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Northwestern President Arguing With Himself Over Microaggressions … and Losing

Last month, we reported on Northwestern University President Morton Schapiro’s comments about critics of safe spaces, microaggressions, and trigger warnings, in which he described people who think trigger warnings undermine the First Amendment as “lunatics,” and those who deny the existence of microaggressions as “idiots.” Now, Schapiro has said those comments were a mistake, but stands by his reasoning.

We agree that they were a mistake, but contend that Schapiro’s reasoning—on microaggressions specifically—is equally mistaken.

The Daily Northwestern reported Schapiro’s backtracking:

“Did I mean to call people idiots? I certainly didn’t,” Schapiro told The Daily on Tuesday. “It was a mistake because… it made it easier for people who don’t believe in the existence of microaggressions.”

Schapiro’s initial comments were disappointing for a number of reasons, but asserting that they helped apparent microaggression deniers isn’t one of them. Instead, according to FIRE President and CEO Greg Lukianoff, Schapiro’s comment about “people who don’t believe in the existence of microaggressions” evinces a misunderstanding of the current debate altogether.

“Who precisely is he referring to?” Greg said when reached via email. “I’m not familiar with anybody who thinks microaggressions don’t exist, or who thinks that people don’t engage in small racist, sexist, or otherwise hurtful slights, both consciously and unconsciously. The primary disagreement is about how serious microaggressions are, how they should be defined, and if they should be policed. Even when apologizing, Northwestern’s president can’t resist strawmen arguments.”

The real problem with Schapiro’s original comments falls neatly within the scope of the microaggression discussion that the rest of us have been having. His offhand dismissal of critics as “idiots” and “lunatics”—terms that, in Schapiro’s own opinion, constitute microaggressions against people with mental health issues—bolsters an argument frequently leveled against disciplining speakers for microaggressions: the harm they cause is often unintentional and subjective.

And that’s what should give the Northwestern community pause. If Schapiro himself can’t keep track of what a microaggression is, or resist accidentally using one, how can others on campus be expected to do so? And what consequences should students, or even a university president, face for using one?

Important questions remain about microaggressions. We hope that Northwestern’s president will take his role as an educator seriously, and thoughtfully engage in this important debate.

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