An Anecdote About Campus Microgressions and Intolerance

On a brisk autumn evening, I was about to cross Campus Drive when I noticed an acquaintance waiting for the shuttle. He was a retired Eastern European diplomat and consequently had something of an old world feel about him. After we shook hands and started chatting about politics, another acquaintance happened by. She was a graduate student versed in women’s studies.

After I had introduced them, the diplomat whipped off his glove and extended a hand for her to shake. He had kept his glove on while shaking my hand, and the female graduate student noticed the difference.

If you have been reading Conor Friedersdorf’s or Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s writings about campus culture in The Atlantic, you can imagine what happened next.

The women recoiled from the gendered micro-aggression and lambasted the diplomat: “Do you think women are too frail to touch a gloved hand or is this some kind of creepy come on?!!”.

The diplomat’s face registered shock and he began stammering “I didn’t…I don’t understand..”

The student continued “Well you should understand and it’s not my job to educate you. I don’t have to put up with your patriarchal bullshit!”.

Red-faced and near tears, this gentle, cultured man apologized repeatedly to both of us and retreated down the sidewalk, so upset that he forgot his briefcase on the shuttle stop bench as he fled.

As I said, that’s what you would imagine happened if you have been reading a certain set of critiques in The Atlantic about over-sensitive, ultra-P.C., over-coddled elite university denizens. But here’s what really happened:

The three of us talked pleasantly until the diplomat’s shuttle arrived. After he departed, I said I had never seen a man take off a glove before shaking a woman’s hand and asked the student if she had or if she knew whence the custom came.

She smiled and responded “I really don’t know; maybe they do that where he’s from. But he’s a sweet old man and I could tell it was his way of being gallant.”

That anecdote is representative of what I have seen over and over again from students for decades — a spirit of common humanity and a tolerance for different ways of acting and thinking. People come to my university from all countries and all backgrounds with a huge range of beliefs and customs. Yet I have never (and I do mean never) witnessed anything on campus suggesting that the atmosphere of widespread intolerance, suspicion and emotional fragility that I keep reading about in The Atlantic actually exists. Yes, some students now and then have goofy ideas or act in rude ways, but, *cough*, I seem to remember that being just as much the case when I was a student 30 years ago.

The contrast been how universities are being described and what they are actually like has led me to investigate. Over the past few years, I have asked many colleagues and students at my university and at other universities this two-part question “Have you read how students today are coddled, intolerant, whiny, narrow-minded prigs and do you yourself have any experience at all of this?”. Everyone has answered yes to the first part of the question and all but a handful have answered no to the second.

I thus remain dubious that the heavily recycled grab bag of anecdotes I keep hearing from Conor Friedersdorf and company establish that universities have suddenly become hell-holes of epistemic closure, Maoist impulses and mattress wallpaper. Repeating dramatic anecdotes does not make them more representative of the experiences of the over 15 million students at our country’s over 4,500 colleges and universities. But apparently it does make better copy in the eyes of the editors of The Atlantic.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College Lonon. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over ten thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

36 thoughts on “An Anecdote About Campus Microgressions and Intolerance”

  1. I've red anecdotes about Stage 4 cancer patients who, when their doctors had told them there was nothing more they could do, went to some holistic clinic in Mexico (or Central America, or Eastern Europe, or The Orient) where they got a fruit and vegetable diet and learned to set aside their anxieties, and miraculously their cancer disappeared.

    In this world of infinite connectivity, there are stories available to fit any conclusion you'd like to draw.

    In my world, my observation is that each generation is more curious, more knowledgeable, and more understanding than the previous. Outliers notwithstanding, I like the progress we're making.

  2. A lovely little story, but your post seems to argue against the profusion of anecdotes with… an anecdote. The people raising concern about trends in campus culture have not, to the best of my knowledge, suggested that 100% of contemporary students are rude, closed-minded, or emotionally immature. Only that these traits are growing in frequency and widespread enough to be worrisome to those who value civility and free expression. Perhaps they are right, perhaps they are wrong. But they are no more proven wrong by your story than would be someone raising concern about police injustice toward minorities by someone relating a charming anecdote about how this one white police officer and this one black teenager had a charming and civil conversation with one another.

    1. I may have been too subtle, but look at the title of my post and ask yourself if you think I didn't know what I was doing.

    2. I see no indication that the author thinks he has proven anything to anyone else, but merely related good reasons for his own skepticism.

    3. // but your post seems to argue against the profusion of anecdotes with… an anecdote //

      Ah yes, but as you can see the author took care to seek scientific peer review of his anecdotal evidence. ;>)

      Now I know what I've been doing wrong when I've responded to reefer-madness screeds with expressions of "That doesn't match my rather extensive experience with the substance and its users", only to be shot down with the "anecdata" objection. I simply need only to poll and cite others who are already motivated to confirm my observations and presto! – consensus reality has been established! /s

  3. Were you wearing gloves? Was she? Did he perhaps respond quickly to a proffered handshake from you, where removing the glove would have seemed like fumbling, but had an extra moment to prepare with her? Was he perhaps more the offerer of the handshake in one instance and the offeree in the other, and could that have made a difference? Do you have notably larger and stronger hand that she does, which even a saint of gender equality might have taken into account? This anecdote may have *even less* to do with gender than it first appears.

  4. And here I thought you were drawing us in to deliver one of your truly awful puns a la "don't get caught red handed" or something. Nice story.

  5. I read a study (possibly linked to here) in the past election year showing that the notion that university students have become more liberal in the last 50 years is utterly unfounded. In fact, nearly the reverse. Students ENTERING college are more liberal at age 17 or 18 than they were a generation or two generations ago. In attitudes toward gender orientation, sexual equality, pre-marital sex, drug use, abortion, integration, inter-racial marriages, religious tolerance, etc. But by the time they LEAVE college, their attitudes are roughly equivalent to college graduates a generation or two ago. Meaning, obviously, that their time on college campuses tends to make them more conservative at age 22 than they were at age 18. After a lifetime in or around the fringes of academia I have only witnessed three instances of people being called out for using the incorrect word (once myself, referring to someone as being bi when she considered herself queer, because her boyfriend was going to become a woman). It just doesn't happen, unless the other person is being a dick (as in, refusing to stop saying "illegal alien" rather than "undocumented worker", or continuing to say "oriental" thirty years after it has gone out of style). Online I occasionally see someone criticized for calling Donald Trump "lame", or "blind to the needs of the poor" and they get accused of able-ism. But in the real world, it's exceedingly rare. Again, unless the person is an asshole on a regular basis.

  6. There is also a huge variance in academic cultures. The institution at which I did my PhD had a fairly conservative undergraduate student body owing to a rural setting in a state with two large urban public institutions of fairly high quality. Now I am a postdoc at a famously ultra-left institution where some of the really ridiculous stuff does periodically happen. Pearl-clutching reporting by anecdote is a really silly genre, regardless.

  7. The moral licensing of crude racism and xenophobia by Donald Trump – see this from Carl Paladino – may give progressive Americans a rest from microaggressions and the minutiae of PC vocabulary. Racist attacks are on the rise, and I fear we are already not far from the revival of nigger, wog, wop, Chink, and kike as non-taboo terms of common abuse. The only thing to be said for the revival of real racism and bigotry is that it will deflect attention from mere unthinking discourtesy.

  8. Perhaps the situation at Stanford is the laudable exception, but you are in denial about the broader trend. The phrase "check your privilege" was unheard of 30 years ago. Today it is invoked routinely to silence conversation on campus, in both classrooms and in more casual settings. Accusations of racism were extremely rare 30 years ago and, in my experience, were limited to unambiguously racist statements or actions. Today, such accusations are routinely made for all manner of incidental slights (like your glove anecdote) and microagressions (another term that didn't exist a generation ago). The vast majority of colleges did not have speech codesthat threatened expulsion for making "inappropriate" comments in a private conversation. The chilling effect on free speech is very real.

    1. Are you sure about the broader trend? Since the whole point here is that dueling anecdotes allows everyone to believe what they want without regard to the actual conditions on the ground, it's either missing the point–or commendably dry humor–to flatly assert that one's own preferred set of anecdotes gives an accurate picture of the present state.

      1. I'm fairly sure. Some facts are undeniable. I know college speech codes were almost unheard of 30 years ago and they are ubiquitous today. I know that the Supreme Court didn't decide Davis v. Monroe County Schools until 1999, which was the first decision holding that schools could be held liable for peer to peer sexual harassment–which then gave colleges reason to monitor and regulate private inter-student communications. I know "Bias Response Teams" are new. I know colleges did not have full time Title IX compliance offices to investigate alleged student speech that is deemed "offensive or inappropriate." I know that demands for trigger warnings are new. I know that comedians like Richard Prior, George Carlin, Sam Kinison, Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock performed on college campuses and told "offensive" jokes without protest 20 years ago. I don't believe college campuses are akin to the Soviet Union or Iran under the ayatollahs when it comes to free speech, but yes, I'm fairly certain that the trend toward restricting speech, punishing speech and no-platforming speakers and performers deemed "controversial" has accelerated significantly from a generation ago.

        1. Mark Tushnet is sensible on trigger warnings and safe spaces. If a teacher is going to discuss the law of rape, it is surely good pedagogic practice to give notice of this, in a way that is not necessary for say rules of civil procedure. A significant proportion of women students have experienced rape or been threatened with it, and it is sensible to allow them to take a rain check on discussion if they would find taking part too painful, or prepare themselves if they do not. If an instructor is going to discuss Huckleberry Finn, it would be negligence not to give warming of and explain Twain's naming of "Nigger JIm". Of course you can find anecdotes of nonsense and over-sensitivity. But there are also real hurts out there than can become rocks for effective teaching. Telling instructors that they should never issue trigger warnings is a gross interference in their professional autonomy.

          1. I find the subject of trigger warnings to be highly subjective. For example, on this very thread, for all to see, you have twice used the "N word," along with several other racial epithets, without issuing a trigger warning. You've also referred to rape without alerting readers in advance. You simply assumed that adult readers had the emotional maturity to encounter those terms without suffering an emotional reaction so profound that your pedagogic point would be lost. I'm sure we could agree on certain extreme examples where a warning or head's up makes sense, but law students in a criminal law course should anticipate learning about the law of rape.

          2. Never issued a trigger warning in almost 30 years of teaching at 4 different universities or in talks in 25 countries – I teach about addiction, death, prison, sexual assault, AIDS, cancer, homicide — thousands and thousands of students have heard me speak, zero complaints about being traumatized ever. Zero requests for trigger warnings ever. Have asked many professors at other places their experience and it's the same.
            But because my experience and those of my colleagues does not fit the desired narrative, it will I am sure be ignored or discounted, instead someone will say that last week at a sociology course at an Ohio community college someone complained about something so therefore academia is like that every single day all over the world and will collapse any day now (Just like books about this tiresome topic said 10 years ago and 20 years ago and 30 years ago….)

  9. Well, when I was in college 25 years ago, PC culture was going strong and there were plenty of discussions about what racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. were and were not. These were things to be discussed as important and complex. I don't think the term "microaggression" was in use yet, but I would have welcomed it: I think it expresses quite well the sort of minor display of rudeness and indignities that are natural outgrowths of power dynamics across all types of privileges.

    What hasn't changed, is the constant drumbeat that we shouldn't even be discussing these issues, that racism, sexism, etc. are all "things of the past". (Of course, you couldn't say that about homophobia!). The classic straw-man argument from this position is to point to those who are excessive in their use of these discussions to shame others or to seek to project a sense of themselves as morally superior.

    But the fact of the matter is that in academia these are very serious topics that deservedly get a great deal of attention. One only has to take a brief glance at history to see why understanding the reasons why humans oppress each other is a fundamental question for our species. Sure, it can get tired or lazy, but that just requires each of us to dig deeper and engage with one another more critically.

    1. Yup yup yup — I was there too of course. And there was also a whole industry then like there is today taking every incident as representative of the decline of civilization and hysterically saying academia was teetering on the edge of collapse. The current crop of people are not just recycling ancedotes, they are recycling Dinesh D'Souza, Roger Kimball et al., who weren't that convincing the first time round.

      1. The comedy movie "PCU" was 23 years ago; so by that point, campus political correctness was already a thing mocked in mainstream culture to a sufficient degree to inspire a film.

  10. Try thirty plus years ago. I remember when in a class on 18th Century English literature, a young woman became agitated that we were being asked to read Dr. Johnson who had opinions that, in the light of 20-th century attitudes, are indeed sexist. She, in fact, turned her seat to the back during the discussion of that required text. The majority of those of us in the class, however, although sympathetic to her concerns, were simply amused and a little put-off by her lack of a detached perspective on what was essentially a class dealing with cultural history rather normative prescriptions.

    Making such distinctions is often difficult for young people who have just become aware of injustice and their ability – and often obligation – to exercise moral judgment. Sorting it all out is part of what one does in college, or, at least, what one used to do before the goal of college became getting a high-paying job.

  11. Of course making up a fake anecdote in no way shows that incidents like the imagined one don't happen–so we can ignore that bit. I've seen more than one incident much more ridiculous than the imagined one, at any rate.

    Professor Humphries's important points are really these:
    (a) He has never personally experienced the kind of left-wing insanity that is currently common on university campuses–and, sadly, increasingly, beyond them
    and
    (b) He charges–as I understand it–that there is insufficient evidence for concluding that the phenomenon *is* common, charging Friedersdorf with "recycling" a "grab-bag" of anecdotes. (I'm not sure why it would matter were it a grab-bag…is systematicity crucial here?)

    I find it hard to believe that Professor Humphries hasn't experienced this sort of thing–I've experienced quite a lot of it, both during the paleo-PC outbreak of the late '80s-early '90s and during the current outbreak. Both times I've also experienced liberals vehemently denying that what was happening all around us was happening all around us. But I suppose there's not much use in arguing about his particular experience, or mine.

    What really matters is that there is *plenty* of evidence that this phenomenon is alarmingly widespread. The evidence is easy to find…in fact, I would have thought it was hard to avoid… And it is–sadly–not merely a few "recycled" "anecdotes." I sincerely wish that's all there were to it. One problem is the one aforementioned: liberals deny that that the phenomenon exists, fail to report on it, dismiss reports when they do appear, insist that it's only a few cases… I can go round up fifty cases in the next hour or so if you'd like me to…though I'd suggest–with all due respect–that you'd be better off opening your eyes and looking for yourself. You might check the FIRE website, just for starters…

    How any professor can be sanguine about widespread–or even less-than-widespread–efforts to suppress inquiry and discussion is beyond me. Speech codes, attempts at "deplatforming," shouting down speakers who are insufficiently far to the left, abuses of TItle IX to suppress expression, the general mischaracterization of disagreement as violence…and that's really just one aspect of the problem! These are hardly trivialities.

    With no empirical studies, I suppose you can plead "anecdotes!" all day long…but I think this is exceedingly irresponsible. Attempts to squelch inquiry and expression are always bad, but they are inexcusable at universities. And they are not isolated events. There is a theory or cluster of theories that has gained currency on the left. It is decidedly anti-liberal, so it's especially frustrating that liberals would defend it. But, at any rate, to pretend that it's nothing more than a few isolated incidents betrays either intellectual dishonesty or an unfamiliarity with readily-available facts.

    1. "He charges–as I understand it–that there is insufficient evidence for concluding that the phenomenon *is* common,…"

      Zero, Professor Humphries did not merely state that the evidence was insufficient. He went much farther, as you can see in his next-to-last paragraph. What I see there is that he has taken the trouble, over a significant time span, over a number of colleges and universities, and over a significant sample of both faculty and students, to try to quantify the problem. And he has found in his investigation that yes, these types of characterizations are widespread, and yet no, they are generally not encountered in person.

      Is that correct? I dunno. But I would never suggest that Professor Humphries has simply said "I don't see it myself, so it ain't so."

    2. Beautifully written, and dead on. In one semester of medical school, I already have 3 specific cases that I personally witnessed / experienced. But, as I am sure Mr. Humphreys would immediately point out, those are merely anecdotes… right?

      I used to think that the anti-PC people were just (internet usage) mad at the lack of traction their backwards ideas gained in places of learning. Now that I have spent time in those institutions, I understand that – on this issue – conservatives are absolutely right. It is actually a very adult lesson to learn, since I still (and especially with T.rump's meteoric rise from the depths of reality T.V. self-promotion to.what was formerly one of the most illustrious offices in human history) disagree with conservatives on almost everything.

  12. My husband just retired from a large Midwestern University. He encountered very few examples of extreme PC temper tantrums – but lots of similar tantrums from students convinced that they deserved A++ for their slightest effort.

    1. Spent last weekend with an old friend who teaches humanities in the Big Ten – he has the same experience as your husband.

    2. I was a physics TA at Harvard and kept getting assigned to an introductory physics class specifically geared to pre-meds–and it was usually the second semester, on electromagnetism. These students all needed to get excellent grades in the class, so they could get into med school, but had not the slightest interest in the care and feeding of Maxwell's equations. It was a bad combination for generating whining and special pleading. But I suppose that was a product of the system.

  13. I'm of two minds here. I understand the point being made, but one thing bothers me.

    Had I been present at the incident described I would not have noticed the business about the glove at all, and if I had it would not have occurred to me that it had any significance whatsoever.

    That this was worthy of notice at all suggests to me that the PC critics are not all wrong.

    1. Noticing and being interested in cultural differences is now PC? No one was offended or even thought it might be offensive and no one thought it had great significance either. I just noticed and was curious as I might notice someone's unusual accent or dress or views of life or preferred foods etc. Maybe you consider that PC as well but to me it is just the common courtesy of taking interest in the people around me.

      1. Let me be clearer.

        It's not that anything you did or said was PC. What I was getting at was that even if I had noticed the glove removal, it would never have occurred to me to think about whether or not it was a sexist gesture. That this bears consideration surprises me.

        1. I had no thought at all that it might be a sexist gesture nor did the women student, we just noticed it as a potentially intriguing cultural difference. That is all; no one was offended or had any idea that it even might be offensive. No more of consequence than an unusual accent or hat etc.

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