A guest post by Regina Rini
If you are on a college campus or read anxious thinkpieces, you’ve probably heard about ‘microaggression’. A microaggression is a relatively minor (hence ‘micro’) insult to a member of a marginalized group, perceived as damaging to that person’s full standing as social equal. Examples include acting especially suspicious toward people of color or saying to a Jewish student, "Since Hitler is dead, you don’t have to worry about being killed by him any more." A microaggression is not necessarily a deliberate insult, and any one instance might be an honest mistake. But over time a pattern of microaggression can cause macro harm, by continuously reminding members of marginalized groups of their precarious social position.
A recent paper by sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning claims that talk of microaggression signals the appearance of a new moral culture: a ‘culture of victimhood’. In the paper Campbell and Manning present a potted history of western morality. First there was a ‘culture of honor’, which prized physical bravery and took insults to demand an aggressive reply. Picture two medieval knights glowering at one another, swords drawn. Then, as legal institutions grew stronger, the culture of honor was displaced by a ‘culture of dignity’, in which individuals let minor insults slide, and reported more serious offenses to impartial authorities. Picture a 1950s businessman calmly telling the constable about a neighbor peeking in windows. Finally, there is now an emerging ‘culture of victimhood’, in which an individual publicly calls attention to having been insulted, in hopes of rallying support from others and inducing the authorities to act. Picture a queer Latina student tweeting about her professor’s perceived-to-be homophobic and racist comments.
There is a serious problem with Campbell and Manning’s moral history, and exposing this problem helps us to see that the ‘culture of victimhood’ label is misleading. The history they provide is a history of the dominant moral culture: it describes the mores of those social groups with greatest access to power. Think about the culture of honor, and notice how limited it must have been. If you were a woman in medieval Europe, you were not expected or permitted to respond to insults with aggression. Even if you were a man, but of low social class, you certainly would not draw your sword in response to insult from a social superior. The ‘culture of honor’ governed relations among a small part of society: white men of equally high social status.
Now think about the culture of dignity, which Campbell and Manning claim “existed perhaps in its purest form among respectable people in the homogenous town of mid-twentieth century America.” Another thing that existed among the ‘respectable people’ in those towns was approval of racial segregation; ‘homogenous towns’ did not arise by accident. People of color, women, queer people, immigrants – none could rely upon the authorities to respond fairly to reports of mistreatment by the dominant group. The culture of dignity embraced more people than had the culture of honor, but it certainly did not protect everyone.
The cultures of honor and dignity left many types of people formally powerless, with no recognized way of responding to moral mistreatment. But they did not stay quiet. What they did instead was whisper to one another and call one another to witness. They offered mutual recognition amid injustices they could not overcome. And sometimes, when the circumstances were right, they made sure that their mistreatment would be seen by everyone, even by the powerful. They sat in at lunch counters that refused to serve them. They went on hunger strike to demand the right to vote. They rose up and were beaten down at Stonewall when the police, agents of dignity, moved in.
The new so-called ‘culture of victimhood’ is not new, and it is not about victimhood. It is a culture of solidarity, and it has always been with us, an underground moral culture of the disempowered. In the culture of solidarity, individuals who cannot enforce their honor or dignity instead make claim on recognition of their simple humanity. They publicize mistreatment not because they enjoy the status of victim, but because they need the support of others to stand strong, and because ultimately public discomfort is the only route to redress possible. What is sought by a peaceful activist who allows herself to be beaten by a police officer in front of a television camera, other than our recognition? What is nonviolent civil disobedience, other than an expression of the culture of solidarity?
If the culture of solidarity is ancient, then what explains the very current fretting over its manifestation? One answer must be social media. Until very recently, marginalized people were reliant on word of mouth or the rare sympathetic journalist to document their suffering. Yet each microaggression is a single small act that might be brushed aside in isolation; its oppressive power is only visible in aggregate. No journalist could document all of the little pieces that add up to an oppressive whole. But Facebook and Twitter allow documentation to be crowdsourced. They have suddenly and decisively amplified the age-old tools of the culture of solidarity.
This is a development that we should welcome, not fear. It is good that disempowered people have new means of registering how they are mistreated, even when mistreatment is measured in micro-units. Some of the worries raised about ‘microaggression’ are misplaced. Campbell and Manning return repeatedly to false reporting of incidents that did not actually happen. Of course it is bad when people lie about mistreatment – but this is nothing special about the culture of solidarity. People have always abused the court of moral opinion, however it operated. An honor-focused feudal warlord could fabricate an insult to justify annexing his brother’s territory. A 1950s dignitarian might file a false police report to get revenge on a rival.
There are some more serious worries about the recent emergence of the culture of solidarity. Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt suggest that talk of microaggression is corrosive of public discourse; it encourages accusations and counter-accusations of bad faith, rather than critical thinking. This is a reasonable thing to worry about, but their solution, that “students should also be taught how to live in a world full of potential offenses” is not reasonable. The world is not static: what is taught to students now will help create the culture of the future. For instance, it is not an accident that popular support for marriage equality was achieved about 15 years after gay-straight alliances became a commonplace in American high schools and colleges. Teaching students that they must quietly accept racist and sexist abuse, even in micro units, is simply a recipe for allowing racist and sexist abuse to continue. A much more thoughtful solution, one that acknowledges the ongoing reality of oppression as more than an excuse for over-sensitive fussing, will be required if we are to integrate recognition of microaggression into productive public discourse.
There is also a genuine question about the moral blameworthiness of microaggressors. Some microaggressions are genuine accidents, with no ill intent on the part of the one who errs. Others are more complex psychological happenings, as with implicit bias. Still others are acts of full-blooded bigotry, hiding behind claims of misunderstanding. The problem is that outsiders often cannot tell which is which – nor, in many cases, can victims. And being accused of acting in micro-racist or micro-sexist ways is rarely something people receive without becoming defensive; it is painful to be accused of hurting others. We need a better way of understanding what sort of responsibility people have for their small, ambiguous contributions to oppression. And we need better ways of calling out mistakes, and of responding to being called out. These are all live problems for ethicists and public policy experts. Nothing is accomplished by ignoring the phenomenon or demanding its dismissal from polite conversation.
The culture of solidarity has always been with us – with some of us longer than others. It is a valuable form of moral community, and its recent amplification through social media is something we should welcome. The phenomena it brings to light – microaggression among them – are real problems, bringing with them all the difficulties of finding real solutions. But if we want our future moral culture to be just and equal, not merely quietly dignified, then we will have to struggle for those solutions.
Thanks to Kate Manne, Meena Krishnamurthy, and others for helping me think through the ideas of this post. Of course, they do not necessarily endorse everything I say.
image credit: ‘Hands in Solidarity, Hands of Freedom’ mural, Chicago IL. Photo by Terence Faircloth