Microaggression

It is difficult, sometimes, to be serious, appropriately serious, about trifles.

On the one hand, trifles are . . . well . . . trifles.

On the other hand, a trivial fact here and now may be an oracle, like the wind that sweeps the subway platform even before the glare of lights announces the train.

Now the case seems especially difficult in the field of language and dialectic, and dialectic’s evil twin eristics, the art of arguing in bad faith.

There is a word going round: microaggression.

Professor Chester M. Pierce coined the term in 1970 to cover a particular class of ill treatment suffered by black Americans at the hands of non-blacks. Professor Pierce was from Harvard. Economist Mary Rowe, from MIT, extended the victimization to include women. After some years of incubation, the terms has become all the rage and a Google search of the term “microaggression” turns up 420,000 hits. This is pretty impressive, but on the other hand, “Apple Pie” gets 41,000,000 hits, so nobody needs to panic.*

What is microaggression?

From Wiki: Psychologist Derald Wing Sue (Columbia) defines microaggressions as: brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to certain individuals because of their group membership. Sue describes microaggressions as generally happening below the level of awareness of well-intentioned members of the dominate culture. You don’t have to mean it to commit it.

Some examples (mostly spoken to a non-white by a white person)

No, where are you really from?

You don’t act like a normal black person, you know.

You don’t speak Spanish? (This to a Hispanic.)

No, you’re white. (That’s got to sting.)

You’re not really Asian.

“Hold on a minute,” says the reader. “That tone of voice sounds awful familiar . . . ”

So it does, by June Foray. It used to be known as Condescension. The voice of Condescension has been heard in clubs, regiments, churches and schools since the Carboniferous Epoch. It is the voice of those on the inside to new members, new kinds of members, who have found a seat in the our little sanhedrin. It is often expressed in tones of patient kindliness.

Microaggression is, from the side of those who suffer it, condescension with a racial edge. It is the complaint of those who have breached Club White and find the members snotty. Proust would recognize it.

Clearly, this sort of thing is not a lynch-law class evil. But it would be a mistake to dismiss it too lightly. It is not enough to say to the victim “comfort yourself with the realization that they have to condescend. They cannot get rid of you.” That is true, but it doesn’t touch the heart of this issue.

Consider communication: every word is a message (pass the butter, there is a tiger in the corridor) but and as well every word is a symbol, an expression of real suffering. Everyone who has read Eric Voegelin knows this as a concept, and everyone who has had an edgy breakfast chat with their spouse knows how important it is.

A side-line here: in looking to the experience behind a word, we have to be careful to avoid “Bulverism.” Bulverism is the term given by the late C.S. Lewis to an eristic strategy in which we assume, without question, that our opponent’s conclusion is false, and turn to a kindly psychological explanation for his stupidity.

He: I do not think that the new tariff will help trade.

She: You think that way because you own a factory.

Or

She: After all, 2 and 2 make 4.

He: You just say that because you have a Ph.D. in tensor analysis, and teach at Yale.

As to microaggression, we are quite willing to concede its truth to Professor Pierce. Microaggressions are a reality, as a sort of behavior. We grant you the content. But what about the symbol?

Why has the symbol “microaggession” become au courant? We suspect there are two reasons, one local and one perennial, both disheartening.

First, in the experience of minority groups in the United States and Canada, the great legislative and regulative campaign for racial equality has come to a disappointing stasis. The old water-fountain-and-lunch-counter discrimination is indeed a distant memory. You-know-who is in office, and the number two contender on the Republican side (the Republican side for heaven’s sake) is…well.

But something seems to have gone wrong.   Why are minorities not richer? Why are they not more powerful? Why does “our” group not have more winners? There is a pervasive sense of disappointment. We are supposed to be equal, d—nit.

It is no good replying that society is bound to provide equality in the law, and equality in opportunity, but not equality in results. It is no good telling this to young people (among whom principally “microaggression” as a term is popular). They know, because they have watched and listened to society, to us, the majority, that the only real measure of human dignity is winning, and that winning is calculated in money and status. Television says so. Newspapers say so. The Toronto Star says so (The United States and Canada differ on many, many things, but on this we are as brothers.)

As for the we-are-all-children-of-God thing, dismiss it. God is a sparkly pink pony in the sky. Salon.com says so. The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

If equality is equality of results, and the results measured by groups are unequal, there is no equality. If changing the laws of macrobehaviour doesn’t bring about equality of results, the fault is in the hearts of the callous minority, and the hammer must fall on private life.

Attention must be paid. This cast of mind may be mistaken, but it is a reality, and it is not, alas, 100% irrational.

That’s bad enough, and how far the situation may be deliberately amended, it is difficult to say. But underneath this lies a sadder reality.

All we have said concerns human beings. You’ve met some. And, alas, nothing, not a pretty girl, not a field of flowers, not an ice-cream sundae with sprinkles, brings a grin to the face of homo sapiens, puts roses in her cheeks and a twinkle in his steps, like a new weapon.

As an eristic weapon, “Microaggression” is a pip. Remember the clause from Dr. Sue, quoted above:

describes microaggressions as generally happening below the level of awareness of well-intentioned members of the dominant culture..

This is a triumph! We have at last separated intent from guilt. It is no good behaving well. The microaggressor sins out of his or her very being.

This is very nice, and if this bludgeon is put into the hands of a young person without influence, or power, or status, or wealth, and she or he is told that not only can you use it on the Oppressive Other, but that to do so is altogether fitting and proper, who will hold that young person back? What would hold that human being back?

What to do about this? How should those who are the object of this charge deal with it?

First, foremost, and number one, if there is any condescension in our behaviour, amend. Treat all with strict courtesy. Stick to business and avoid personalities. If you are curious about whether minority member X has any insights into whatever problem faces us as are based in his or her minority experience… suppress it.

If we are the object of unjust criticism . . . that depends on temperament.

The writer is no stoic and only a practiced stoic should council others to patience. But it should, perhaps, be remembered that social groups remain equal or even relatively static in position, only for an infinitesimal moment. Everyone must defend himself, and courtesy does not require diffidence, or deference.

*Gillian Anderson gets 19, 900, 000 hits, which seems about right.

Max Arnott

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Max Arnott is an independent scholar living in Toronto and has been a reader of Voegelin for many years.