Is there a right to feel good about ourselves?

We have produced an overly fragile generation, which has to be protected from just about everything, lest someone feels upset.

 |  4-minute read |   16-07-2017
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The History department at Cambridge University has told its examiners to avoid using "brilliant", "flair" and "genius": "Some of those words, in particular 'genius', have a very long intellectual history where it has long been associated with qualities culturally assumed to be male. Some women are fine with that, but others might find it hard to see themselves in those categories."

These words are seen as carrying "assumptions of gender inequality and also of class and ethnicity."

Meanwhile, in Oxford, a controversy about differential gowns. When you go to write an exam in Oxford you dress up for it. Those who’ve scored a distinction or have won scholarships, wear longer-sleeved gowns than the rest.

Some students protested that the gowns are a "visual reminder of what they might perceive as their academic inferiority."

One wrote: "I walk into the tent and it's all the boys wearing the gowns. I already feel inferior being a girl here, let alone a woman of colour, and to just be reminded of every alienating feeling while standing in the tent is the most disheartening thing before an exam."

Let me add here, that as a former undergraduate of colour at Oxford, the only thing on one’s mind when one is rushing for an exam is the exam.

I didn’t even notice that others were wearing longer robes. The biggest obstacle when you’re going to take an exam in your robes is the Japanese tourists who surround you like a lynch mob and force you to stop and pose for photographs.

oxbd_071617115248.jpgIn Oxford, a controversy about differential gowns.

Two questions arise from this controversy over supposedly white male adjectives and the lengths of gowns. One, are universities guilty of overregulation and thought-policing? Two, have we produced an overly fragile generation, which has to be protected from just about everything, lest someone feels upset?

In an essay in the London Review of Books, David Bromwich, Sterling professor of English at Yale University, discusses this "expanded field for taking offence" in "the new regime of manners", where books come with "trigger warnings" and "diversity administrators" of colleges send out warning notices to students that their Halloween costumes don’t encroach on identities.

So, for example, this passage from Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence, becomes problematic: "It was generally agreed in New York that the Countess Olenska had 'lost her looks'".

The worry is that "any girl taking the exam" will experience the mention of losing your looks as a "psychic punch" that impairs concentration on the rest of the exam.

This obsession with political correctness can take on comical proportions. Bromwich gives the example of microaggression, which occurs when a member of the dominant culture by word or gesture betrays an assumption that there is something unusual about those not belonging to this dominant culture.

This leads to a classic double bind: "a white student passing a black and not looking at him could plausibly be charged with microaggression. Replay the same encounter, but with an unusually long look – say, five or six seconds – and the charge of microaggression is just as plausible."

How should the infraction be punished?

"By re-education, it has been suggested, in the form of additional diversity training and sensitivity training. Persuaded by this concept and by a therapeutic literature and practice that cater to it, young people of more than one race have come to think themselves uniquely delicate and exposed."

A number of liberal thinkers have critiqued the obsession of western universities with political correctness. In the aftermath of Trump’s election, Mark Lilla wrote that the obsession with diversity issues on campuses was playing into the hands of outlets like Fox News, which love to mock "campus craziness".

Dissident feminist, Camille Paglia wrote in Time: "How is it possible that today’s academic Left has supported rather than protested campus speech codes as well as the grotesque surveillance and over-regulation of student life? American colleges have abandoned their educational mission and become government colonies, ruled by officious bureaucrats enforcing federal dictates."

The sociologist Jonathan Cole pointed out in the Atlantic that these "vigilant speech monitors", have followed all their lives "a straight and narrow path". They have never deviated into "a passion unrelated to school work, and have not been allowed, therefore, to live what many would consider a normal childhood – to play, to learn by doing, to challenge their teachers, to make mistakes."

Bromwich quotes the redoubtable Beatrix Campbell: "Debate is not a death sentence and feeling offended is not the same as feeling or being exterminated. There is a human right to life, but there is no right to be not offended," before concluding: "The truth is that in some areas we are close to excogitating a right not to feel offended. The words 'right,' 'feel' and 'offended' in Campbell’s sharp formulation, all are coming to have legal definitions that carry immediate force. It is a right because its violation exposes the offender to penalties of fine, imprisonment or mandatory re-education. Feeling counts because feeling in the offended person is a dispositive fact: proof (which needs no further support) that a crime was committed. We are not far in America – is it just America? – from evolving a right to feel good about ourselves."

(Courtesy: Mail Today.)

Also read: I'm black but not as black as you


Palash Krishna Mehrotra Palash Krishna Mehrotra @palashmehrotra

Freelance journalist and author of The Butterfly Generation.

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