Are you a student at the university of Sheffield looking for work? Do you have an incredibly thin skin and a passion for policing other people’s conversations? Are you willing to work for £9.34 per hour? Then have I got the job for you.
The university is hiring 20 students to challenge offensive language on campus. In particular, they’re going to tackle racial ‘microaggressions’, described by Sheffield as ‘subtle but offensive comments’.
The brief says new recruits will help students understand racism and its impacts by leading ‘healthy conversations’, working between two and nine hours a week around campus. Vice-chancellor Koen Lamberts says the plan aims to ‘change the way people think about racism’.
But by ‘change the way people think about racism’, he seems to mean defining racism to include innocent, off-hand comments. This is what microaggression theory, first popularised in the US, does. And in doing so, it trivialises the fight against real racism.
The central idea to microaggressions is that unthoughtful comments and questions can make minority students feel uncomfortable. Classic examples cited are asking someone from an ethnic-minority background where they’re ‘really from’ or asking a person if you can touch their hair.
Such cringey behaviour is, I’m sure, irritating. But elevating minor slights to a serious form of oppression, something that necessitates official intervention, is deeply patronising. It’s as if campus authorities think minority students are incapable of dealing with the odd numpty.
It gets worse, because policing microaggressions is about more than policing interactions; it’s about policing certain ideas, even entirely legitimate ones. Indeed, at some universities in the United States, what have been dubbed microaggressions amount to opinions that woke people dislike.
The university of California put out a list of potential microaggressions in 2017 which included saying ‘I don’t believe in race’ and ‘America is a melting pot’. Presumably because those who utter such words are downplaying or pretending not to see racism they themselves are apparently participating in.
From Sheffield’s own list, it is clear this is about shutting down conversations. One of the microaggressions listed by Sheffield is: ‘Why are you searching for things to be offended about?’. This is a slight I imagine Sheffield’s microaggression monitors will find themselves enduring as they go about their duties. And with good reason.
What we see in Sheffield is the combination of two utterly regressive trends on campus. The tendency – by (predominantly white and middle-class) university managers and student officials – to treat minority students like children. And their penchant for almost comical authoritarianism.
Those of us who write about campus censorship are often told we’re mad tabloid alarmists who see Stasi-like behaviour everywhere. But then universities advertise for students to march around campus monitoring potentially offensive conversations and intervening where they deem appropriate. You couldn’t make it up.
Sheffield’s idea isn’t new. In 2017, King’s College London hired ‘Safe Space marshals’ to patrol events, making sure speakers do not offend audiences with their views. If that wasn’t sinister enough, they actually paraded around one event – featuring Jacob Rees-Mogg, incidentally – all dressed in black.
This business of dispatching spies across campus seems to be another import from the United States, that great laboratory of campus lunacy. In 2017, a report found that hundreds of colleges had bias response teams, made up of officials who respond to complaints (often made anonymously) of unwitting bigotry.
Campus censors present themselves as caring, gentle and anti-racist. But what they do in practice is precisely the opposite. They think minority students are weak and in need of their protection. And they think bans and clampdowns are the way to do it. I hope Sheffield students tell the microaggression police where to get off.