Tuesday, September 15, 2015

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. (...)

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. (...)

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.

by Megan McArdle, Bloomberg | Read more:
Image: Graham Barclay