The perils of microaggression containment efforts.

Jonathan Haidt wrote a brief commentary The Unwisest Idea on Campus on the Lilienfeld piece that I mentioned in my blog entry It is time for a moratorium…  In the piece Haidt recounts the biggest perils from efforts to diminish microaggression. He notes how the efforts undermine openness and students’ ability to challenge each other, their professors and orthodox ideas. He lays out two other effects which I feel are less widely appreciated: diminishing individuals’ and groups’ ability to appraise; and, exacerbating certain personality traits that undermine individuals’ mental well-being.

The noxious effect of moral certainty on appraisal. Referring to his 2006 book The Happiness Hypothesis (especially chapters 2 & 4 – link to chapter 4), Haidt reminds us how many of the great world thinkers pointed out the importance of appraisal:


The whole universe is change and life itself is but what you deem it. (Marcus Aurelius, 1964; Meditations , 4:3)


What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday, and our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow: our life is the creation of our mind. (Buddha, The Dhammapada, in Mascaro, 1973)


Haidt notes….the “ancients knew that we don’t react to the world as it is; we react to the world as we construct it in our own minds. They also knew that in the process of construction we are overly judgmental and outrageously hypocritical.” To construct a more accurate representation of the world, great thinkers over the ages have urged people to contain their moral certainty and to cultivate generosity of spirit:


Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? . . . You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye. (Matthew 7:3–5)


Microaggression containment initiatives encourage moral certainty and ungenerosity of spirit and undermine our capacity for appraisal. The training instructs in how to detect ever smaller specks in your neighbor’s eye. It tells students that “life itself is exactly what you think it is—you have a direct pipeline to reality, and the person who offended you does not, so go with your feelings.”

The harmful effects of individuals’ negative emotionality and self-perception as victims. Some students arrive on campus with personality traits of negative emotionality and a tendency to perceive themselves as victims. Haidt notes these traits are correlated with depression and anxiety disorders. And, “students who score high on these traits perceive more microaggressions in ambiguous circumstances.” In this way, these traits “bring misery and anger to the students themselves, and these negative emotions and the conflicts they engender are likely to radiate outward through the students’ social networks”.

Microaggression containment environment could exacerbate these problems. “How should colleges respond to the presence of students who score high on these traits? Should they offer them cognitive behavioral therapy or moral validation? Should they hand them a copy of The Dhammapada or a microaggression training manual?” Haidt suggests the latter is likely to “make the most fragile and anxious students quicker to take offense and more self-certain and self-righteous.”

The upshot. Growing numbers of students are learning “to react with pain and anger to ever-smaller specks that they learn to see in each other’s eyes.” This undermines the quality of discourse on campus. More than that, students are less likely to become good appraisers. And, students with strong negative emotionality and a tendency to perceive themselves as victims may become even more miserable than they otherwise would have been.


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