Larry Mantle, a radio host in California was moderating a discussion last month at UC-Irvine on the fraught subject of “microaggressions,” words, though uttered innocently by white people, are said to deeply offend those who are less privileged when he made a big mistake: As he called on the first questioner, he asked “Where are you from?” 

That’s a standard question for talk show hosts. But the audience froze in silence, briefly and uncomfortably, before breaking into a nervous laughter.

Katrina, the questioner, explained: “People are laughing because of the question,” she said.

But she forgave Mantle. “I don’t need to take offense at that,” she said, “because I’m part of the privileged majority who don’t constantly have to put up with questions of where I am from.”

The reason “where are you from?” was considered offensive by some was explained on the very list of “microaggression” guidelines, a “tool” for recognizing microaggressions provided by the University of California to be used in seminars to educate faculty members, that was the subject of Mantle’s radio discussion.

Asking someone of color or any minority “Where are you from or where were you born?,” the guidelines suggested, could send the message that “you are not a true American. You are a perpetual foreigner in your own country.” The same for comments like “you speak English very well” and “What are you? You’re so interesting looking!” Saying to an African American, “When I look at you, I don’t see color” is a kind of “color blindness” that denies “the individual as a racial/cultural being.”

Once kids were taught about “sticks and stones,” which break their bones, but that “words will never hurt me.” Now, on some campuses, they and faculty as well are being taught the opposite, innocently uttered words can and do hurt, and speech codes and guidelines about what to say and what not to say, are all the rage.

The latest controversy is also at the UC system, where the Board of Regents is considering whether saying that Israel has no right to exist, or that Israel is mostly to blame for the troubles in the region, is a form of anti-Semitism, worthy of being placed on a list of offensive language..

The debate over hurtful words, microaggressions, what can be said and what shouldn’t be said has been roiling campuses across California as well as places like Oberlin, Wesleyan, Ithaca, Columbia and elsewhere for several years now, complete with “microaggression” blogs, reserved strictly for those who are not “privileged,” meaning white people, in which the offended call out the offenders, for any number of perceived microaggressions, defined in the proposed UC tool as “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.”

To critics, all this is petty and worse, stifling, and when supported by state university administrations, very much an imposition on free speech. “This concept is now being used to suppress not just, say, personal insults or discrimination in hiring or grading, but also ideas that the UC wants to exclude from university classrooms,” wrote Eugene Volokh, a UCLA law professor who leads the Volokh Conspiracy blog hosted by The Washington Post.

Fighting microagressions “has become a cottage industry in academe,” wrote Malcolm A. Kline on a conservative Web site called “Accuracy in Academia” earlier this week, pointing to, among other places, “The Microaggressions Project” where grievance is piled upon grievance.

“Each event, observation and experience posted,” the site explains, “is not necessarily particularly striking in and of themselves. Often, they are never meant to hurt — acts done with little conscious awareness of their meanings and effects. Instead, their slow accumulation during a childhood and over a lifetime is in part what defines a marginalized experience, making explanation and communication with someone who does not share this identity particularly difficult. Social others are microaggressed hourly, daily, weekly, monthly.”

At “I, Too Am Harvard,” which does not explicitly bill itself as a microaggression project, African Americans make similar points and provide similar examples.

Derald Wing Sue, a professor of Psychology and Education at Columbia University’s Teacher’s College, the best known scholar of microaggressions and the developer of the microaggression tool used at UC and elsewhere, remains a strong defender.

He said in an interview with The Washington Post that he has no desire to “silence” anyone, and does not see it as an issue of suppressing free speech by whites but encouraging speech by minorities to voice their grievances.  “It’s interesting that many white people on campus see this as an issue of being silenced,” he said. “When people raise this, I often say this: That people of color have always been under the gun of forced compliance. They’ve not been about to talk about” their concerns. The microaggressions movement “frees people to say what’s actually happening.”

Likewise, the backlash to the anti-microaggression movement has become a cottage industry as well.

Much of it focuses on examples from the guidelines, like “Where are you from?,” “I believe the most qualified person should get the job” and “America is the land of opportunity,” which critics consider mystifying or even absurd. The latter phrase, about the “land of opportunity,” was said to be harmful in the California “tools” document because it advances the “myth of the meritocracy”  deemed to send a message that “race or gender does not play a role in life successes.”

A conservative Web site published by college students, called the College Fix, is among those leading the charge against what one of its recent articles called “microaggression madness.”

A Daily Beast article on some of the microaggression examples was headlined “The University of California’s Insane Speech Police.”  “How are students and faculty supposed to have an intellectual discussion about the merits of affirmative action if anyone making the opposite case is automatically branded a racist?” asked the writer, Robby Soave. “It’s not that every assertion in the seminar materials is wrong. Certainly, some of these statements, when uttered with sufficient malice, could cause offense. But when university administrators make preventing offense the paramount goal — and automatically apply the terms ‘racist’ and ‘sexist’ to perfectly mild forms of speech — free speech enthusiasts have every reason to worry.”

The most discussed and provocative dissection of microaggressions recently is a much broader critique published in the journal Comparative Sociology by Bradley Campbell of California State University and Jason Manning of West Virginia University. In “Microaggression and Moral Cultures” they see the anti-microaggression movement as a “a new species of social control,” which when “present in high degrees,” produces a “culture of victimhood.”

It’s very different than, they argue, than earlier movements like civil rights, because of its focus on otherwise unintentional slights, words alone, rather than concrete injustices, like being denied the right to vote or sit at a lunch counter. And its motive, they said, is not so much to educate offenders but elevate the offended.

“….When the victims publicize micoaggressions,” wrote  Campbell and Manning “they call attention to what they see as the deviant behavior of the offenders. In doing so,” they “also call attention to their own victimization.”

And that, they concluded, is one of the reasons they do it. Because it lowers “the offender’s moral status” and “raises the moral status of the victims.”

“Comparative Sociology” not being widely read outside sociology circles, the paper went relatively unnoticed for about a year. Then it was discovered by Jonathan Haidt’s the Righteous Mind  blog and, in September, by the Atlantic in a piece by Conor Fredersdorf called “The Rise of Victimhood Culture.”

“I don’t consider myself an opponent of this stuff,” Campbell said in an interview with The Washington Post. “But it’s not a secret that I have moral concerns about the way it can limit academic freedom. I worry,” he said, “when people get in trouble because they’ve said something people consider offensive.” And “I worry when administrators feel like they have to do something about it.”

The Campbell-Manning paper has also been critiqued in articles and blogs across the country since the Atlantic publicized it, including in the Atlantic itself, where Simba Runyowa wrote a piece entitled “Microaggressions Matter.” 

“When I was studying at Oberlin College,” she wrote, “a fellow student once compared me to her dog. Because my name is Simba, a name Americans associate with animals, she unhelpfully shared that her dog’s name was also Simba. She froze with embarrassment, realizing that her remark could be perceived as debasing and culturally insensitive.

“It’s a good example of what social-justice activists term microaggressions — behaviors or statements that do not necessarily reflect malicious intent but which nevertheless can inflict insult or injury. I wasn’t particularly offended by the dog comparison. I found it amusing at best and tone deaf at worst.

“But other slights cut deeper,” she wrote. “As an immigrant, my peers relentlessly inquired, “How come your English is so good?’—as if eloquence were beyond the intellectual reach of people who look like me. An African American friend once asked an academic adviser for information about majoring in biology and, without being asked about her academic record (which was excellent), was casually directed to “look up less-challenging courses in African American Studies instead.”

“There is nothing glamorous about being subjected to racism, and certainly no social rewards to be reaped from being the victim of oppression in a society that heaps disadvantage on historically marginalized groups.”

Sue, at Columbia, recalls hurts similar to Runyowa’s, as he rose in his academic career. He grew up in Portland, Ore. Yet, he said, throughout his career “they’ll tell you, professor Sue, you speak very good English” and then “wonder why would that offend you? The message to me is I am a perpetual alien. Not a citizen in my own country.”

“Why are people of color raising these issues,” he said in an interview with The Post. “Not because they see themselves as victims,” as Manning and Campbell suggest. “Microagressions have empowered them by giving them a language of expression. It allows them to say this is happening, and given the fact that it’s happening, and doing all this harm, do they not have a right to say ‘this has to stop?'” 

Correction: An original version of this story misspelled microaggressions.