From sensitivity into intellectual vacuity

Back in the early 1990s, a British trade union developed quite a reputation for right-on radicalism. One of its innovations was that, at its annual conference, it had a ‘speech monitor’ whose task it was to follow every speech as it was being delivered and to identify the use of terms and expressions that were deemed to be offensive to anyone with a progressive radical agenda; and when he heard any such terms or expressions, his job was (literally) to pull the plug on the speech, switching off the microphone and forcing the speaker into an embarrassing return to their seat, and maybe longer term ignominy.

Furthermore, this particular power was well used. At one point when I was following one of the speeches (then being televised) the speaker used the word ‘denigrate’, and before he could finish his sentence the microphone was off and he was in disgrace. He had used a word that connected ‘black’ (niger in Latin) with something negative. There was something excitingly bizarre about this, and I confess I was watching solely in the hope that I would see one or two more of these displays of Orwellian censorship.

It is sometimes suggested that this kind of over-sensitivity has reached university campuses. In an article in The Atlantic, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt set out a fairly disturbing picture of American universities being subjected to increasing pressure not to let anyone say anything that could possibly offend or disturb someone of a very thin-skinned disposition. Examples given are pressure applied not to teach rape law in a law school, or not to make English literature students read The Great Gatsby (because it ‘portrays misogyny and physical abuse’). With this a (to me at least) new concept has been introduced: that of the ‘microaggression’. This is described as ‘small actions or word choices that seem on their face to have no malicious intent but that are thought of as a kind of violence nonetheless’ – such as asking someone from an ethnic minority where they were born.

It is of course right that universities seek, to the greatest extent possible, to create safe spaces for those who work or study in them. But this should not mean encouraging people to make a great effort to find things offensive. Universities need to prepare students for the world, and it is a world in which they cannot be protected from such stuff at all times. Furthermore, the university must maintain a culture of curiosity and inquiry, which should not be restricted just because in some contexts not everything is completely lovely. As Lukianoff and Haidt point out, if this approach is abandoned it will damage students both intellectually and mentally.

Respect and sensitivity must be part of any university’s framework of values. But at the same time, universities are there to challenge and  stimulate. This task becomes impossible if every innocuous statement has to be examined again and again before it is made, in case somebody unexpectedly might contrive to be offended by it. The academy’s educational mission must stay on the right side of intellectual vacuity.

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7 Comments on “From sensitivity into intellectual vacuity”

  1. Vincent Says:

    I well remember what made Labour un-electable in the 80s and most of the 90s. And it sure wasn’t a belief in protecting the poor and low paid. Nope it was stuff like this horseshit. That screeching pitch of overthought correctness that was so easily targeted by right wing papers, and utterly opaque to the locals. So much so that ‘Only Fools and Horses’ had the family living in Flat 127 Nelson Mandela House. It sure as shootin wasn’t out Torying the Tories, it was simply shutting up about all that ridiculous horse apples.

  2. anna notaro Says:

    While one cannot but agree with the gist of the piece in The Atlantic regarding the negative impact of microaggression and trigger warnings I cannot subscribe to the oversimplistic view of cognitive therapy as it emerges from the piece. In the first instance there are some drawbacks to such therapy (see https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-justice-and-responsibility-league/200903/four-drawbacks-cognitive-therapy), secondly, and above all it reinforces the thinking/feeling divide.
    “Ever since Plato, scholars have drawn a clear distinction between thinking and feeling. Cognitive psychology tended to reinforce this divide: emotions were seen as interfering with cognition; they were the antagonists of reason. Now, building on more than a decade of mounting work, researchers have discovered that it is impossible to understand how we think without understanding how we feel.”
    http://www.boston.com/news/education/higher/articles/2007/04/29/hearts__minds/
    A valuable insight for both students and faculty.


  3. “It is of course right that universities seek, to the greatest extent possible, to create safe spaces for those who work or study in them.” I don’t follow. Any space should be free from avoidable physical danger, but why should the University seek to go beyond that? I would much rather be in a University where someone could if they wished call me a dirty Jew, than in one that had rules to stop them saying that.

    Do you have a source for your “denigrate” story? I thought it was in the US, and wasn’t aware of any trade union on-the-fly censorship of the kind you describe. Unless you can supply details, I will regard your version as an urban legend.


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