Universities use “microaggressions” to stifle free speech, CAF investigation finds.

A number of universities have published guides, training courses, and statements on microaggressions which undermine freedom of expression and academic freedom.

The term “microaggression” was popularised by the Harvard psychologist Dr Derald Sue. Sue defines microaggressions as:

Everyday verbal, non-verbal and environmental slights, snubs or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership. (2019)

A significant number of British universities have published guides, training courses and statements as part of university campaigns to eliminate microaggressions. These guides, courses, and statements list example cases which the universities consider to be microaggressions. Cases listed include, for example, “a security guard following a Black person, presuming that they are going to cause damage or steal (Imperial College London)”, and “a person washing their hands after shaking hands with a gay or bisexual man (University of Warwick)”.

A number of universities have also defined the expression of various legal beliefs as “microaggressions”. This is an overt attack on intellectual freedom. These universities include:

Imperial College London (guidance produced by the faculty of Engineering)

  • “Positive action is racist.”
  • “I believe the most qualified person should get the job. We need excellence!”
  • “Men and women have equal opportunities for achievement.”
  • Judgement of “another religion as being inferior or substandard”

University of Glasgow

  • “Statements which assert that race does not play a role in life successes”, for example:
  • “I believe the most qualified person should get the job.”
  • “Everyone can succeed if they work hard enough.”

Newcastle University

  • “A White person telling a Black person “White people get killed by the police too,” when discussing police brutality.”

The beliefs listed here vary significantly in the degree of popular support they attract. Many people are likely to regard at least some of them as odd, offensive, or obviously false. But neither oddness nor offensiveness nor alleged falseness can justify an institutional campaign against them.

As well as the expression of particular beliefs, a number of universities also list cases of “denial” as microaggressions. The University of Edinburgh states that microaggressions often take the form of “questioning an individual’s lived experience” or “denying individual prejudice”. Examples include stating of a third person “I’m sure they didn’t mean anything by that” or denying that one is a racist. The University of Glasgow lists “denial of individual racism” as a type of microaggression. Imperial College lists “denial” as an entire category of microaggression. No attempt is made to define what kind of “denial” constitutes a microaggression, beyond giving three examples, and so the category is left expansively loose. The alternative to any form of “questioning” or “denial” can only be uncritical acceptance. By campaigning against “questioning” and “denial” these universities are advocating an uncritical acceptance of statements in the various, undefined areas that their microaggression guides refer to. The effect, again, is to undermine a culture of free inquiry.

Universities must not campaign against the expression of lawful beliefs. They must not take official positions. They must not outlaw “questioning” and “denial”. They must not undermine free inquiry