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Marketplace of Ideas with Dr. Peter Wood

The third annual Marketplace of Ideas series hosted by the College of Humanities and Social Sciences was opened by the National Association of Scholars president Dr. Peter Wood. In a series aimed at creating intellectual discussion, which sparks debate and analysis, Dr. Wood presented about the causes and effects of microaggression and a culture of anger in America.

Before we can approach the concept of microaggression, Dr. Wood showed how this problem is a part of the marketplace of ideas. The term “marketplace of ideas” was coined in 1919 in response and opposition to the Sedition Act. However, while the term was developed in 1919, the marketplace of ideas didn’t become a functioning practice until 34 years later. Being slow on the uptake, the marketplace of ideas did not originally work effectively either. Incorrect or inaccurate ideas continued (and still continue) to flourish because free debate was not (and is not) happening. Free debate cannot occur when politics invade the marketplace of ideas.

This brings us to microaggressions. Microaggressions are defined by UCLA’s (2014) Diversity in the Classroom as the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership. Let’s highlight a few examples to make this even clearer:

“I’m not racist. I have several Black friends”

The message here is “I could never be racist because I have friends of color.” This is a microaggression denying individual racism. While the speaker might not intend to be insulting, the message being conveyed marginalizes an entire community of people by denying that differences cause fault lines and separation. Not all microaggressions are obvious. The satirical website “Everything is a Problem” has cataloged microaggressions, and even noticing someone sweating is a microaggression. Students are now hyper-alert to insults and have thin skins. When students come to a university, they are seeking repair or redemption of their differences or uniqueness. Therefore, Dr. Wood advises that universities need to be able to recognize that microaggressions are taking place and then address them.

This culture of microaggressions did not just appear overnight. In the 1960s, a cultural shift occurred where a culture of aggression was developed and the ethic of expressive anger developed the “angry American.” Anger gives a temporary sense of power to fight back against the system. This cultural change promoted emotional authenticity as the ultimate virtue and as a way to live life, but emotional authenticity, when first expressed, rarely comes out as joy. Anger is an easier emotional expression.

(Author’s Note: Skepticism here is warranted, as I too was quite skeptical, but please think about driving during rush hour. If you are attempting to change lanes during rush hour, when you actually do have the chance to change lanes, rarely is one joyful at making the lane change, instead often one is mad at all the traffic on the roads. Especially in Atlanta.)

This brings us to diversity perpetuating an angry America. Dr. Wood discussed how we as society view diversity in a beautiful Christmas wrapping with only positive traits. However, diversity also is an invitation to show true emotions about a dark and marginalized past. Diversity on a deeper emotional level can reveal bitterness and resentment because diversity means that we must accept that people are divided and divisions can be painful. Diversity teaches people expressive anger, which does not mean violence. For example, song lyrics can be a means of expressive anger as can art, movies, and writing. Dr. Wood highlighted that our culture and higher education perpetuates this anger entitlement by a generational role modeling of carrying the angry chip on your shoulder. But, a civil society will not result from being able to carry a chip on your shoulder.

At this point, you might be concerned about the trajectory of society, and there is hope. Dr. Wood pointed out that the search for truth is difficult, and the traditional role of the university was to sort through differing truths. While this fell out of favor when the culture of anger arose, colleges still shape the character of students. Students look for a sense of community at their colleges and Student Life is one way which colleges acknowledge diversity and sustainability. Beyond Student Life, critical thinking is the essential breakthrough for anger and for the marketplace of ideas. A marketplace of ideas cannot exist when there is a need for conformity. So, in acknowledging both the positive and negative aspects of diversity, the university can challenge students to examine how their freedom of expression can be shaped respectfully and give students the tools to think through societal issues with critical analysis.


Posted: October 9, 2015



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