We live in a time where the President of the United States calls college activists and progressives “coddled and protected from different points of view.” Comedians like Jerry Seinfeld avoid events at college campuses for fear of their “political correctness.” An article in the Atlantic, shared 611,000 times on Facebook, decries the “extra thin skin” of today’s college students, and the new college climate where “young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make some uncomfortable.” These views find a home at Stanford, too, from articles encouraging offensive speech or language to the clumsily blunt “Stanford Macroaggressions“ Facebook page.
These examples span a wide range of ideas, but they hold at their core a similar sentiment: that (often progressive) students or activists are weak; that protesters are childish; that those working towards social justice are at once impossibly fragile and aggressively punitive.
This core set of beliefs misses the point entirely.
Let’s talk about offense – or, since the idea of “offense” has been derided past the point of recognition, let’s call it a different word. Let’s call it “hurt.” Many students on campus are hurt by words, ideas or behaviors. When a professor addresses a classroom with “ladies and gentleman,” nonbinary students feel the hurt of exclusion. When students of color look around at an event and see only white people around them, they feel the hurt of tokenization and underrepresentation. When indigenous students see the name of Junipero Serra on the buildings they walk into, they feel the hurt of cultural, historical trauma.
The question is not about whether this hurt exists; it does. Rather, we need to ask ourselves why – why marginalized students experience hurt in these ways. One explanation, which a wealth of scientific research has demonstrated, is that complex social systems of exclusion, violence, trauma and prejudice create conditions in which marginalized groups in society are consistently reminded of their marginalization. Or, perhaps, if systems thinking and intersectionality are scary ideas, it could be that marginalized people are just overly-fragile children.
What, then, of the arguments that “PC culture” is robbing colleges of intellectual vitality? That “dissenting opinions” aren’t being discussed, that dialogue (that word which I keep hearing people throw around like it’s sacred) is stifled by the so-called policing of words and ideas? Is free speech is dead, and has it been killed by the menacing evil of social justice warriors?
The answer to these arguments is more complex. Take an analogy: You’re a person that likes going to the gym; you think exercise is good for you and like to do it regularly. You’re in your physics class when your professor suddenly walks over to you and drops a 150-pound barbell into your lap. “Start lifting,” they say. “It’s the middle of class,” you protest. “What the hell?” And your classmates shake their heads derisively. “People are so fragile these days,” they laugh. “Exercise is good for you, you should do it regularly.” Switch around a few words, and this is the reality that so many marginalized students face. Can I go to class without being reminded that the history we learn in this country is horrifically whitewashed? Can I grab lunch without being reminded that men feel entitled to my body? Can I go to an educational event on a topic I care about without being intellectually derailed by casual racism, classism, ableism or transmisogyny?
At the end of the day, the issue is about agency, not content. Why are some of the people most hurt by systems of oppression also some of the most vocal fighters against them? Because activists these days are the furthest thing from scared of “scary” ideas – the last two years of organizing at Stanford proves that we are unafraid of getting our hands dirty with historical trauma, complex issues and oppressive systems; it is the same around the world. Students’ work to reduce microaggressions should not be seen as unwillingness to be uncomfortable; rather, it should be seen as an effort to have more agency in when and how we choose to engage with these topics in the first place.
A slew of microaggressions exist in our society, residue from and reminders of oppressive systems, both past and present. We need to have the humility to recognize that social justice work aims to rectify the hurt felt by others – even when we don’t feel that hurt ourselves. And if activism aims to diminish the inequity in our society, then those who most benefit from it will feel threatened by their relative loss of power.
This backlash in popular culture against the mythical monsters of PC culture, “coddled” college students and Social Justice Warriors might come in part from this threat, this reaction to the shift towards intersectionality, social justice and collective liberation as ideological realities on college campuses. Don’t ask why college students are so easily offended – ask why so many college students aren’t.
Contact Lily Zheng at lilyz8 ‘at’ stanford.edu.