No trigger warnings were harmed in the writing of this blog post.
The Atlantic Monthly has a personality disorder. The magazine that gave the world Ta-Nehisi Coates, who in turn wrote the world’s first Autobiography of Microaggression, would like young collegiate millennials to know they are mentally ill. Or maybe mentally ill is too fraught a phrase; at the very least, there is a psychological solution to what ails them. What ails them is a deliberately provoked hyper-sensitivity and the cure is cognitive therapy. If only our college campuses took the cognitive approach, instead of the Freudian one… Nevertheless, the lesson is so important that the article in question, The Coddling of the American Mind, is the cover story of the print edition and made a big splash online as well.
The article criticizes the phenomena of microaggression and trigger warnings as specific symptoms of a virulent form of intolerance that has overtaken university campuses. This virulent intolerance is anathema to the purpose of higher education, which is to perfect the art of critical thinking. Such intolerance puts faculty and students alike at risk. Of course, the magazine is preaching to the choir. For most millennial college students, this article is TL;DR. Who has time when every waking moment is spent micro-analyzing every incident in a day as a form of microaggression? Each new day should come with its own trigger warning, yes?
Of course there’s the fact that, despite what the writers of the Atlantic article have posited, colleges have taught their students a kind of critical thinking, which has been based on a number of logical fallacies, starting with the ad hominem attack. A simple Google search shows that the authors are white males, older white males specifically, and at least one of them might be a bona fide conservative depending upon your point of view.
In light of these salient facts, appeals to emotion are the least of their worries. One can predict, after reading the article, that frustrated adjuncts and fulltime faculty will make it required reading, and that just as surely, their outspoken, over-wrought students will do more research on the authors of the article than on any of the detailed accounts included in the article itself.
The article fails at the most basic academic questions, though. It posits a theory, sure, and it uses copious examples to back it up, and even proposes solutions to the problems contained therein. And yet it fails to answer the most basic question the problem population will have: why? If we take the rhetoric as articles of fact, why have campus administrators and the student body come to tolerate such intolerance?
It’s too simple to say, as the authors do, that these modern developments of microaggressions and trigger warnings are the manifestations of the intellectual theory of political correctness of yore.
Political correctness may be one ingredient in the recipe, but so too is the dramatic change in the make up of university employees. Faculty, once the most numerous kind of employee on campus, is a class now dwarfed by the numbers of administrators. Tenured faculty are an even rarer breed. And then there is the political persuasion of these faculty–mostly to the left of the left. These faculty have contributed to the current political climate, with its focus on identity politics of every kind and have been complicit in the mainstream media’s exploitation of such, the design of which is to herd whole groups of pre-categorized people in one political direction. That’s all good and well until flock turns on you.
Is that a complicated way of saying blame Obama? Yes, it is at least in part, because that is the methodology he and his team used to win. That’s what happens when you whip up cries of racism in response to the basic criticisms of any candidacy, as Team Obama did in 2008. As the nation rejoiced that a black man could aspire to the presidency, a new meme-atic model that others could replicate was born. Add to the soup a large group of top-tier journalists, as happened with Journo-list, to ply your winning strategy in the press. But even this, along with the changing composition of colleges and the readvent of political correctness, would not be enough.
Baked into all of this is the educational revolution that has occurred over the last half century. In disaffected blogging parlance, we refer to it as the “special snowflake syndrome.” This is the idea of each person’s inherent individuality, truly a product of DNA, yet marked in the superficial notions of racial and gender identity, and the uncontrollable aspects of habitat that define the childhoods of students, should be sufficient reason for praise. The prize is for just showing up, in this world view. Pedagogy tailored to such superficial notions produces citizens who are acutely aware of cultural phenomenon that place them somewhere undesirable on the trajectory of success, and gives them the ability to excuse their own weaknesses instead of overcoming them.
Underlying much of the current debate about macro- and micro-identity on campus is an impetus as old as time. Call it the will to change, or the call to action, or whatever name or phrased used to describe it. It’s the same in every age. The young have a profound and earnest desire to leave their mark on the world, to change it for the better, to challenge prevailing wisdom and authority and subvert the old ways to a new paradigm. This impetus is amplified right now due to the sheer volume of the young. People forget that millennials comprise a huge group, just slightly bigger than the baby boomers.
Sadly for young Americans today, most of the righteous battles relevant to our nation have been fought and won. We are already a highly free and egalitarian society, thanks in large part to the rhetorical wisdom of our founders, and those generations of young who came after who found the will to manifest the truth of our founding documents. And yet the impulse to pioneer, to feel as though one were making a critical difference and changing the world for the better remains.
This is why the young, led by the complicit media, can cheer on as President Obama renames a mountain while the body of a Syrian toddler washes up on a Turkish shore. It’s also why the victim lottery is immediately employed to discount the death of the Syrian toddler by cashing in on the emotional economy of pictures. The mountain renamed achieves nothing for no one. The act itself is just another provocation in the rhetorical war we fight as political factions, designed to offer an empty victory and provoke a pointless response from the scattered enemy. The mountain has become the microaggression, and thus lends the feeling to some that something was changed for the better by their side. The mountain doesn’t care; it will still be the same mountain under any other name. So who cares? Who should care? And yet, it seems such insignificant gestures are all we truly care about anymore.