De Tocqueville: A Bit More on ‘Microaggressions’ and Rowan University.

Alexis Charles Henri Clérel, Viscount de Tocqueville

Since my post the other day on so-called ‘microaggressions’ at Rowan University, I’ve been unable to get Alexis de Tocqueville‘s Democracy in America out of my head; volume 2, section 4, chapter 6–‘What Sort Of Despotism Democratic Nations Have To Fear’in particular.

Yes, I know that it’s a hoary old chestnut that has been cited here, there and everywhere by all sorts of people, some of whom I might not want to be counted among; nonetheless, de Tocqueville’s thinking offers a useful lens for viewing what speech-and-offence codes on university campuses are doing to both their students and their freedom.

Here’s the snippet I’ve been pondering the most:



Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood: it is well content that the people should rejoice, provided they think of nothing but rejoicing. For their happiness such a government willingly labors, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of that happiness; it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances: what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living?

Thus it every day renders the exercise of the free agency of man less useful and less frequent; it circumscribes the will within a narrower range and gradually robs a man of all the uses of himself. The principle of equality has prepared men for these things; it has predisposed men to endure them and often to look on them as benefits.

After having thus successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp and fashioned him at will, the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.

Beautiful writing, isn’t it? That’s even in translation.

De Tocqueville is, of course, talking about the state, and Rowan University is just a university. Indeed. But what connects them for me is the process whereby individuals are infantilized and their freedom eroded by an institution that has authority over them. Rowan’s policies on ‘microaggressions’ boil down to an institutional interference in how grown people talk to each other; and, as de Tocqueville notes, the process of infantilization is carried out through a benign, mild authority that is composed of ‘a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate.’ Indeed, such an authoritative network of ‘microrules’ seems designed to ensnare, rather than free, individuals through the active micromanagement of small, everyday interactions. De Tocqueville also reminds us that ‘[s]ubjection in minor affairs breaks out every day and is felt by the whole community indiscriminately. It does not drive men to resistance, but it crosses them at every turn, till they are led to surrender the exercise of their own will.’ It’s hard not see the same grinding mechanism at work in Rowan’s policies, which amount to imposing a one-sided model of language wherein everyday conversations must take place in accordance with rules that both presume the guilt of the one accused of causing offence and prevent the same from refuting the charges. Such a model of communication clearly has nothing to do with dialogue, no matter what is claimed; it rather resembles the controlling one-way flow of information used by the Senders in William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch. It is designed to shut people up.

De Tocqueville makes it clear that the old words like ‘tyranny’ and ‘despotism’ don’t quite capture what he wants to isolate for scrutiny: this network does not ‘tyrannize’ per se; nor should we expect it to resemble a ‘despotic’ regime, complete with a dear leader wearing a vaguely militaristic uniform surrounded by laughing-but-terrified minions. On the contrary, this ‘despotism’ doesn’t look much like despotism at all. As de Tocqueville notes earlier in the same chapter, this ‘despotism’ even looks mild at first glance: ‘it would be more extensive and more mild; it would degrade men without tormenting them.’ Therein lies the network’s insidiousness: it reaches into every corner of your existence, making you dependent upon it, unable to function without it, as it quietly degrades you, reducing you to the state of being a helpless, perpetual, child, utterly in grip of its mild power.

Can such a form of authority, which disregards personal freedoms as it ‘compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies’ people, reducing them ‘to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals,’ actually be considered a good thing? How can such a form of authority do much besides stunt its charges? It certainly can’t do much to equip them with the skills required to stand on their own two feet like reasoning and free individuals.

And what if both the university and the state want the same thing?

‘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.