“Marketplace of Ideas” speaker discusses consequences of microaggression

Peter Wood says minor insults and slights have chilling effect on open dialogue The optimism of an…

Georgia (Oct 13, 2015)

Peter Wood says minor insults and slights have chilling effect on open dialogue

The optimism of an open marketplace of ideas, where “right” opinions prevail over “wrong” ones, may be under attack in an America where simply asking where a person comes from can lead to severe consequences, author and scholar Peter Wood said during Kennesaw State University’s third “Marketplace of Ideas” on Oct. 8.

Wood, an anthropologist and former educator who now heads the National Association of Scholars, wove together themes from the title of his lecture, “Microaggression and the Angry Mob: the Consequences of Political Correctness.” Using the history of the sometime elusive search for a well-functioning marketplace of ideas as his backdrop, Wood described how Americans are behaving toward each other, why they are angry, and how political correctness is leading people away from honest, intellectual debate — a shift he says is a threat to higher education.  

Using a recent policy statement issued by the University of California, Wood defined microaggression as “the everyday verbal, nonverbal and environmental slights, snubs or insults, whether intentional or non-intentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory or negative messages to target persons based solely on their marginalized group membership.” 

Wood described a scenario where students are being agitated by the existence of microaggressions; faculty members are being charged with violations of students’ rights; and some people are losing their jobs. He cited a recent Atlantic Magazine cover story’s conclusion that students have developed such thin skins against possible slights or insults that they seek redress, demanding colleges provide someone to whom they report offenses. Many universities have obliged by creating places where students can report their grievances and be taken seriously. 

“We’re getting out of this a generation of students who are hyperalert to the possibility of an insult,” said Wood, who acknowledges that “bad manners are bad manners.” “If you are so boorish as to be going around insulting people on racial, ethnic or any other ground, then you should cure your behavior. But that’s not really where the microaggression topic takes us.”

Instead, said Wood, questions and statements like “Do you work here?” “What are you?” “Where do you come from?” “I was poor growing up and I made it”; “I understand exactly how you feel”; and “You speak English very well” are treated as microaggressions.           

“Those statements have a certain maladroitness to them, but that’s not the issue,” Wood said. “The issue is what we make of them once they’re said. Are these cases where, when a faculty member says them to a student or a student to another student, they should be at the beginning of a disciplinary case? That’s where we are right now. To be insulted is one thing. But to use that insult as a way to maneuver yourself into a position to ruin one’s career or reputation seems a bit of a stretch.”

Microaggression and what Wood called the “culture of readiness to take offense at a hair-trigger level” are leading to a combative, angry state in America. He said the anger is also rooted in the post-World War II period of national anger, which eventually gave way in the 1960s to a cultural notion that expressing anger is liberating — what social scientists called “expressive individualism.” That coincided with a breakdown in child-rearing norms that valued teaching children to control their anger.  

Wood quoted from his book, “Bee in the Mouth: Anger in America Now”:

“Our society is harmed by misdirected aggression. It escalates social divisions; it turns minor disagreements into major blowouts; it poisons personal relations; it coarsens our public life and drives the political polarization of the country. We’ve become a country of anger and resentment, one in which the expression of grievance is often an end in itself. We’ve embraced a culture of expressive anger.”   

Around the time the “anger culture” took hold, Wood said, the university’s traditional role in shaping values begin to fall out of favor — with student autonomy replacing “in loco parentis” (in place of the parent) as an institutional value. The result of that, he said, may be the reason a recent Carnegie Foundation study showed that today’s students feel a lack of community.

Noting what he said is a “dissolution of values in higher education,” Wood concluded that the marketplace of ideas will be better served by a return to the traditional role of academia — the pursuit of truth (through research and discovery); the transmission of culture and civilization; preparing the next generation for a productive life; and a responsibility for the formation of character among students.

The third “Marketplace of Ideas” lecture was hosted by the College of Humanities and Social Sciences and funded in part by the Kennesaw State University 50th Anniversary Committee and the Charles Koch Foundation.

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— Sabbaye McGriff

Photo by David Caselli


A leader in innovative teaching and learning, Kennesaw State University offers undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees to its nearly 43,000 students. With 11 colleges on two metro Atlanta campuses, Kennesaw State is a member of the University System of Georgia. The university’s vibrant campus culture, diverse population, strong global ties and entrepreneurial spirit draw students from throughout the country and the world. Kennesaw State is a Carnegie-designated doctoral research institution (R2), placing it among an elite group of only 6 percent of U.S. colleges and universities with an R1 or R2 status. For more information, visit kennesaw.edu