How Grown-Ups Deal With 'Microaggressions'
Whenever I first heard the word "microaggression," sometime in the last five years, I'm sure I was unaware how big "micro" could get. The accusation of a microaggression was about to become a pervasive feature of the Internet, and particularly social media. An offense most of us didn't even know existed, suddenly we were all afraid of being accused of.
We used to call this "rudeness," "slights" or "ignorant remarks." Mostly, people ignored them. The elevation of microaggressions into a social phenomenon with a specific name and increasingly public redress marks a dramatic social change, and two sociologists, Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning, have a fascinating paper exploring what this shift looks like, and what it means. (Jonathan Haidt has provided a very useful CliffsNotes version.)
Western society, they argue, has shifted from an honor culture -- in which slights are taken very seriously, and avenged by the one slighted -- to a dignity culture, in which personal revenge is discouraged, and justice is outsourced to third parties, primarily the law. The law being a cumbersome beast, people in dignity cultures are encouraged to ignore slights, or negotiate them privately by talking with the offender, rather than seeking some more punitive sanction.
Microagressions mark a transition to a third sort of culture: a victim culture, in which people are once again encouraged to take notice of slights. This sounds a lot like honor culture, doesn't it? Yes, with two important differences. The first is that while victimhood is shameful in an honor culture -- and indeed, the purpose of taking vengeance is frequently to avoid this shame -- victim status is actively sought in the new culture, because victimhood is a prerequisite for getting redress. The second is that victim culture encourages people to seek help from third parties, either authorities or the public, rather than seeking satisfaction themselves.
The debate over microaggressions often seems to focus on whether they are real. This is silly. Of course they've always been real; only the label is new. Microaggressions from the majority to the minority are as real as Sunday, and the effect of their accumulated weight is to make you feel always slightly a stranger in a strange land. The phenomenon is dispiriting, even more so because the offenders frequently don't realize that their words were somewhere between awkward and offensive (once again).
On the other hand, in a diverse group, the other thing you have to say about microaggressions is that they are unavoidable. And that a culture that tries to avoid them is setting up to tear itself apart.
I'm using microaggressions broadly here: to define the small slights by which any majority group subtly establishes its difference from its minority members. That means that I am including groups that may not come to mind for victim status, like conservatives in very liberal institutions. And no doubt many of my readers are preparing to deliver a note or a comment saying I shouldn't dare to compare historically marginalized groups with politically powerful ones.
I dare because it highlights the basic problem with extensively litigating microaggressions, which is that it is a highly unstable way of mediating social disputes. Deciding who is eligible to complain about microaggressions is itself an act by which the majority imposes its will, and it is felt as alienating by the minorities who are effectively told that they don't have the same right to ask for decent treatment as other groups. As a conservative social scientist once told me, "When I think of my own laments about being an ideological minority, most of it is basically microaggression."
The stream of petty slights, laughable misunderstandings and smug assumptions are not just a perpetual irritant. They are also experienced by members of the targeted group as a message: "You don't quite belong here, and therefore, you are under constant, if low-level risk, that the majority will not protect you if something goes wrong, or perhaps, will take steps to expel the outsider." And they're experienced this way whether you are eligible for victim status or not, which is why I get a surprising number of notes from conservative academics, expressing some rather milquetoast opinion and then closing with: "Please don't publish this, because I don't have tenure yet." I have never gotten such a note from a liberal academic, nor do liberal columnists of my acquaintance report getting similar notes from, say, liberal history professors expressing their support for abortion rights.
If you establish a positive right to be free from alienating comments, it's hard to restrict that right only to people who have been victimized in certain ways, or to certain degrees. It's easy to say everyone has a right not to be alienated. It's also easy to say "you should only seek social or administrative sanction for remarks that are widely known and understood to be offensive slurs." It is very, very hard to establish a rule that only some groups are entitled to be free from offense -- because the necessary corollary is that it's fine to worry the other groups with a low-level barrage of sneers, and those groups will not take this lying down. The result will be proliferation of groups claiming victim status, attempting to trump the victim status of others.
A while back, when I wrote about shamestorming, I ended up in a Twitter discussion with a guy who chided me for letting my privilege blind me to the ways that minorities (specifically women in tech, and more broadly on the Internet), experience microaggressions. You know how that conversation ended? When I pointed out that he had just committed a classic microagression: mansplaining to me something that I had actually experienced, and he had not. As soon as I did, he apologized, though that hadn't really been my intent. My intent was to point out that microaggressions are often unintentional (this guy clearly considered himself a feminist ally).
But I inadvertently demonstrated an even greater difficulty: Complaints about microaggressions can be used to stop complaints about microaggressions. There is no logical resting place for these disputes; it's microaggressions all the way down. And in the process, they make impossible demands on members of the ever-shrinking majority: to know everything about every possible victim group, to never inadvertently appropriate any part of any culture in ways a member doesn't like, or misunderstand something, or make an innocent remark that reads very differently to someone with a different experience. Which will, of course, only hasten the scramble for members of the majority to gain themselves some sort of victim status that can protect them from sanction.
Honor cultures frequently developed a lot of rituals to constrain the violence which otherwise would have degenerated into a blood-soaked war of all-against-all. If you look at the Burr-Hamilton duel, you see a tremendously elaborate process for what is basically two men deciding to duke it out over a nasty remark at a dinner. The seconds, the formalities, the extended opportunities for apology, raise the cost of fighting, lower the cost of not doing so, and thereby mitigate the appalling violence to which honor cultures are prone. Unless victim culture can find similar stopping mechanisms, it will collapse into the bloodless version of the endless blood-feuds that made us seek alternatives to honor cultures in the first place.
Does that mean that majorities should be free to microaggress their little hearts out? Of course not. Some complaints about microaggression, like making a highly public case out of the sort of juvenile jokes that many a woman in tech has made herself, strike me as a tad oversensitive. But a lot of it simply boils down to saying "Don't be an ignorant jerk." This is a laudable injunction. It's a remark that has always been best delivered in private, without a gun in your hand. And if at all possible, with a friendly smile.
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