NEW YORK – In recent months, universities have turned their attention to an important problem that should be included in our national effort to examine and root out bigotry.
They have identified, and attempted to reduce, “microaggressions” — words or behavior that might stigmatize or humiliate women or members of minority groups, with particular emphasis on African-Americans, disabled people and gays and lesbians. The effort has admirable goals, but there is a risk that schools will overshoot the mark.
Chester Pierce, a Harvard Medical School professor, coined the word in the 1970s to describe the kind of behavior that can really hurt — and that deserves stigmatizing.
Suppose, for example, that a professor refers to African-Americans as “you people,” or says approvingly that a student “doesn’t act like a normal black person,” or proclaims that today’s African-American students are “amazingly articulate.”
Such remarks are worse than careless; they’re insulting and demeaning, and hardly conducive to a good educational atmosphere.
Or imagine that a teacher exclaims to a female student, “You’re so good at math,” or announces, “When I look at you, I don’t even think about gender; I just see an outstanding young person.”
If a university administrator expresses astonishment that a football star is gay, raises his voice when speaking to a blind student, mistakes a person of color for a service worker, or assumes that a female medical school student is training to be a nurse, microaggression is involved.
Microaggressions can be humiliating, especially if people are exposed to a lot of them. In their worst forms, they insult people’s dignity, giving them a sense that important people think they don’t really belong.
In a lengthy and sometimes poignant book, Columbia University’s Derald Wing Sue marshals evidence that persistent microaggressions make people think that they’re perceived as second-class citizens — and can impose real psychological damage.
What Sue might have added, but downplays, is that microaggressions can also have bad effects on the groups that produce them, contributing to a sense of prejudice and superiority, potentially even hatred.
At the same time, it’s important to maintain perspective. Some microaggressions can and should be laughed off. Offensive words are usually far less harmful than violence or the worst forms of discrimination. And if charges of microaggressions are taken too far, they can impose a stifling orthodoxy — undermining freedom of thought and expression.
As my fellow Bloomberg View columnist Noah Smith pointed out last week, for example, the University of California, Berkeley has signaled its willingness to consider disciplining people for making one of a large number of statements, many or all of which most Americans would consider harmless or even correct. “America is a melting pot” is one of the university’s own examples. Here’s another: “Everyone can succeed in this society, if they work hard enough.” And a few more: “I believe the most qualified person should get the job.” “America is the land of opportunity.” “Affirmative action is racist.” “There is only one race, the human race.”
The University of Wisconsin similarly has declared that microaggressions include a “statement made when whites deny their racial biases,” and “statements that indicate that a white person does not want to acknowledge race.”
It is true, of course, that some people might find such statements deceptive or hurtful, but in well-functioning democracies and universities, feelings will sometimes be hurt. It does students no service to treat them like children — or to threaten to punish people for stating perfectly legitimate political convictions.
It’s useful and important to identify and stigmatize the most serious microaggressions, which can be genuinely damaging. But the term ought not to be invoked, on campuses or anywhere else, as the basis for a code of conduct enforced by a new cadre of thought police.
Cass R. Sunstein, a former administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, is the Robert Walmsley university professor at Harvard Law School and a Bloomberg View columnist.