Bohanon: Inebriation, Micro-Aggression and Sensitivity

September 29, 2014

by Cecil Bohanon, Ph.D.

Indiana’s public intoxication law looks like it will be overturned. That seems to me entirely appropriate — if we haven’t confounded the problem.

Prior to 2012, if one’s blood alcohol content was above the legal limit, one could be arrested almost anywhere in Indiana. I recall a number of unconfirmed anecdotes around my campus in which students who had a few too many made a responsible decision and called a taxi, only to be arrested when exiting the bar to the taxi.

The legislature to its credit changed the law. The new law, however, is flawed because it sets a standard that isn’t clear: The intoxicated person must also engage in behavior that is “annoying” to get arrested. The problem is, how does the law objectively define annoying? The answer is it can’t; almost any behavior, drunk or sober, is annoying to someone. A drunken person espousing a political position is surely annoying to some but may be amusing or inspiring to others.

Universities and colleges are supposed to be places that encourage the free exchange of ideas. You would think that the prerogative given drunks (you gotta do something more than being annoying to get in trouble) would be a prerogative granted to members of an academic community. That’s why I’m concerned about two cutting-edge examples of political correctness: micro-aggressions and trigger-warnings. I hope those of us in higher education will have the wisdom and ability to resist these becoming entrenched parts of academic culture.

A micro-aggression is an act “in which a member of a dominant culture says or does something, often accidentally, and without intended malice, that belittles and alienates a member of a marginalized group.” An example in a minister’s newspaper column recently had to do with a young man of Asian descent adopted by a white family. At a diversity seminar, the young man was approached by an older woman who asked where he was from. He responded “West Chicago.” She then said, “I mean before that,” and the young man was offended and traumatized.

A trigger warning is a warning given a class that an assignment might trigger a traumatic memory. The classic example is a reference to rape in an assigned book that could trigger a traumatic response to a student who has been raped. Other examples include references to suicide, despair or humiliation or . . . you fill in the blank.

Fair enough. No one wants to traumatize adoptees or victims of violent crime. And I suspect most of those who are touting these offenses are well-meaning, but, to mangle a Jane Austen title, I think they have more sensibility than common sense.

How in the world is one to know what kind of comments or references might ‘belittle’ a member of a marginalized group? By what standard? In whose judgment? And surely almost any set of facts, sequence of events or illustrating examples may generate bad memories to someone or make someone feel alienated. How is a lecturer to know what to exclude?

The consequence of all this is to make certain topics off limits. Better to talk about something else than risk social censure. But robust intellectual inquiry will not occur if everyone is walking on eggshells with regard to potentially sensitive topics.

My more skeptical side suspects that this is the goal of some of those touting these standards. Nothing is more effective than to claim the moral high ground, then use fear and shame to intimidate those who disagree with the orthodoxy.

And I find that . . . well, annoying.

Cecil Bohanon, Ph.D., an adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, is a professor of economics at Ball State University.




Leave a Reply