by Quinton Ellis, LPC
There was a time in my young life when the only thing I knew for sure about college was that they had toga parties. These days, the only thing I know for sure about toga parties is that they will result in your expulsion from college. Much like Christmas, (also not welcome on campus), college seemed a lot cooler when I was a kid. College has changed, because the students are very, very angry. Not for any of the reasons I think they have a right to be, but for reasons that are being invented each and every day.
I first stumbled across the term ‘micro-aggression’ several years ago and initially thought it had to be an attempt at internet trolling. Here’s one of hundreds of definitions of micro-aggressions from none other than Psychology Today in 2010: “they are the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership.” Uhhh, okay PT, thanks for the…heads up. We’ll all try to be extra nice to people who are different from us tomorrow.” That won’t work. What? Why not, PT? Because these things happen every day. But…we don’t mean to be jerks on any day! That’s why we said ‘unintentional’. What if we just don’t speak to anyone at all? You should’ve high-lighted nonverbal as well. Is there anything, at all, we can do to fix this? Of course not. But you might as well try that shutting up thing for a while.
One of the first student protests I remember began at UCLA in 2013 after a student accused a beloved 81 year old of oppressing him after he noticed that the professor corrected his capitalization of the letter I in the term indigenous in his dissertation. The professor was fired after the resulting uproar. And this is going to get worse, because it is the students who are protesting demanding more and more Kafkaesque speech and behavior codes while the schools are caving. To understand why, you really should read “The Coddling of the American Mind” by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff. What they see happening on college campuses is that the students, mostly in the arts and ‘soft’ sciences (like, ahem, psychology), are being trained to filter their experiences through a reverse form of cognitive behavioral therapy. CBT is the dominant framework therapists use to help clients combat the irrational thoughts that fuel their depression or anxiety. Essentially, you’re just trying to isolate the repetitive negative thoughts that interfere with a person’s ability to function properly. We have to assume the thoughts are irrational or otherwise not based in reality, because if They really are out to get you I’m going to have to refer you to Ironman, or the police or something. Sometimes the thoughts are based on exaggerations of reality: Yes, you have a large nose; no, it is not bigger than the rest of your head.
What these authors are saying is that there is a social justice oriented framework within these institutions that encourages students to magnify the often legitimate harms they encounter through the lense of race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and so on. Eventually, the harms they encounter do actually become as big as the rest of their head, and someone really is out to get them. That someone is named Oppressor.
Now, certainly oppression of all stripes is out there and very much in need of address, but the environment that these newly minted social justice Robocops happen to find themselves is the modern American university campus; arguably the most diverse, inclusive, supportive, nurturing living arrangement that ridiculous sums of money have ever in the history of the earth provided a human being. But, because your parents are nowhere in sight, as the saying goes, you’ve got to fight the oppressor that’s in front of you. Taco Tuesday isn’t going to call itself racist, so why shouldn’t it be you who leads this righteous and necessary crusade? Especially if there’s extra credit in it!
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