New phantom haunting free speech


George Hasara – Columnist

georgehasar[35]I try to keep up with pop culture and recently discovered the phenomenon of “microaggression.” According to, it is a subtle but offensive comment or action, (often unintentional) directed at a minority. “Funny, you don’t look like a Laplander to me.” Or, “You drive well for your age.”

Even as kid, I knew it wasn’t right calling a black person, “one of the good ones,” or, “they are a credit to their race.” Fast forward to 2007 and you have Joe Biden describing Barack Obama as, “… the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.” That’s a rather poorly thought-out remark especially since Sidney Poitier, decades earlier, rocked the establishment with ground-breaking films such as “Lilies of the Field” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” portraying an assertive, articulate and handsome black protagonist.

Biden has battled foot-in mouth disease throughout his lifetime and that alone should qualify him for some type of minority rights protection. Other prominent figures continue to run afoul of microaggression monitors. The late Justice Antonin Scalia last year took criticism for suggesting that some African-American students might be better off attending less competitive schools. His academic premise was lost in the shuffle and replaced with debate over perceived bigoted intent.

Much of the flak over the exercise of free speech shows up on college campuses. These are places, at least in theory, that should be tolerant and welcoming of expression and not so quick to take offense or to try to censure diversity of thought. In October, Clemson University made national news with a contrived controversy over its annual “Maximum Mexican” cuisine event. It was felt, by a handful of students, that a gringo representation of a Mexican fiesta was degrading. Clemson’s administration gushed with apologies over this perceived microaggression. No word yet on the school’s St. Patrick’s Day event but they better tread lightly with leprechauns.

Perhaps the culturally offended Clemson students were inspired by what had happened at the University of California at Santa Cruz. At the school’s sci-fi-themed “Intergalactic” party, Mexican food was served. Someone, who must have been majoring in “free association,” cobbled a connection between “space aliens” and Mexican “illegal aliens.” Once again, a university’s administration caved, saying the school “Made a poor decision when choosing to serve a Mexican food buffet during a program that included spaceships and “aliens,” failing to take into account how these choices might be perceived by others.” I wonder about apologizing for phantom insults and its effect of fostering a sense of victimhood and entitlement.

It’s good to take stock of how we phrase things, but it’s a mistake to try to draw snap conclusions on the intent of others, based on snippets of expression. Microaggression becomes more of a problem when we try to micro-manage what others say. Microaggression is related to an old technique known as the backhanded compliment, where an insult is disguised as a compliment. It’s also called the left-handed compliment but that sounds like that could be a microaggression as well.

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