source: John Elder Robison’s book cover

Oh dear oh dear. UK campus moral grandstanding is back in the headlines again. Students and lecturers are being accused of thought crimes, and there’s an entertaining battle going on between campus racism police and neurodiversity police.

Specifically, Oxford University’s Equality and Diversity Unit has made a public apology for advising staff and students that avoiding eye contact can be insulting and a form of racism. Apparently the overzealous anti-racists felt that moral progress would be made if white staff and students could be persuaded to feel guilty for avoiding eye contact with people who are a bit less white then they are. Presumably the unit’s ‘disability’ representatives failed to spot the idiocy, and so Twitter’s neurodiversity police understandably expressed outrage at the overt insult to autistic people – or indeed to anyone who sometimes finds direct eye contact uncomfortable, which includes just about all of us.

So how might a ‘happiness lens’ help us think through the lessons from this kind of nonsense? One of the most radical uses of a happiness lens is to force all kinds of moral campaigners to ask whether their actions and words are likely to make the world a happier place. Is there any evidence, for example, that competitive outrage on campus has ever resulted in enhanced conviviality? You might argue that a bit of gratuitous public silliness is surely an important part of campus life, and when students whip themselves into moralistic high dudgeon over trivial issues, this is good low-stakes rehearsal for later life. Some might even say that other current North American campus imports like ‘cultural appropriation’, proliferating transgender pronouns, ‘trigger warnings’, and ‘safe space’ policies are life enhancing because they are interestingly controversial.

On the other hand, wouldn’t it be nice if the people who volunteered for ‘social justice’ movements and associated committees showed a little more respect for the social climate? Isn’t it pretty crucial that our universities, instead of obsessing about ‘safe space’ and ‘implicit bias’, encouraged the development of lifelong habits of loving and respecting one another? Can’t students enjoy the best years of their lives without falling prey to addictive moralising and competitive victimhood? If anyone believes that the social climate is enhanced by fostering anxiety about eye contact, they ‘need their heid seen to’ as we say in Scotland (no disrespect intended, of course, to anyone suffering a mental disorder).

On USA campuses for several years now, apparently there has been a great deal of interest in ‘micro-aggressions’ – everyday acts of largely unintentional and below-the-radar unkindness. This term has been used by sociologists for at least 40 years, but recently went viral until interest probably peaked a couple of years ago. Still, student bodies in several UK universities including my own are formally encouraging staff (not quite requiring, as yet, but watch this space) to undertake training in ‘implicit bias’ as if this is going to magically turn us all into nicer people. This isn’t a joke. Edinburgh University Students’ Union recently passed a motion without opposition, recommending various measures to explicitly racialise the curriculum, make appointments and allocate teaching responsibilities based on ‘race’, and to make staff training in ‘microaggression’ and ‘implicit bias’ mandatory.

According to most proponents of microaggression theory, ‘aggression’ is obviously bad, but only if you’re in some position of social privilege. ‘Microggression,’ while less bad than ‘macroaggression,’ is still bad because it’s insidious and under-recognized.

With this emphasis on occult aggression, we’re clearly in anthropology-land here. Worldwide, fear of witches has throughout human history been talked about as if it were largely a matter of being rationally scared of hidden forms of violence. Stares and furtive glances were equally feared as channels of perhaps unintentional aggression. Those fears were typically related to strains in the social edifice such as family feuds, intergroup envy, or gender injustice. But rational observers need to note that what’s really going on is aggressive fearmongery. Post-enlightenment people know – and should assert loudly and firmly – that the threat of witchcraft is never actually the witchcraft itself. The real threats come from the violence and social illwill that are bolstered and perpetuated by witchcraft beliefs.

There are things to be said in favour of avoiding eye contact. Anyone who’s ever walked home through quiet city streets after dark will remember moments when they felt their survival depended on avoiding eye contact. When I was savaged by an alsation while out running last year I was told that if I’d avoided eye contact it wouldn’t have happened. And ironically, white teachers have sometimes been warned not to demand eye contact from black students because for example West Indian cultural norms require such avoidance.

But on campus, apparently, it’s very rude not to look other people in the eye, especially if they are black and you are white, or if they’re female and you’re male. Most of us can probably remember times when we felt mildly irritated by someone refusing to look us in the eye. If you’re a parent or a teacher, you’ll know that some of your friends’ children develop a longterm interest in your shoelaces even though you like to think you’re about as cheerfully approachable as a grown-up can be. Pretty soon after I mastered the automatic supermarket checkouts I stopped using them because I realized that – perhaps slightly weirdly – I was genuinely missing those tiny moments of eye contact and mini-chats with check-out staff.

So the microaggression police, seriously misguided though they are, have this going for them: they have understood that convivial social quality is built up from tiny everyday encounters. They recognise, for example, that unthreatening eye contact is a public social good. But it ought to be blindingly obvious (and I say this of course without any intention to snub unsighted people) that sniffing out insults isn’t a benevolent or constructive occupation.

The concept of committing ‘microaggression’ by avoiding eye contact might have been mildly witty if intended as a joke. The tragedy is that it seems someone seems to have believed they had a serious point and one that was worthy of public moral approval. If you believe in moral progress, you should do what you can to resist the witch-hunt against micro-aggression.

So here are a couple of gentle suggestions from a happiness perspective:

  • If your campus or workplace hosts overzealous microaggression police, don’t fight censoriousness with more censorship (they’re entitled to air their silly views and should be encouraged to try justifying them in terms of plausibly benign social outcomes), but do counter them with all the common sense and rationality you can muster.
  • Fight microaggression paranoia with multiple everyday microkindnesses. Demonstrate the effectiveness of the happiness lens as a benign alternative to the volatile and divisive social exclusion and inequality lenses that are so often abused by attention-seekers. Go on being as convivial as you can with everyone, and don’t imagine offence-taking every time you look someone in the eye or ask them where they’re from.

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