An Anecdote About Campus Microgressions and Intolerance

On a brisk autumn evening, I was about to cross Campus Drive when I noticed an acquaintance waiting for the shuttle. He was a retired Eastern European diplomat and consequently had something of an old world feel about him. After we shook hands and started chatting about politics, another acquaintance happened by. She was a graduate student versed in women’s studies.

After I had introduced them, the diplomat whipped off his glove and extended a hand for her to shake. He had kept his glove on while shaking my hand, and the female graduate student noticed the difference.

If you have been reading Conor Friedersdorf’s or Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s writings about campus culture in The Atlantic, you can imagine what happened next.

The women recoiled from the gendered micro-aggression and lambasted the diplomat: “Do you think women are too frail to touch a gloved hand or is this some kind of creepy come on?!!”.

The diplomat’s face registered shock and he began stammering “I didn’t…I don’t understand..”

The student continued “Well you should understand and it’s not my job to educate you. I don’t have to put up with your patriarchal bullshit!”.

Red-faced and near tears, this gentle, cultured man apologized repeatedly to both of us and retreated down the sidewalk, so upset that he forgot his briefcase on the shuttle stop bench as he fled.

As I said, that’s what you would imagine happened if you have been reading a certain set of critiques in The Atlantic about over-sensitive, ultra-P.C., over-coddled elite university denizens. But here’s what really happened:

The three of us talked pleasantly until the diplomat’s shuttle arrived. After he departed, I said I had never seen a man take off a glove before shaking a woman’s hand and asked the student if she had or if she knew whence the custom came.

She smiled and responded “I really don’t know; maybe they do that where he’s from. But he’s a sweet old man and I could tell it was his way of being gallant.”

That anecdote is representative of what I have seen over and over again from students for decades — a spirit of common humanity and a tolerance for different ways of acting and thinking. People come to my university from all countries and all backgrounds with a huge range of beliefs and customs. Yet I have never (and I do mean never) witnessed anything on campus suggesting that the atmosphere of widespread intolerance, suspicion and emotional fragility that I keep reading about in The Atlantic actually exists. Yes, some students now and then have goofy ideas or act in rude ways, but, *cough*, I seem to remember that being just as much the case when I was a student 30 years ago.

The contrast between how universities are being described and what they are actually like has led me to investigate. Over the past few years, I have asked many colleagues and students at my university and at other universities this two-part question “Have you read how students today are coddled, intolerant, whiny, narrow-minded prigs and do you yourself have any experience at all of this?”. Everyone has answered yes to the first part of the question and all but a handful have answered no to the second.

I thus remain dubious that the heavily recycled grab bag of anecdotes I keep hearing from Conor Friedersdorf and company establish that universities have suddenly become hell-holes of epistemic closure, Maoist impulses and mattress wallpaper. Repeating dramatic anecdotes does not make them more representative of the experiences of the over 15 million students at our country’s over 4,500 colleges and universities. But apparently it does make better copy in the eyes of the editors of The Atlantic.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.