Progressive Microaggressions


Are we progressive professors guilty of our own species of microaggression? Fredrik deBoer says yes.

DeBoer teaches at Purdue and blogs about culture and higher ed. In a recent post, deBoer worried that his progressive colleagues seem strangely willing to mock and belittle their conservative students. Not in the classroom. In spite of conservative laments about overt professorial hostility, deBoer claims that most left-leaning faculty “are so sensitive to the impression that they’re biased against their conservative students that they bend over backwards to accommodate them.”

But deBoer accuses his allies of a curious blind spot. They tend to mock conservative students on Facebook and other social-media outlets. DeBoer comes to the smart conclusion:

People are really, really invested in consistency and fairness. And if academics don’t make a huge improvement in projecting them, they will be the razor with which our throats are slit.

He’s referring to two particular recent episodes. At Duke, some conservative students protested against a leftist summer reading assignment. At North Carolina, a student accused the school of coddling terrorists.

As deBoer reports,

many academics I know have reflexively, unthinkingly laughed off these conservative complaints. They’ve bombarded social media with “lols” and “wtfs.” They’ve mocked these students as rubes. They’ve given every outward appearance of not even attempting to evaluate these students’ claims with the same care, sensitivity, and fairness that they evaluate the claims of progressive students invoking the language of trauma and triggers. In other words, they’ve rushed to confirm every complaint conservative critics of the academy have made, and the most damning one in particular: that we treat our progressive students with more kindness and approval than our conservative students, and that we use the formal procedures of the university to do it.

I wholeheartedly agree with Dr. DeBoer’s warnings, but I think he could take it one step farther. Not only do my fellow progressive academics tend to assume too much about their campuses and their social-media worlds, but they do so out of a woeful and widespread ignorance. Some of us assume that young people will somehow naturally sympathize with left-leaning ideas. We couldn’t be more wrong.

If the campaign against microaggressions has any moral heft, it is because it is at heart a campaign against ignorance. Yet as sociologists such as Elaine Howard Ecklund have argued, many scholars display shocking ignorance about their own students.

Even if we progressive professors are polite to our conservative students, are we guilty of microaggressions that only the students themselves notice? Do we betray our own ideals by failing to learn more about our students’ backgrounds? Are there things we don’t even notice about our classes that might make conservative students feel unwelcome?