For several weeks, there has been a discussion across the pond about two phenomena brought to the forefront by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. In an article titled “The Coddling of the American Mind,” they discuss microaggressions and so-called “trigger warnings.” Both of these phenomena are seen by the authors as the cause of an increasingly spoiled American youth that is becoming more and more sensitive and unable to tolerate any emotional discomfort. So, what is it all about?

“Trigger warnings” are alerts that aim to warn that something that will follow (video, excerpt from literature, discussion) may potentially cause a strong emotional reaction. In recent years, warnings have been used on American college campuses with regard to students with weaker personalities or mental difficulties. Students have the option to leave the classroom if they fear that the topic may evoke an unpleasant emotional response or even trigger past trauma. Gradually, this type of warning has been used more and more intensely, and in some schools, it is even required and expected.

Microaggressions, as the name suggests, are very subtle or inconspicuous expressions of aggression, intolerance, or intolerance. They usually relate to the choice of wrong words or the expression of certain thoughts supporting stereotypes (racial, gender, cultural) or criticisms. This is not an open expression of aggression, where a clear intention to attack the recipient can be identified. On the contrary, microaggressions are very indirect, often have no specific recipient, and are even often expressed unconsciously. They are closely related to political correctness and are therefore closely tied to the way of expression. In recent years, efforts to recognize verbal microaggressions among students and their radical rejection have been expanded to increase tolerance.

However, Lukianoff and Haidt argue that these trigger warnings and microaggressions have caused more harm than good. They have brought with them an unwanted side effect. Since they are addressed not only to students with mental health issues, they also affect others who do not need special attention. While they help students who need such care to feel safer (which according to the authors of the article is also debatable), others have become less tolerant of emotional discomfort and have become much more sensitive and offensive. According to the authors, this is how the “spoiled” American youth is created.

The most pressing problem with microaggressions is that they are not subject to any objective standards. Anyone can label a statement as a microaggression according to their own beliefs and label anyone as an aggressor. Therefore, the decisive factor in defining someone as an aggressor is the current feeling or subjective understanding of what someone considers offensive. The degree of one’s own sensitivity is excluded from the entire equation. Therefore, the principle applies – “I feel offended, so it is offensive.” The range of statements falling into the category of microaggressions therefore has no boundaries. The website lists a whole range of stories, statements, and situations that fall into this category, including, for example:

“Have you met any nice boys?” – The authors of the statement are the mother, aunt, and grandmother of a female student returning home from university.

“Great story, baby. Now make me a sandwich” – text on a t-shirt.

“Dear Gentlemen” – salutation in a motivational letter to a company where the entire recruitment department is made up of women. The author is angry that, according to this salutation, the author believes that a serious business cannot be run by women.

“You don’t look like a Jew.” – This microaggression was reported by a woman who claims to have a Scandinavian appearance, but is actually Jewish.

“Where did you two meet?” – a common question asked to two friends of different races.

When looking at these statements, it may seem that there is a certain hypersensitivity prevailing in them and that the reaction is exaggerated. Of course, they are taken out of context on the website, and it cannot be said with absolute certainty. However, from time to time, stories emerge that escalate to bizarre levels.

The case at Oberlin College begins with an innocuous-sounding email that sparked a heated exchange of views between two classmates. In the fall of 2014, the university held a “Hispanic Heritage Month.” One of the lectures coincided with a football game, and so the teammates from the school football team were debating whether to attend the lecture or go to the game. A Hispanic student received a question from his white classmate about whether he wanted to attend the lecture or the game. In the email, he expressed that the lecture looked interesting and that they would understand if he wanted to attend, but the team would be playing football that evening. In the message, the American student referred to football with the Spanish word “futbol” instead of the American term “soccer.”

The addressed classmate was offended by his message and the chosen language, and immediately posted it on the school’s microaggression reporting website along with his email response. He begins his post on the website with the words:

“Thank you for thinking the lecture “looks interesting”. I appreciate your white recognition. I see that it is not interesting enough for you to lift your ass and attend it.”

In the email, he goes on to describe how his remark offends Hispanic culture. He called his teammates the “white cohort” who have no right to call soccer “futbol” because their style of play has tarnished the whole sport. At the end, he talks about how he doesn’t care that the email is written rudely because, in his opinion, his classmate will never understand what it’s like not being able to play “futbol” comfortably because of white people. So let him complain to his white friends as much as he wants.

Mikroagresie, citlivosť a americká rozmaznanosť

The classmate who committed the microaggression was unaware of his action, and the intense reaction took him by surprise. So to speak, he found himself in the role of the aggressor. He apologized for his statement, but the language of his classmate did not leave him indifferent. Understandably, the entire exchange spiraled out of control and continued with a wave of mutual accusations. Microaggressions always have their victim and aggressor – but the mismatch between the level of aggressiveness in microaggressions and the reaction they trigger is particularly striking. The level of verbal aggressiveness of the Hispanic classmate was much higher than that of his teammate. Nevertheless, the roles of victim and aggressor remained unchanged.

The debate about microaggressions and warnings falls between two poles. On the one hand, there is pressure to be considerate and correct in relation to the individual needs of students, while on the other hand, it seems that students are being built with a certain inability to face unfavorable situations. Lukianoff and Haidt argue that the use of warnings and recognition of microaggressions needs to be limited. According to them, discomfort associated with different situations and topics is beneficial for students because it builds resilience and prepares them for life after school, which is not so sensitive to individual needs. According to them, unpleasant situations give space to “train” oneself to overcome them. Otherwise, they become offenders who begin to react to unpleasant stimuli with increasing sensitivity.

For this sensitivity, there is a prevailing reluctance among some people to first process their emotions on their own side. When a person faces emotionally demanding situations, it is quite common to react impulsively. Similarly, this is true for children who react to unpleasant situations with crying or anger. The role of parents in such a situation is to teach the child to regulate their own emotions. To be able to do this, it is good for the child to first understand their own emotions and try to reflect on them (for example, “they took my toy and now I’m angry”). It is through reflection that a person can name their own emotion and understand its impact on decision-making, thinking, and behavior. Of course, this process does not work automatically and therefore requires a certain amount of effort. If a person does not undergo this process, it can be said that they are emotionally lazy. Impulsiveness is automatic, while reflection and regulation of emotions occur very consciously and require lifelong training. Unfortunately, the current education system and often even upbringing do not usually realize this “emotional training”. However, there are a few bright exceptions that have already borne fruit – increased tolerance, less bullying in schools, emotional maturity, and a high ability for empathy.

Therefore, even in cases from American universities, there are deeper causes of what is happening on the surface. The notorious black-and-white perception should not dominate such a sensitive topic as defending minorities or increasing tolerance. In no way do I want to diminish the seriousness of xenophobic, racial, and other attacks. However, as it seems, microaggressions do not only concern those issues. Some cases describe unconscious microaggressions. However, the reaction to them is often explicitly aggressive. Websites for reporting microaggressions literally build a community of people who often vehemently condemn the authors of microaggressions. At first glance, such a reaction seems justified, but from the perspective of an unwitting author of microaggressions who had no intention of offending anyone, such a collective condemnation is a harsh punishment for ignorance. At the same time, the primary goal of identifying microaggressions (increasing tolerance) is lost because no one learns greater tolerance through social exclusion.