Sheffield University is playing a dangerous game

Alex Dunn takes to task Sheffield's plan to pay students to tackle microaggressions

Alex Dunn
26th January 2020
Image: Lee Haywood on Flickr
Last week brought excellent news for hyper-sensitive and overbearing Sheffield University students that need money.

The university is going to be paying 20 students a thoroughly undeserved £9.34 hourly wage to tackle ‘microaggressions’, defined by one of Sheffield’s Student Support Officers as "little comments or things people would do which were often unintentional but made me feel uncomfortable". Those who apply and are successful will work two to nine hours per week as ‘Race Equality Champions’, providing "optional training to student society leaders’ to ensure that all students are aware of the support available to them".

The university are completely correct to make tackling racism a top priority, but the term 'microaggression' has been weaponised

Sheffield University announced the policy two weeks ago
Image: Geograph

The university are completely correct to make tackling racism a top priority; any decent person would be disgusted if it didn’t. This goes for any form of discrimination: sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, xenophobia, all of it. And they’re right to be concerned – as the Student Support Officer pointed out, the Equality and Human Rights Commission found that at least 24% of ethnic minority students say that they have experienced racial harassment on campuses across the UK.  But the term ‘microaggression’ has been weaponised. It can be applied to any innocent joke or faux pas, generally so that the accuser can feel virtuous at the expense of the accused. It diminishes actual discrimination, which should be opposed wherever it rears its ugly head.

Actual discrimination will not be highlighted as readily, and will not be as easily distinguishable from harmless remarks

There are also practical problems with the policy. Everyone will have a different opinion on what constitutes a microaggression, which renders the policy completely unenforceable, and means that any comment deemed offensive can be classified as a microaggression, justifying action taken against the offender. Students are reportedly being encouraged to attend ‘training sessions’ as part of the scheme, which will almost certainly lead to a massive spike in reports of racism. This doesn’t mean that the student body will have suddenly developed racist views en masse, of course: quite the opposite. The 20 presumably inconspicuous students roaming the campus to identify and denounce anyone that says something they construe as discriminatory will be bogged down dealing with unimportant comments. Actual racism (and all other types of discrimination) will not be highlighted as readily, and will not be easily distinguishable from harmless remarks.

The policy is comically autocratic, and part of a growing trend to clamp down on free expression

Attempts to restrict free expression have been made across the UK, including at Christ Church, Oxford
Image: Andy Montgomery on Flickr

One of the examples of microaggressions the university provided is "Why are you searching for things to be offended about?" Of course, this could very easily be said by a student that is simply joking around with a close friend. The policy is almost comically autocratic, and the worst part of this is that it’s far from a new idea. Sadly, it’s part of a growing trend to clamp down on free expression, and it’s something that British universities have been experiencing for years. For instance, in February 2014 London South Bank University removed a poster from a stall set up by the Atheist Society because it depicted the Flying Spaghetti Monster replacing the image of God from the Sistine Chapel. In November of the same year, Christ Church, a constituent college of the University of Oxford, cancelled a debate on abortion because protesters reportedly objected to the fact that it was held between two men. And in March of last year, Cambridge University rescinded a visiting fellowship from the Canadian academic Jordan Peterson because they didn’t want to "legitimise" him.

This is nothing more than another predictable policy that has emerged as part of a wider, cynical campaign designed to crack down on freedom of expression, and it must be opposed at every turn. After all, if you can’t speak your mind and debate ideas on a university campus, where can you?

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