Is Lindsay Shepherd a victim of microaggression culture?

File Photo / Photo by Garrison Oosterhof


Lindsay Shepherd, a graduate student at Wilfrid Laurier University, recently made national headlines after she was accused of threatening and harming transgendered students for presenting a TVO debate video during class, an accusation that was later retracted and a formal apology issued by the president of the university and her supervising professor.

For many, it was difficult to fathom how showing university students a short debate video available on public-access television would warrant such heavy criticism, especially given Shepherd presented the material neutrally. Nonetheless, one of the panel members accused Shepherd of “causing harm to trans students by [presenting] their identify as invalid or their pronouns as invalid.”

As someone who has spent over eight years here at Laurier, served on a variety of committees and been part of many organizations, what happened to Shepherd comes with little surprise. When attempting to understand the reprehensible behaviour exhibited by the panel, there are a variety of factors we can point to, some of which are outlined in her supervisor’s apology.

However, one factor has remained relatively undiscussed and I believe it is critical to understanding the events that took place.

Microaggressions, an increasingly popular term on campus, are defined as subtle insults — verbal, nonverbal, and/or visual  directed toward a person of a marginalized group, often automatically, unconsciously or even unintentional. Dr. Derald Wing Sue, a psychology counselling professor at Columbia University, has argued the cumulative effects of microaggressions can be quite devastating, if not far more problematic, damaging and injurious than overt acts of discrimination.

I only hope this incident serves as a wakeup call to the dangers of this microaggression culture.

Applying these concepts makes it easy to understand how showing a controversial video would be viewed as threatening, harmful or mentally damaging to the student(s) involved.

Therefore, the panel’s reaction would no longer appear unwarranted or disproportionate. Although important to the overall conversation, I am putting aside the problematic notion of holding an individual responsible for an unconscious or unintentional action. Instead, I want to focus on one critical assumption this hinges on, that is microaggressions cause mental harm or damage.

A recent publication by Dr. Scott Lilienfeld, a professor of psychology at Emory University, argues although microaggressions have provided tremendous insights into critical biases present in our society, it is “far too underdeveloped on the conceptual and methodological fronts to warrant real-world application,” and he urges researchers to “avoid strong assertions regarding the causal relation between microaggressions and adverse mental health outcomes.”

Unfortunately, it appears many have not taken heed to Dr. Lilienfeld suggestions and the principles of microaggression theory are being used to justify even more egregious and in some cases, outright unlawful responses to perceived acts of microaggression.

Last May, the roles were reversed, when Evergreen College was overrun by student protestors demanding the resignation of a professor. The professor had penned a letter stating his objections to a student group event that excluded white students, staff and faculty from being allowed on campus for the day. Unfortunately, threats or acts of violence in response to the presence of controversial ideas or speakers have become the norm on universities campuses.

In line with microaggression theory, the protestors these controversial ideas are causing mental and even physiological damage to marginalized groups. An aggressive, hostile or even violent response is therefore justifiable, even if that involves imprisoning administrative personnel in their own offices or causing excessive property damage.

I describe this behaviour as ‘microaggression culture’ and it looks like our university campuses are becoming increasingly rampant with it at various levels. We no longer live in a time where a disagreement is viewed as a difference of opinions. Rather students, faculty and staff are taught or reinforce the notion that these disagreements or controversial views, cause devastating impacts to peoples’ health and wellbeing. The ensuing responses by the offended simply resemble this notion.

At Laurier this month, we saw microaggression culture manifest itself in a panel of individuals who viewed a controversial video as a borderline act of violence, and proceeded to take unwarranted actions against the graduate student responsible. I only hope this incident serves as a wakeup call to the dangers of this microaggression culture.

Leave a Reply