggressions, lie for the new, entry-level workforce candidates.

Kristen Sanger, a human resources specialist, noted the current protests on campuses were concerning. “In a business environment you have a lot of different people, personalities and backgrounds, and what that can create is a lot of conflict,” she said. “What you need are people who can deal with conflict and come to a resolution, whether or not [he or she] ever agrees with the other person.”

The current demand for “safe spaces” may leave an entire generation of adults unprepared to mediate any conflict – let alone learn how to work through a disagreement with a colleague or spouse. Simply stated, academic institutions are sending graduates into the world with underdeveloped interpersonal skills.

Kevin Rose, a federal employee working in the human resources department, said he believes the latest campus protests are reflective of the sense of entitlement the Millennials display. Rose, who has interviewed and hired thousands of people, went on to say, “I think the student’s success [in forcing the resignation of campus facility] gives them a sense of empowerment they aren’t going to be successful with in [the work place].”

One of the major problems with this trend is that free speech is slowly being eroded and redefined as conditional speech. A person is free to speak his or her mind, so long as it doesn’t offend or disagree with another person’s opinion.

Many of the current protesters suggest their underlying frustration is with the lack of cultural or minority sensitivity, yet they have forgotten history in the process. Women’s suffrage and the civil rights movements both hinged on the protection of free speech. The protected right to freely voice unpopular opinions has been a cornerstone of almost every major human rights victory in the history of the world.

According to Marjorie Heins, a former NYU adjunct professor, the situation has turned into a violation of free speech. “The lack of respect for freedom of speech permeates the whole enterprise,” she said.

Campus “speech codes” walk a fine line between freedom of speech and protecting students from genuine harassment, said Sarah Glazer, a freelance writer whose articles have appeared in The New York Times and The Washington Post.

Sanger agreed. “You have to have policies in place so that people know what the expectations for professional behavior are in a work environment,” she said. “You also don’t want to limit employees freedoms so much that they are a carbon copies of one another.”

While employers struggle to find a balance between protecting legitimate workplace harassment and allowing freedom of expression amongst their employees, the up and coming generation of college graduates continues to embrace the ideas associated with microaggressions and hyperoffendedness.

If “safe spaces” are permitted on campuses, in the form they are currently being discussed, the days of being able to have a civil conversation with someone who has a different point of view than one’s self will soon be over. Agreeing to disagree or conceding to well-reasoned points are incompatible with current “safe space” philosophies.

“Compromise is a bad word these days,” said Dick Metcalf, former editor of Guns & Ammo Magazine. “People think it means giving up your principles.”

Metcalf was forced to resign from the publication after writing an article conceding that some limits to gun ownership are reasonable. Metcalf’s offensive statement? Acknowledging “all constitutional rights are regulated.” The readers and sponsors of the publication disagreed with his statement.

Justice John Marshall Harlan may have said it best when he wrote, “That the air may at times seem filled with verbal [discord] is, in this sense, not a sign of weakness but of strength.” Harlin’s opinion was written for the famous Supreme Court “free speech case,” Cohen v. California back in 1971.

However, there are some experts who disagree that the current demand for campus “safe spaces” is detrimental to the mental health or wellbeing of the students.

In KCRV radio interview, psychologist and Harvard’s DuBois Institute associate Paula Caplan said, equating being offended by hate speech with mental illness was offensive. “Sterling Research shows that if you make demeaning comments . . . it does lower [students’] academic performance and that is what they are there for.”

Wendy Kaminer, a lawyer, responded by saying, “I think we are losing sight of the fact that on campus, students are being punished, punished, for offending each other,”

Haidt added, “If you teach people to have such a fine filter that they see insults and slights all around them, you are telling students ‘you are so fragile you need to be protected from each other . . . when in fact, human beings are [by nature] anti-fragile.”


Guest authorKristi Reed is a freelance writer and photographer living in SE Asia with her family. She is actively engaged in combating global injustice, ending modern-day slavery and documenting current world events. Kristi is currently seeking a BA in Journalism and Mass Communications from Arizona State University.



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