Topics dealing with race, sex, and gender are inherently politically and personally charged issues. Critiques based on these issues are bound to one’s own experience and identity; when these issues are raised, the discussion can quickly become emotionally-charged. These conversations are crucial in order to highlight and dismantle oppressive structures and ideas within an academic setting, such as in course conferences. At the same time, the way the conversations are being conducted may be more harmful than helpful due to the creation of an “us versus them mentality” which reduces the willingness to engage in constructive conversations.
When students begin to explore these topics, there is a tendency for those who are more informed about anti-oppressive terminology and measures to respond with criticism rather than feedback. According to Psychology Today, criticism focuses on one’s personality, implies blame, devalues an opinion, and assumes the worst. Feedback focuses on the future, respects autonomy, encourages, and focuses on behaviour rather than personality. It is a confusion between these two forms of communication that fuels negativity and resentment regarding politicized conversations on campus. For example, responding to a comment that one may deem offensive, often follows with, “You are inconsiderate,” or “You are racist,” rather than, “That sentence is insensitive because….It would be better to use this terminology instead” or, “This terminology is racist due to […]”
An example of this is the frequent use and accompanying tone of the expression “check your privilege.” What once began as an insightful way for people to reconsider their point of views based on the privileges they hold and the ones that other people may not have, has been ironically transformed into one that drips condescension and denotes “your views are invalid.” “Check your privilege” has become enveloped in patronization, targeting others for their seemingly intentional inconsideration; this either shuts down conversation, or makes one conclusion acceptable—any other perspective is a product of privileged bias and should be deplored. The tone and overuse of the phrase has been subject to backlash, and has generally been reduced to a joke: It is used to mock what should be an important and genuine way to highlight and dismantle oppressive structures.
The result of using criticism rather than feedback engenders a hostile atmosphere. A misuse of terminology deems the user one of ‘them’—the misogynists, the racists, the homophobes. Calling out mistakes by means of shaming and ridicule is especially common in introductory-level classes where new terminology is only being introduced and mistakes are common. These tactics only deter students—who may not have been trying to be offensive in the first place—from participating in and contributing to the discussion, and may in fact polarize views instead. People will be more likely to discard inappropriate terminology if they are brought to understand why it is deemed so, which cannot occur through condescension and attack.
As stated by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, two writers who have extensively covered anti-oppressive measures on campus for Atlantic Magazine, “When the ideas, values, and speech of the other side are seen not just as wrong but as wilfully aggressive toward innocent victims, it is hard to imagine the kind of mutual respect, negotiation, and compromise that are needed to make politics a positive-sum game.” Using feedback rather than attack is more likely to lead to productive discussions, rather than the polarization of views and feelings.
While it is true that not all opinions are equally deserving of respect or attention, an effective way to strip the power of views deemed offensive is to dismantle them through rational discussion and understanding—which means they must be allowed to be discussed in the first place. Progress and education are achieved through the free flow of diverse opinions and ideas in a constructive manner. In order for this to happen, students must feel comfortable to share their thoughts without fear of personal attack. Students who find themselves on the receiving end of critiques must also do more to acknowledge the bias they may hold in order to understand where a peer is coming from. It is not the content of conversation that generally needs to be altered. It is the way the conversation is being conducted on campus that may be driving students to reject and resent the anti-oppressive discussion that takes place on campus. A middleground must be struck where all students can consciously, respectfully, and productively debate such conversations.