Are Micro-Aggressions Really a Human Rights Violation?

January 2021

The Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) has addressed a letter to the principals and presidents of universities and colleges across the province after receiving reports of racism and other human rights violations. Service providers in Ontario have obligations to their patrons under the Ontario Human Rights Code, and the Chief Commissioner of the OHRC is concerned that these obligations are not being met on campus.

The Commissioner points to several trends, procured from media reports, which point to the need for “more respectful, equitable, and inclusive” learning environments. The examples which are given include threats of violence, “Zoom-bombing” online meetings hosted by racialized students, the posting of racist images and comments in chat rooms, “gratuitous use” of the “N-word”, and faculty microaggressions towards students.

Many of these problems appear to be stimulated not by a toxic academic environment but rather by a toxic online environment. It is effortless to conceal one’s online identity, and anonymity gives bullies the courage to do and say what they like without fear of reprisal. If there have indeed been threats of violence on campus, racially motivated or otherwise, universities and colleges should condemn those actions and work with the police to ensure perpetrators are punished. Universities and colleges are not, however, in a position to regulate the internet. “Zoom-bombings” occur because faulty security mechanisms are easily bypassed by internet trolls. Again, online anonymity allows pathetic bullies to disrupt virtual meetings, which their cowardice would not allow for in person.

Racist images and comments are frequently posted in chat rooms and forums, despite the best efforts of moderators and online harassment policies. The price we pay for a “free” internet is the price we also pay for a free society – we may occasionally be hurt by malicious people who use their freedom irresponsibly. Unfortunately, the internet is not – and cannot be – governed by social norms which keep in-person discourse civil. Universities and colleges are only responsible for this reality insofar as they have treated the internet as an alternative to human interaction. Pandemic or no pandemic, it is not.

This leaves us with the two concerns which universities and colleges may be able to address: the use of the “n-word” and faculty microaggressions. The only scenario where it is appropriate to use the “n-word” at a university is when quoting a primary source where that word was used. Similarly, universities ought not to fly swastika flags on campus, but professors may well show images of that hateful symbol as a teaching tool in the context of a history or political science lecture. If this is the context in which professors have uttered the “n-word”, its use has not been gratuitous.

The OHRC should have left “microaggressions” off their list of otherwise reasonable concerns. According to the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion office at Brandeis University, microaggressions are verbal, nonverbal and environmental slights which, directly or indirectly, “target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership”. The late Chester Pierce, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, claimed that the “subtle, cumulative mini-assault is the substance of today’s racism”. If somebody makes a genuinely racist comment, they should be held accountable for it, no matter their position. But how are faculty supposed to engage with students if they are worried that any innocuous comment can be interpreted as a microaggression and thus violate the Ontario Human Rights Code?

The Chief Commissioner identified the source of the problem when she noted that many of the students who have issued complaints are “just a few years out of high school”. The concept of microaggressions is absurdly immature. Some students do genuinely feel as though comments their professors make are racially insensitive, and it is conceivable that there are some situations where that was the professor’s intention. When someone is emotionally and intellectually mature, however, the appropriate response to an insensitive comment is to speak to the offending party about the comment. Perhaps these students would be surprised if they told their professors, in private, that their words were hurtful. Perhaps the professor would begin to choose his or her words more carefully or would help clarify innocent remarks which had been misinterpreted. The general reaction, however, appears to be to lodge a complaint with an authority figure. This is not dissimilar to when six-year-olds complain to their parents about their siblings. When respectable institutions like the OHRC indulge immature students by issuing heavy-handed letters to the administration, it infantilizes those students who are able to cope with their problems in an age-appropriate way.

Jonathan Haidt has made an important distinction between cultures of honour and cultures of dignity. Prior to the mid-eighteenth century, Haidt argues, Western societies were cultures where honour was earned by avenging insults on one’s own. Modern Western societies have transitioned, he continues, to cultures where dignity is assumed rather than earned. This has been a positive transition in many respects. Men are no longer expected to defend their honour in duels to the death; most decent people accept that they should treat others with respect regardless of their immutable characteristics, social status, or wealth. Citing a paper published in Comparative Sociology, Haidt notes how some are now observing a transition from a culture of dignity to a culture of victimhood. This transition is evinced by the OHRC’s letter.

As Haidt and Greg Lukianoff wrote in The Coddling of the American Mind, “the key idea is that the new moral culture of victimhood fosters ‘moral dependence’ and an atrophying of the ability to handle small interpersonal matters on one’s own”. The culture of victimhood has also given rise to the intellectually and morally dubious claim that “my truth” ought to be valued over “the truth”. If I feel offended, an offense has been perpetrated against me, regardless of the other party’s intentions. This is the line Ontario’s colleges and universities are being encouraged to adopt by their government. Principals and presidents should think carefully about how they choose to respond. Imprudent measures which will be temporarily satisfying for a small number of students could adversely affect the quality of their education, the veracity of public discourse, and, ultimately, an entire generation’s maturation.