The Deep Theory behind Stifling Speech

By Stephen Hicks, Ph.D., | 22 July 2017
The Savvy Street

(Credit: Max Pixel, CC)

In your lifetime, how many times has everyone agreed about the significance of a major cultural phenomenon?

It is happening now, as libertariansconservativesleft-liberals and far-leftists all agree that a deep rot has set into Political Correctness (P.C.). Hell is freezing over and pigs can now fly.

The symptoms of P.C. are well known: hyper-sensitivity to perceived slights, vicious verbal attacks upon ideological enemies and deviants within the ranks, and the use of authoritarian methods to enforce conformity and silence dissenters.

So let my contribution be an indication of how philosophy has laid the groundwork for this phenomenon and how only philosophy can get us out of the mess.

The worst manifestations are in universities and their cultural spill-over zones. Campuses are the training ground. Within many university courses, the reading lists are narrow, the other sides of debates are excluded, and orthodoxy of opinion is enforced. Speakers with other perspectives are dis-invited via protests, and those who do get invited are shouted down or even assaulted. When the student-trainees graduate, they become activists and/or contributors to intellectual and activist causes and media.

Students, administrators, and professors all contribute to the problem — and the professors are the most dangerous.

Young students are often wonderfully passionate but impressionable. They can be steered in bizarre directions, whereupon their own intelligence takes them with ruthless consistency into absurdities. They are old enough to know that P.C. is a problem, but they are young, and I’m inclined to cut people slack for stupidities they commit in their teens and early twenties.

Administrators are fully adult professionals, and I blame them moderately. Yes, most administrators are backbone-challenged. And they are led by university presidents who are hired to keep the money flowing in and provide administrative efficiency. Advocating an educational mission is part of a president’s job but in practice that’s typically further down the list of priorities. And since government sources provide a huge amount of the higher-education monies, directly and indirectly, rare is the university administration that will not sacrifice educational quality if it conflicts with a government mandate. The case of Northwestern University’s professor Laura Kipnis and her Title IX ordeal, as presented in The Chronicle of Higher Education, is a clear example. (And here at The Washington Post.)

A deeper problem is the philosophy that has led us to allow huge government involvement in education in the first place. “He who pays the piper calls the tune” — those who are suspicious of corporate-funding of education have for a long time been blithely unconcerned about government-funding of education and have urged its increase as a matter of political principle.

But even political philosophy is only a part of the problem. Moral philosophy and philosophy of language have enabled more damage. This brings us to the professors who have developed the theoretical apparatus of P.C. over the last two generations.

The two leading concepts in the P.C. lexicon now are triggers and microaggressions. University education is mostly a conversation among writers and readers, speakers and listeners. The “Trigger” analysis is first about the listener, while the “Microaggression” analysis is first about the speaker.

Trigger theory says that some people are highly vulnerable. They have suffered a major trauma in the past, and their ability now to function normally depends on nothing re-triggering the traumatic experience. But instead of expecting the post-trauma victims to control their responses to the world and/or seek therapy, Triggerism says that their vulnerability imposes an obligation on the rest of us to avoid triggering them. But in an education context Don’t use the trigger words often conflicts with Discuss complicated and controversial issues. And the conclusion is that we should sacrifice the discussion to avoid the triggers.

All of that works with the claim that we live in a society that is so racist and sexist that virtually all minorities and women have suffered enormously. The university itself is a microcosm of that sick society and itself manifests the same institutionalized racism and sexism — but it should strive to become a safe zone where healing can take place. The conclusion again is that the more rugged spirits who can handle the hard topics and the rough-and-tumble of challenge and debate should stifle their expression to accommodate the fragile sensibilities of the damaged.

And all of that is to say that the trigger generation is a product of high theory — a set of claims worked out by academics that:

  • The Trigger psychological theory is true.
  • The Institutionalized-Racism-and-Sexism sociological theory is true.
  • The Sacrifice-the-Stronger-to-the-Weaker moral theory is true.

So how do we respond to Trigger theory? Those unsympathetic argue that the anti-Trigger movement will precipitate a generation of delicate “snowflakes” who melt in the least heat and a gutted education in which no serious issues are engaged.

That unsympathetic response is true. But avoiding those consequences also means understanding the source, and part of the power of Trigger theory is that it can come from psychologically genuine phenomena.

We can imagine how it feels to show up at a big university as a first-year student and feel out of one’s depth intellectually and emotionally. One finds oneself surrounded by intimidatingly smart and assertive characters and forced to take on challenges one feels unprepared for. One feels scared. One feels like a failure. Profound feelings of weakness and failure can generate pathological responses — seeking special accommodations or even lashing out at others and trying to shift the fault to them. (Re-reading Dostoevsky and Nietzsche is instructive here.)

Another part of the Trigger strategy, though, is more calculated and involves turning others’ natural benevolence against them.

By analogy, think of the very poor. Some individuals who find themselves in poverty feel it to be a matter of shame, and as a matter of pride they hide their poverty while trying to work their way out of it. Others turn to asking or begging for support and will gently request help. They hope that most people’s normal empathy and helpfulness — toward the elderly, pregnant women, those with handicaps, and so on — will come to their aid.

There are those, however, who will go further and demand assistance as a matter of obligation. Perhaps you have encountered beggars on the street who will say as you are passing by, Oh sure, pretend you didn’t see me or Go enjoy your extra cappuccino or something like that. The strategy is to make you feel guilty and uncomfortable in the face of possible confrontation — and so more likely to give.

Other types of beggars will use their weaknesses as a positive asset. Ordinarily we hide our sores, infirmities, and deformities, again as a matter of personal pride and to avoid making others uncomfortable. But for some, making others uncomfortable is part of a calculated strategy — a tactic to put them off balance and so more malleable.

The point is not that poverty and injuries are not real and serious issues to grapple with. The point is that the same tactics are at work in the Trigger strategy — the explicit use of weakness, trauma, victimhood in order to put one’s perceived enemies off balance and to manipulate them.

It’s the difference between (1) I have a weakness, but I will hide it and/or fix it, and (2) I have a weakness, and I will cultivate it and use it against you.

Official Trigger theory is thus a front in the “Social Justice” wars, one version of which believes deeply that society is a brutal battleground of strong-versus-weak conflict. In that battle we are supposed to empathize with the weak and condemn the strong. And we are to feel that in that battle any tactic against the strong is legitimate, because it is for a moral cause — that of the downtrodden.

A generation ago, Jonathan Rauch captured the dynamic in his now-classic Kindly Inquisitors. The benevolence of kindness in response to weakness was, he worried, being transformed into a strategy of inquisition. Presciently true, Mr. Rauch.

Now consider Trigger theory’s partner in arms, Microaggression.

Microaggression theory could be seen as a sign of progress. The luxury of obsessing over tiny hints of racism or sexism implies that the problem of macroaggressions has been solved.

If your physical environment — to draw a parallel — is dirty and unhealthy, then you focus on the big messes first. Only when those are cleaned up will you consider bringing out the microscope to look for dirt in tiny nooks and crannies.

Trigger theory wants us to put first the needs of hyper-sensitive individuals who could be damaged further by hearing certain words or phrases. Microaggression theory goes on the offensive against the speaking of certain words or phrases, on the ground that they betray unconscious racism, sexism, or some other unsavory -ism.

Of course there is an ideological agenda at work, and it is enabled by some heavy-duty theory.

The context is the apparent great progress that we have made against social prejudices. Sexism, racism, and ethnocentrism were stains upon human existence everywhere until the Enlightenment of the 1700s. Since then we have made huge progress towards liberty, equality, and tolerance.

Good data show that in many parts of the world we have made great strides. And especially in higher education, where I spend my days, virtually everyone is sensitive to race, class, and gender issues (sometimes excruciatingly so), and they are careful to avoid any possibility of being perceived as making a slight or giving offense or giving an unfair grade.

For most of us anti-racists and anti-sexists, the progress is excellent news and a matter of pride.

But for a minority of intellectuals and activists, the progress seems fraudulent and a threat to their very being. If one’s identity and one’s career are dependent on fighting racism and sexism, the absence of racism and sexism is a serious problem.

Microaggression theorists therefore feel fortunate to have learned from Marx and Freud. When the lot of workers improved dramatically under capitalism, contrary to Karl Marx’s prediction, many Marxists did not see this as a defeat. They told themselves that the capitalist exploitation must still be there and went hunting for hidden structural exploitations. When patients told their therapists that they had no deep traumas from childhood, many Freudian therapists dismissed that as a false-consciousness defense-mechanism and went searching for repressed neuroses.

Microaggression theory is a variant: one of its core claims is that racism and sexism have not gone away or even declined but have gone underground and become embedded in our institutional structures. Hence, Institutional Racism and Institutional Sexism.

Such “Institutional” theories are thus a kind of doubling-down on a bad bet. In the face of unexpected progress made by their intellectual adversaries and a lack of evidence of the kind of prevalent racism and sexism their theory requires, they turn to quasi-conspiracy analyses. The cultural progress must be merely apparent — and the job of the critically-trained theorist must now be to detect and expose the culture’s hidden racist and sexist machinations.

All of this includes our linguistic structures. Microaggressions are words and phrases that are codes for racism and sexism, even if the speakers are unaware that they are speaking in code. Ordinary politeness asks us to be careful about slurs, but Microaggression theory tells us that we are not the best judges of whether our words are slurs, and it redefines slur to include the substantive positions that it disagrees with on controversial issues.

A leading theorist is Derald Wing Sue, whose Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation is the work that leaders at universities such as Berkeley and Michigan are using to enact soft speech codes that silence views they disagree with. Professor Sue’s purpose in his text, as he says, is to identify the many “hidden insulting and hostile messages” in academic and everyday discourse.

Consider the debate over affirmative action as an example. Opponents of affirmative action say: We can and should strive to be gender- and color-blind in admissions and grading and hiring and promoting, so affirmative action is a bad idea. Advocates of affirmative action say: We still need to take color and gender into account, so affirmative action is good.

To the chagrin of the Advocates, the Opponents have often carried the day and affirmative action is popular only with a minority of intellectuals and activists of a certain sort. So, the Advocates conclude, the case for affirmative action needs new tactics.

One such tactic is to reinterpret the Opponents’ statements as themselves being slurs. We should strive to be colorblind, for example, can be said to be a secret code for opposing affirmative action — which in turn is a cover for racism. Whether they know it or not, those who promote color-blindness are propping up a system that disadvantages people of color, and their mouthing We should be colorblind makes them complicit. That is, they are micro-aggressors.

So if an opponent of affirmative action says We should be colorblind, the Microaggression-theory-informed Administrator can announce: That statement cannot be expressed, because it expresses racism. The opponent of affirmative action will reply in shock: I’m not a racist! But that claim can be dismissed as naïve — its maker has merely been constructed with a false consciousness and doesn’t know how to decode his own statement to reveal its real message.

A further benefit is that the fear of being accused of racism will put most people on the defensive, and those foolhardy enough to persist can be shut up formally by speech codes.

The point is not that there are no subtle insults. Of course there are. The point is not that there are no subtexts. Of course there are. The point is the strategy of finding insult or subtext when there isn’t one in order to intimidate one’s intellectual adversaries and suppress the expression of their views.

But there’s a question here: Why is the Microaggression theorist’s interpretation of your words better than your own? Microaggression theory is also given support by subjectivist theories of language. Just as aesthetic subjectivists will say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and ethical subjectivists will argue that moral value is in the feelings of the beholder, linguistic subjectivists will argue that meaning is only in the mind of the user.

It follows that if words do not have objective meanings, only relativistic subjective ones, then language is no longer a tool that one uses to learn about reality and communicate with others. Language then becomes a weapon of social conflict. It’s your word against mine, and your group’s words against my group’s — always and everywhere. Ad hominem is no longer a fallacy because language is always about the subjective, and it’s my group’s “truth” that your group’s ideas and values are alien and threatening. Your intent no longer matters; only what we hear does.

And especially if the hearers are members of a weaker and oppressed group, their interpretation must be given precedence. Microaggression theory thus incorporates a kind of linguistic altruism: the meanings of the powerful oppressors must be sacrificed to the meanings of their weaker victims.

In his great novel The Man Who Laughs, Victor Hugo described the Comprachicos – a group of traveling entertainers who intentionally distorted young children’s growing bodies so as to be able to use them and sell them as freaks to earn a profit. Ayn Rand analogized Hugo’s example to indict those educational theorists who distort children’s developing minds so as to make them fit their ideological agendas.

Trigger and Microaggression theories are now a higher-education version of the same phenomenon. Trigger theory sabotages the impressionable and causes them to think and act as victims, and Microaggression theory then uses the victims as weapons against those who challenge the Micro-theorists’ ideological goals.

My intent in this analysis of pathological versions of political correctness has been to point to where solutions must be found. A reinvigoration of liberal education, including its principled use of free speech, will require two pairs of developments, one pair financial and one intellectual.

The financial developments must include lessening the dollar-leveraged power of the government (at all levels) over the content of education. And until that happens, the intellectual autonomy of universities must be protected by administrators with enough backbone to overcome their fear of losing government dollars for not toeing the line.

The intellectual developments must include an updating of the case for academic freedom as essential to real education — with its fearless, open-minded, and often adversarial pursuit of the truth. And that in turn, as we can see from the kinds of claims the Trigger and Microaggression theories use, will require some serious psychological, moral, and linguistic work.

This essay first appeared on Every Joe in two parts as “Understanding Triggers and Microagressions as Strategy”.

Reprinted with permission from the author.

Stephen HicksStephen Hicks is Professor of Philosophy and the Executive Director of the Center for Ethics and Entrepreneurship. He is the author of Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault (Scholargy, 2004), Nietzsche and the Nazis (2010), and he is the co-editor of The Art of Reasoning: Readings for Logical Analysis (W.W. Norton and Co., second edition, 1998). He has also published in numerous magazines and scholarly journals, including Review of Metaphysics, The Journal of Private Enterprise, Teaching Philosophy, and The Wall Street Journal. You can follow his work at, and on Twitter.

Understanding Postmodernism: The 3 Stages to Today’s Insanity (Stephen Hicks)

Stephen Hicks: Post-modernism’s Themes, Clip 1

Steven Pinker: Political Correctness Might Be Redpilling America

Political Correctness on College Campuses (Jonathan Haidt Interview Part 1)

Be sure to ‘like’ us on Facebook


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here