‘Microaggressions,’ Rowan University and Roland Barthes

Roland Barthes

While browsing the Campus Reform website, I came across a report that Rowan University had just ‘published a guide on “Interrupting Microaggressions” with strategies for “calling out” those who advocate concepts like “color blindness” and “meritocracy.”‘ The digital bumf on the Rowan website makes it clear that the notion of ‘microaggression’ is bound up with identity politics.

One example of a ‘microaggression’ given in the Campus Reform piece is the statement, ‘Everyone can succeed in this country, if they work hard enough.’ Now, one could certainly question that statement by pointing out that not everyone who works hard actually succeeds, no matter what their background. People fail at stuff all the time, and if there were no ‘failures’ then there would be no ‘successes.’ We could follow up by asking more interesting questions like, ‘How does the speaker measure “success”?’ or ‘Has success to do with money, personal happiness, health, etc.?’ At the same time, it’s obvious that the statement is true: working hard is a necessary ingredient for any type of success. For example, doing well in a class at university requires keeping up with the assigned reading, engaging with the material, getting assignments done on time, revising for exams, and so on; all of those activities require dedicated effort, careful concentration and efficient time management.

So, it would appear that there is both truth and shortcomings in the assertion; the point, however, is that there can be a rational conversation about it without the need for anyone to get offended.

But, one might wonder, how is the supposed ‘microaggression’ actually aggressive? How, exactly, does it inflict damage or unpleasantness? Part of the answer to this question seems to depend upon the hearer: in another document also linked by the Campus Reform piece, we find the following: ‘If you are “called out” on your behavior… focus on the impact of your words or actions rather than your intent.’ So, it would seem that a ‘microaggression’ is aggressive if the hearer takes it that way, no matter how far from the truth that person may be. (I suspect that the sloppy notion that language is ‘violent’ is lurking here also; more about that in a future post.)

I find this formulation troubling for at least two reasons: first, it shifts discourse to the realm of emotion and emotional responses, which is fundamentally irrational; second, the underlying automatic assumption of guilt–not unlike ‘original sin’–on the part of the speaker. In other words, it doesn’t matter what idea the speaker was actually trying to communicate or express; what is important is how the words were taken by the hearer. A speaker is thus automatically assumed to be guilty—regardless of what was intended—once offence is taken; it also seems that a speaker cannot defend him- or herself against the charge of aggression.

So, in a nutshell, a speaker is automatically guilty of being aggressive wherever and whenever a hearer takes exception to their words, no matter what was intended; truth apparently does not matter. These policies seem to me dangerous precisely because they throw away the very useful model of language as a communicative tool, which one party uses to try to communicate an idea or thought to another party, and attempt to replace it with a one-sided, non-communicative model of language, where, regardless of what the speaker may have intended, the hearer alone gets to decide what was originally intended; to cap this off, in a butchering of logic, this model also makes the speaker responsible for that hearer’s (mis)interpretation. This paradoxical model of language robs the speaker of agency, judges him or her on how someone took their words, condemns him or her as guilty of aggression and leaves him or her with no means of defending themselves against the charge. Such policies, which are more reminiscent of the ‘re-education’ characteristic of show-trials and struggle sessions than proper education, herald the end of communicative language altogether on university campuses: if you are no longer sure whether or not what you say will trigger someone else no matter what you may have meant, are you more likely to keep trying to communicate or simply shut up? In a capricious and unpredictable environment, where even just the perception of offence can get you into hot water, it makes more sense to stay silent. Is this what we want to see from universities? I know I certainly don’t.

What troubles me most about university policies such as these is that we are actually witnessing the intrusion of institutional authority—here, the university—into individuals’ daily interactions, where that authority not only actively takes sides but seeks to prescribe how individuals should think and speak to one another. In other words, this situation seems to be about controlling speech through institutional interventions into individuals’ freedom of speech and the free exchange of ideas; and this is being done in universities by the universities themselves.

Reading about Rowan put me in mind of Roland Barthes’ (in)famous notion of ‘the death of the author.’ Barthes’ essay has commonly been taken to mean that the reader’s interpretation of a book is more important than what the author meant or intended; and, on the face of it, it’s tempting to say that Barthes’ notion is now being pressed into service by universities for the purpose of policing of speech and thought in the name of identity politics.

But ironies abound: the Rowan University policies are really more of an active distortion of what Barthes wrote (note, also, the delicious irony of how talking about what Barthes intended in an essay about the death of authorial intention is unavoidable–there are limits to how freely one may interpret a text). For Barthes, an author’s biographical or personal attributes—his or her political views, historical context, religion, ethnicity, psychology and so on—were not to be taken as binding when interpreting a text. This position is incompatible with an identity politics view of the world, where the genetic fallacy is never not in play. Indeed, Barthes’ own words would be enough to convict him of being a ‘microaggressor’ at Rowan, seeing that—according to the Campus Reform article—’When I look at you, I don’t see color,’ is also considered a ‘microaggression.’ Meanwhile, the prominent anti-authoritarian streak in Barthes’ essay is diametrically opposed to Rowan policies, which seem to be about creating and enshrining the very type of tyrannical authority over meaning that Barthes was trying to dislodge in his essay: at Rowan, readers or hearers get to assign a single, authoritative interpretation to every utterance—their own.


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