A couple of public elementary schools in Minnesota recently announced they had hired a “recess consultant” to “guide” children’s play during recesses. (Stop and think about that for a moment — when you were in elementary school, did you need a consultant to guide you through recess? Me neither.) Now, if violence had been recurrent on their playgrounds, this pilot program might appear to have some safety value, but no. The “aggression” which the “recess consultant” is intended to prevent appears to fall into a category over which some with Ph.D.’s in education and too much time on their hands have been wringing those hands frequently in 2015: “microaggression.”
“Microaggression” encompasses virtually any expression which offends or makes someone feel excluded. It can be anything from using the terms “winners” and “losers” in a game to wearing an American flag t-shirt (e.g. some California public schools prohibit displaying the American flag on Mexico’s Independence Day). But from my combined perspectives as a psychologist and lawyer, the very concept of “microaggression” is, in and of itself, aggressive! Why? Because it’s all in the eye of the beholder—it gives individuals the power to brand others as “aggressors” by simply, subjectively, deciding to be offended by something.
That ought to concern all of us because of the logical next steps. Will we soon be punishing such “aggressors?” Now, if the punishment’s purely social — peers choosing not to associate with perpetrators of perceived incivility unless/until they shape up, fine. But public employees punishing individuals for perceived “microaggression,” whether on a playground or in the public square, portends profound problems.
Rather than a path to a new kind of civility, it’s just a new path to an old kind of tyranny—bad as it may be for a child to feel excluded or offended, a community in which the only permissible expression is that which no one finds objectionable (if there is such a thing) is worse! And as is the case with any kind of tyranny, this form ultimately weakens individuals rather than strengthening them.
Like not keeping score and awarding trophies to all participants in youth sports so no one feels excluded athletically, like canceling honors recognition ceremonies so no one feels excluded academically, like banning Christmas carols from “winter” choir recitals so no one feels excluded culturally — essentially excluding everyone in the name of inclusiveness — policing “microaggression” in K-12 public schools is rooted in the misguided belief that children are entitled never to feel offended or excluded. Well they’re not, and acting like they are deprives them of opportunities to develop self-efficacy, resilience, tolerance, and empathy. It primes them to grow into college students who don’t mind having their free speech rights curtailed by campus “speech codes,” then into professionals who don’t mind having their incomes “equalized” by the government. And as a nation is made of individuals, weakening individuals weakens the nation.
I believe most parents intuitively understand the misguidedness of trying to shield children from ever feeling excluded or offended. Unfortunately, for many parents, understanding the misguidedness of something doesn’t necessarily translate into doing anything about it.
It’s up to parents to teach their children to be respectful, resilient, and resourceful when they feel excluded from others’ activities or achievements and even when they feel offended by others’ (nonviolent) incivility. I strongly advise against abdicating to public officials — on playgrounds or anywhere else — this very important, very personal responsibility. And if you’d like to know more about entitlement vs. personal responsibility in K-12 public schools, my new book, Stop Moaning, Start Owning: How Entitlement Is Ruining America and How Personal Responsibility Can Fix It, is available everywhere now from HCI Books.