Widgets Magazine


The column where I get offended

We live in a time where the President of the United States calls college activists and progressives “coddled and protected from different points of view.” Comedians like Jerry Seinfeld avoid events at college campuses for fear of their “political correctness.” An article in the Atlantic, shared 611,000 times on Facebook, decries the “extra thin skin” of today’s college students, and the new college climate where “young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make some uncomfortable.” These views find a home at Stanford, too, from articles encouraging offensive speech or language to the clumsily blunt “Stanford Macroaggressions Facebook page.

These examples span a wide range of ideas, but they hold at their core a similar sentiment: that (often progressive) students or activists are weak; that protesters are childish; that those working towards social justice are at once impossibly fragile and aggressively punitive.

This core set of beliefs misses the point entirely.

Let’s talk about offense – or, since the idea of “offense” has been derided past the point of recognition, let’s call it a different word. Let’s call it “hurt.” Many students on campus are hurt by words, ideas or behaviors. When a professor addresses a classroom with “ladies and gentleman,” nonbinary students feel the hurt of exclusion. When students of color look around at an event and see only white people around them, they feel the hurt of tokenization and underrepresentation. When indigenous students see the name of Junipero Serra on the buildings they walk into, they feel the hurt of cultural, historical trauma.

The question is not about whether this hurt exists; it does. Rather, we need to ask ourselves why – why marginalized students experience hurt in these ways. One explanation, which a wealth of scientific research has demonstrated, is that complex social systems of exclusion, violence, trauma and prejudice create conditions in which marginalized groups in society are consistently reminded of their marginalization. Or, perhaps, if systems thinking and intersectionality are scary ideas, it could be that marginalized people are just overly-fragile children.

What, then, of the arguments that “PC culture” is robbing colleges of intellectual vitality? That “dissenting opinions” aren’t being discussed, that dialogue (that word which I keep hearing people throw around like it’s sacred) is stifled by the so-called policing of words and ideas? Is free speech is dead, and has it been killed by the menacing evil of social justice warriors?

The answer to these arguments is more complex.  Take an analogy: You’re a person that likes going to the gym; you think exercise is good for you and like to do it regularly. You’re in your physics class when your professor suddenly walks over to you and drops a 150-pound barbell into your lap. “Start lifting,” they say. “It’s the middle of class,” you protest. “What the hell?” And your classmates shake their heads derisively. “People are so fragile these days,” they laugh. “Exercise is good for you, you should do it regularly.” Switch around a few words, and this is the reality that so many marginalized students face. Can I go to class without being reminded that the history we learn in this country is horrifically whitewashed? Can I grab lunch without being reminded that men feel entitled to my body? Can I go to an educational event on a topic I care about without being intellectually derailed by casual racism, classism, ableism or transmisogyny?

At the end of the day, the issue is about agency, not content. Why are some of the people most hurt by systems of oppression also some of the most vocal fighters against them? Because activists these days are the furthest thing from scared of “scary” ideas – the last two years of organizing at Stanford proves that we are unafraid of getting our hands dirty with historical trauma, complex issues and oppressive systems; it is the same around the world. Students’ work to reduce microaggressions should not be seen as unwillingness to be uncomfortable; rather, it should be seen as an effort to have more agency in when and how we choose to engage with these topics in the first place.

A slew of microaggressions exist in our society, residue from and reminders of oppressive systems, both past and present. We need to have the humility to recognize that social justice work aims to rectify the hurt felt by others – even when we don’t feel that hurt ourselves. And if activism aims to diminish the inequity in our society, then those who most benefit from it will feel threatened by their relative loss of power.

This backlash in popular culture against the mythical monsters of PC culture, “coddled” college students and Social Justice Warriors might come in part from this threat, this reaction to the shift towards intersectionality, social justice and collective liberation as ideological realities on college campuses. Don’t ask why college students are so easily offended – ask why so many college students aren’t.

Contact Lily Zheng at lilyz8 ‘at’ stanford.edu.


About Lily Zheng

Lily Zheng, '17, is a columnist for The Stanford Daily. She is a Bay Area native, Social Psychology major, and co-president of the student group Kardinal Kink who loves to write about the intersections of sex, identity, gender, queerness, and activism. In her spare time, she enjoys playing first-person shooters, lounging around topless, and spending quality time with her partners. Contact her at lilyz8 'at' stanford.edu, she loves getting messages!
  • mp55

    Maybe you should start by actually getting the quote from President Obama right: “I’ve heard some college campuses where they don’t want to have a guest
    speaker who is too conservative or they don’t want to read a book if it
    has language that is offensive to African-Americans or somehow sends a
    demeaning signal towards women,” “I gotta tell you I don’t agree with that either. I don’t agree that you, when you become students at colleges, have to be coddled and
    protected from different points of view.”

  • Bob

    “Can I grab lunch without being reminded that men feel entitled to my body?”

    Yes. Yes, you can.

  • wafle7350 .

    My name is Cristian and im a racist,sexist, classist, ableist, bigot
    according to your new ideas, i treat everyone equally irregardless of
    their skin color, place of birth, gender at birth, gender identification, sexual preference, etc… i know treating everyone equally and being color blind makes me an evil evil man according your new social activist, does not matter that i agree a lot more with you that i do with the other side, the fact that i refuse to discriminate people base on something they cannot change makes me problematic according to the PC police, so let me tell you something all the way from Mexico:

    I refuse to accept your morality and people sensibilities as law, maybe is the fact that i can’t speak out against certain people in my country with out fearing for my life, but something about imposing speech codes and censoring ideas just gets me completely mad. I realize the racism going on over there, i realize the racism going over here, but i refuse to discriminate innocent parties for the actions of a few, and the pc police love to do that.

    Before i learn English i always thought racist was someone who discriminated against other base on the color of their skin, now i’v seen that a lot on the internet, going all the ways, from White people being racist, to PoC doing the same, but the thing is according to the PC police, they are not racist. Well i never really hated people for the term or label of racist, i always hated them for what they do, and what a racist do is discriminate against others base on something they can’t change, and i notice the “progressives” love to do just that, so yeah i hate them as much as i hate racists.

    Sorry i just cant agree with anyone imposing their morality on others, i had enough with church, it isn’t easy getting out of a Catholic religious family that tries to impose their morality on you, ill be PC as a common courtesy, but the moment you try to impose it ill flip the script and go after you(progressives), like you love coming after me for being born with certain characteristics.

    Sorry as well that i felt the need to bring the fact of my nationality as well, but seems to me like the regressive left values my opinion more if i state that im not American. (another point of contention for me as everyone’s opinions should be worth the same).

  • Lily Zheng

    Wow, excellent suggestion, Bob! Let me get uncomfortably close to you, stare at your crotch the whole time you eat, and hit on you after you tell me to stop next time you get lunch :)

  • openYourEyes

    Now, does that REALLY happen to you most of the time (or really any) time you get lunch? That seems outrageous if true. It certainly is not true for any other woman I’ve talked to on campus. Or are you just conjuring this sexual transgressions from the dark recesses of your imagination to fit your agenda and paint the proper picture of savagery that you, for some reason, require to feel important. Let’s be real, Lily, *no one* is doing this regularly to you, on Stanford’s campus. Nor are most girl’s experiencing this. So just at least be honest, in your columns, please.

  • gocard

    I don’t think it’s about whether there are micro or macro offenses, there are plenty and plenty of ways that different types of people feel micro and macro hurts. It’s about how some people have over reacted to these offenses and sometimes even to perceived offenses. Putting aside the “piling on” effect that often happens with the press when they seize on an issue, do you believe that there is any over reaction occurring on any campuses at all based on what you have read?

  • Lily Zheng

    You would love that, wouldn’t you? Me crying wolf with this victim complex because I just really, REALLY want to be oppressed, boo hoo, because I don’t feel oppressed enough. Let’s be real, nameless commenter, stop with the straw man of my argument. These things don’t happen every single time I go out.

    Have you ever been bitten by a dog before? Or stung by a bee? Or punched in the face by some kid on the playground? What sort of thing do you think happens when you reapproach that stimulus again? Maybe you don’t freak out. Maybe you don’t have too much of a problem with it at all — but I’m willing to bet you’re thinking about what happened. I’m willing to bet, even if that stimulus doesn’t happen again, it’s on your mind.

    And this is the effect of microaggressions; they leave behind a persisting belief that they will happen again, and they actually happen with enough frequency to reinforce that. Want data?






  • Lily Zheng

    Well when you frame the question like that (“any overreaction occurring on any campuses at all”) it steers the answer towards a “yes.” Of course there’s overreaction in some cases — if marginalized students are under psychological threat from constant microaggressions, it’s perfectly reasonable to assume that false positives will occur, and students will feel marginalized when in fact nothing actually happened. Ex: once in a while I’ll snap at somebody for using the wrong pronouns with me and be informed by friends that I just misheard.

    That sort of thing happens.

    I don’t think it’s appropriate, though, to overblow this fear of false positives to delegitimize those who face microaggressions as a whole. And “overreaction” is also subjective — many people react to microaggressions not as isolated incidents but as indicators of larger systems of white supremacy, wealth inequity/classism, transmisogyny, etc. etc. People who don’t perceive those things may think that students are getting angry over what they perceived as a small slight, when students in fact are reacting to something far larger.

  • openYourEyes

    I don’t doubt that incidences of racist & sexist, etc aggressions leave one injured in many ways. I do doubt that these incidences occur at Stanford in any significant and systemic manner as you consistently claim. To put it succinctly, in my experience, the World can be a nasty place, but Stanford is about as safe, accepting, and enlightened place/setting as has existed in the history of humanity.

  • Lily Zheng

    Isn’t that it, then? In your experience?

  • Bob

    You had me at staring at my crotch. 😉

  • This ain’t Kansas no more

    For people who are hyper-reactive, nothing short of 100% unanimous support is inoffensive.

    Life is tough. Welcome to the real world.

  • Life is like a box of chocs

    > I’ll snap at somebody for using the wrong pronouns with me

    Other people get to decide what they think. They don’t have to use the words you prescribe. Have the class to accept diversity of opinion.

  • Time to play with the big boys

    “In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education — and mental health”: The Coddling of the American Mind

  • Time to play with the big boys
  • Anon

    Lily, I appreciate your article and all of the work you do. Could you explain your weight lifting analogy a little bit more? I’m trying to wrap my head around it but feel like I’m missing something.