Monday, September 28, 2015

Microaggression and the Culture of Solidarity

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


howie berman said...

Hi Eric:

What you say makes a lot of sense and balances out outspoken critics of the politics of microaggressions. What troubles me, and maybe gives you pause too, is the making the private public or the personal political. Justice is a good thing, I agree- but in practice the campaign against microaggreassions veers awfully close to the panopticon that Foucault feared.
I think it's like Durkheim wrote in a different context, some crime is a healthy thing and maybe too a certain bit of prejudice is not a bad thing and college students may be prone to high idealism and a high sensitivity that may be easily abused.
These are issues that concern me and if you allay those concerns that would be welcome

Luke said...

Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue comes to mind, especially these two snippets:

>> For one way of framing my contention that morality is not what it once was is just to say that to a large degree people now think, talk, and act as if emotivism were true, no matter what their avowed theoretical standpoint might be. Emotivism has become embodied in our culture. (22)

>>     What is the key to the social content of emotivism? It is the fact that emotivism entails the obliteration of any genuine distinction between manipulative and non-manipulative social relations. (23)

What do you think about trying to establish the difference between manipulative and non-manipulative social relations? That seems like the core issue. Can we establish an ontology which supports a true distinction? This would need to be done, of course, in full cognizance of your The Unreliability of Naive Introspection. :-)

Vanitas said...

Thank you, Regina, for calling Campbell and Manning out on their shockingly poor understanding of moral history. Theirs are the sorts of basic errors that graduate-level education is supposed to preclude, yet, the errors have now seeped into the collective internet consciousness and threaten to become accepted wisdom. They will continue to prop up a mythic narrative about our moral past that can only serve to justify more of this misplaced anger. Perhaps there are legitimate worries about the term "microaggression" or about the ways in which campus activists are conducting themselves, but if Campbell and Manning's historical fairy-tale is the best that people can do by way of articulating those worries, then I am officially not worried.

Arnold said...

Is it...the instinct to survive serves a group, while the morality of justice serves only a individual...its probably true we microorganism are disproportionately different in attitudes for survival and morality..

Luke said...

> A guest post by Regina Rini


> Posted by Eric Schwitzgebel at 12:04 PM

This is why I have been confused! Anyhow Dr. Rini, in my previous comment, "your The Unreliability of Naive Introspection" should have been "Eric Schwitzgebel's The Unreliability of Naive Introspection". Given that you are a guest blogger, I expect you to be acquainted with that work of his. :-p

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Yes, I see how having my name on the bottom could be confusing. Regina is sending me the texts of her guest posts and I'm uploading them.

Luke said...

Being a software architect, I'm well-aware of how annoyingly restrictive technology can be. It's just that this is the second time I have made this mistake, making it "shame on me". :-| I shall learn to be skeptical of the second authorship indication!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I got this comment by IM from someone who wishes to remain anonymous:

"Racism of any sort is never a trait inference one ought to make about another given only a single social interaction. My sense is that fretting over how to handle microagression is to employ a principle of charity until you amass enough evidence of racist dispositions to make the attribution more confidently. At least from what I read of social psychology, there are norms of underblaming and norms of *overblaming* that people are sensitive to. MA's seem to be an instance of the latter, especially in cases that fail the so-called "reasonable man" test used in e.g. tort law. The speech police stuff that goes on in modern classrooms has reached what I find to be a new level of insanity. I'm all for the systematically marginalized to band together in solidarity and make their voices heard -- but the example of the latino student who gets teed off because a white student (who unbeknownst to the former also happens to have latino roots) uses the word futbol strikes me as ludicrous and illustrates the problem I have with the whole MA concept: it's just a slippery slope. What if I happen to endorse an unpopular philosophical position, like Cartesian dualism -- I could claim MA's at every meeting I attend. It's never-ending."

Vanitas said...

"Racism of any sort is never a trait inference one ought to make about another given only a single social interaction. "

Well, I'm quite sure the anonymous messenger doesn't believe THAT. Right?

Now, one point of Regina's post was to distinguish between many senses of the term 'racist'. I, for example, am quite sure that I have implicit racial bias. I am also quite sure that this qualifies me as a "Racist" in some weak sense of the term. I do not think that this significantly tarnishes my character, unless I persist in clinging to oversimplified racist/nonracist dichotomies that preclude me recognizing my own bias and trying to do something about it.

Finally, as Regina says, "People have always abused the court of moral opinion, however it operated." There are always cases where moral complaint is taken too far. That is a permanent feature of moral discourse, not something that was invented by this new-fangled "victimhood culture". But why focus on the 3% of complaints which may be problematic when the other 97% demand our attention?

Anonymous said...

I'm the anonymous messenger, and I stand by my comment above. People say stupid and hurtful things for all kinds of reasons and as Eric's work on belief has illustrated, it's incredibly difficult to nail people down. Their considered judgments split from their unguarded behavior, and so on -- I shouldn't go on -- this is Eric's blog after all :) Even if we take someone uttering an overtly racial slur, the most explicit sort of single-interaction racism short of violence, is it so clear that we ought to jump straight to "racist" without passing peer-pressure, momentary frustration, etc. Judgment gets clouded, and I'm certainly not suggesting that outbursts of that sort be condoned, but sometimes one ought to be charitable, given the totality of evidence (or lack thereof). I was recently called a racist for disagreeing with the message in Ta-Nehisi Coates' latest essay -- by someone who has neither met me nor knew with whom I had friendships or romantic relationships growing up. Needless to say, as someone who grew up in a very heavily african american and latino community, I was slightly amused by the hypocrisy.

I must admit, and I'm sure I'm of minority opinion on this, but I find the notion of implicit racism incoherent. Being weakly racist seems as strange as being weakly foolhardy. Racism seems to be something that one can be held accountable for -- it seems morally wrong to be racist, because at least by a certain age, one *chooses* racism. At least in modern times, you'd have to be living under a rock to not be at least somewhat aware of both racism and sexism. To say that there are people in the developed world who are unaware of these things beggars belief. To embrace them on religious grounds or because doing so makes one feel empowered is a choice. To put microagressions on the same spectrum just seems wrong to me.

Now you might want to say that choosing to pay closer attention to one's thoughts and deeds -- choosing to be vigilant in spite of our unreflective tribalism is what we ought to do. That's most certainly true, but the distinction admits a difference between considered racism and unguarded behavior. The latter seems to be best treated first with charity, and only upon repeat performance with scorn.

chinaphil said...

Bravo. That Campbell and Manning piece was really pernicious. Without even getting into the analysis, just look at the names: honour culture, dignity culture, victimhood culture. One of these things is not like the others.
I have been genuinely shocked at the online outpouring of articles reminding non-straight, non-white or non-male people exactly what it is that they are allowed to be offended by. And cloaking it under the pretence of serious study seems just to compound the offence.

Grayzie said...

I think this is a fair and insightful critique of the dubious history given by Campbell and Manning, but Regina you make your own assumptions that threaten to oversimplify the issue and paint it with a single brush, albeit a different colour to that of Campbell and Manning. There's no doubt that you're correct when you say there has always existed a "Culture of Solidarity" that, thanks to new technology, has been given a louder, more accessible, voice. But that doesn't mean there isn't also a "Culture of Victimhood" that has arisen, either parallel with, or distinct from, that culture and its recent expression.

Because not only have technologies like social media given a medium for people to call greater awareness to cultural sleights and oppression, it's a technology that has given a medium for people to call greater awareness to themselves period. Human beings are attention seekers. Some human beings more so than others. Human beings throughout history have used all sorts of causes, and adopted all sorts of cultural identities, out of a desire to make themselves important, to elevate themselves in the social gaze.

I'm not saying this is the motivation for all actions that seek to call attention to or raise awareness about some particular issue. Absolutely not. But it's always been a part of the equation. Humans are neither solely motivated by 'solidarity', nor are they solely motivate by 'personal interest'. It's always a complicated mixture of both.

What I'm saying is that you can both be right. We might be seeing the much needed, more present, Culture of Solidarity that has always existed. But we might also be seeing the rise of a culture that desperately attaches itself to this, that feeds off it, as a way of giving itself relevance and importance in an age that places so much emphasis on social presence as a defining feature of worth. I see this everywhere on my social networking sites, on Tumblr, etc, where people are so desperate to let others know that they're concerned about this or that social justice issue, to the point where "letting people know" becomes just as, if not more, important as actually caring in the first place. It's equally important that I update my Facebook status to ask "Who else is going to the rally today?" with the implication being, "I'm going!", as it is to actually go to the rally. I can see how a culture of victimhood might arise out of that, as people clamour to stay ahead of the mainstream by looking for and finding more and more cultural sleights. If your identity (online or offline) becomes so bound up in that search, then you will constantly view the world through its lense, and you will find them everywhere. For the same reason that if I'm in a shitty mood and I go out in to the world expecting to be disappointed by the inconsiderate acts of others, I will find them everywhere, even where none might be. This, it might be said, is a sign of a culture of victimhood.

Callan S. said...

I think in general you get a culture of dignity because the authorities in question simply cannot provide the protection required, but want to act as if they can (so as to warrant the power they wield over you).

But as much I don't know why someone can't just go onto twitter or whatever social media and 'call out' something like the dignitarian filed his report...not necessarily as a calculated attack, but the opposite of calculation - simply going off gut instinct with absolutely no charity? An urge to lash out - potentially simply becoming a victim maker in misspercieving being made a victim? Never mind the bullies who like to use social causes as an excuse to throw ad homenims/bully and essentially play vigilante when there are advocations to ignore any central authority on the matter.

I think a great deal of getting into it involves admitting (by people in general and especially by authority) that people are not protected in a range of areas and are, when in them, basically left out in the cold/at a far lower level of civilisation than they were lead to believe.

Of course authorities/thos attached to authorities want to call it a 'culture of victimhood' - it gets the discussion away from how they can't provide the protection they say they can. Make it 'people just whining' or something and bang, no question about a failure to meet the protection they promised.

But trying to get micro aggression covered - it's just affirming the illusion of protection to begin with - thus, effectively, affirming their assertions of a 'culture of victimhood'. Everytime one goes 'you know how you said you'd protect us, well this thing is an issue' it just triggers their 'well, uh, yeah, protect...ah...but you see the thing is, that's a culture of victimhood/some other excuse'

nathan said...

I think the notion that the history of morality is characterised by (amongst other things) an increasing culture of solidarity is nearly as misguided as the honour/ dignity/ victim narrative. It seems to suggest a narrative of moral progress that doesn't really explain very much. I think the notion of micro-aggressions (and the idea that there is a culture of micro-aggressions - and if there is I doubt it is as widespread as our own particular standpoint on the world would suggest) is directly related to identity politics and its emerging counterpart identity morality. Whilst the internet and social media may have played an instrumental role in the spread of ideas and increased exposure to plural identities (and corresponding ethico-political claims) at its root lies the dissemination of certain intellectual arguments and sociological critiques. Consider the way 'intersectionality' has been taken up outside the boundaries of academic analysis. I don't think the same can be said of micro-aggressions, rather it is a neologism that has be coined as a result of attempts to make (ethico-)political use of intellectual critiques in the wider context of social life. The difficulty arises when this engenders a hegemonic moral culture of pervasive 'calling out,' something that operates on the presumption that, first, we all have (or should have) been exposed to a particular intellectual discourse (and, furthermore, concur with its perspective), and, second, can engage in the reductive application of critiques that are founded on and operate at the level of society, culture and politics to particular instances and individuals.

Paul Bello said...

I'm probably stepping in it by saying so, but the last post brought out why I think that talk about implicit racial biases is at once both dangerous and incoherent. Take the following excerpt:

"I, for example, am quite sure that I have implicit racial bias. I am also quite sure that this qualifies me as a "Racist" in some weak sense of the term."

subpersonal ingroup preference (or outgroup fear/avoidance mechanisms) doesn't qualify a *person* as anything whatsoever. Racism (or sexism for that matter), at least after a certain age, is something that is chosen, and usually for a reason -- whether religiously mandated or encouraged by peer/family groups. I'm hard pressed to think of a situation (modulo the standard age-related constraints on moral agency and responsibility) of blameless racism or sexism. Racism is something we can and ought to be held responsible for. However, it's at least controversial to assume that we can be held responsible for any action that isn't minimally reasons-responsive and "authored" by the actor, ergo I find it deeply problematic to equivocate on racism and unreflective expressions of tribalism. This isn't to say that we shouldn't be vigilant about expressions of tribalism and make a conscious effort to sort our deeds with respect to our considered judgments -- its just to say that the idea of weak racism qua implicit attitude isn't entirely coherent if we maintain a separation between person-level and subpersonal cognition. Weak racism might be coherent at the personal level: take a teenager from a traditionally closed community who goes to university and learns about egalitarian values for the first time. If the teenager then needs to decide on merit between their lived values to date and a set of new egalitarian principles, and waffles for awhile -- well then we may have something like weak racism at the personal level -- but it ultimately a set of considered judgments.

I think what's often missing from the kind of story that I'm telling in the paragraph above is that along with considered judgments of the form "x is wrong" are associated background norms of the form "x-related actions ought to be avoided (or aren't permissible)" With the latter in mind and some associated self-monitoring, x can be avoided. But if a person sincerely assents to both "x is wrong" and (paraphrasing) "x-related actions ought to be avoided," and has no obvious or observed history of x-related behavior, it seems unwarranted to say that they are a racist after a single interaction of any sort. A single failure to self-monitor, whether due to exhaustion, affect, extreme peer-pressure, etc. especially along with no relevant history of being of otherwise weak moral character shouldn't warrant the label of racist.

And as far as the 3%/97% split, I'm interested in where those numbers could have come from. There are anti-discrimination laws that cover cases of institutionalized racism and sexism. There are laws preventing sexual abuse, slander, and so forth. It is being assumed that most of the 97% of complaints referenced here would be subject to these laws, either by mediation or in court? If so, I don't think they properly fall into the category of microagression. They are just plain old agression. That leaves the problematic left-over cases on which I think we ought to exercise far more charity before jumping to any conclusions of racism, sexism or other sorts of isms.

Unknown said...

Is there any sort of sourcing or documentation for the historical claims made about the "culture of solidarity"? Particularly for the more sweeping ones, like "it has always been with us, an underground moral culture of the disempowered," and that social media has suddenly become a means to unite these individuals?

I'm intrigued by these claims, but a quick search returns nothing relevant (aside from this blog post).

Vanitas said...

Anonymous, I do find this discussion helpful, and am willing to admit that the term "racist" might need to be reserved for overt character traits that one has, in some serious sense, chosen. This quickly becomes mostly terminological, and we clearly agree on what our obligations are, and I certainly don't think the term should be thrown around lightly.

But I do think your comments on when we 'ought' to judge that someone is racist are worthy of further critique. As best as I can make out, you're talking about a purely detached, epistemic ought, something that incorporates all of our best cutting-edge social psychology in order to be maximally error-free. But real people are affected by actual racism, and it is absurd to require of them that they wait until the nth social encounter to make the judgment call. If a police officer pulls a black person over, gives no reason for the stop and begins to act in a threatening manner, the black person does not have the practical option of waiting until he sees Officer Smith again to gather data, he has to make a call to protect himself. You are requiring of him that he withhold judgment, and I hope you can see that in this kind of situation that recommendation is actually dangerous. The thing to do is think: "This dude's a racist, be polite, get the hell away, don't get shot."

Finally, it is unfortunate that you were unfairly called a racist. I myself have seethed under unfair accusations of this type. But surely we can step back and recognize that in a world where the Ferguson Report can be released, the occasional overzealous activist should not be a serious concern?

Arnold said... 'search' led to comparing histories use of our terms Gravitation and Nature....
...they have been and are 'sweeping' influences in our everyday living...

Paul Bello said...

Hi Vanitas --
First, thanks for your reply. I hate to be nitpicky about the example you use, but the police officer situation doesn't require a "This dude's a racist." The rest of it was fine. And I agree that practically speaking, people will tag each other as racists and there isn't much to do about it. However, if we're talking about universities, companies, militaries, government agencies writing policy about microagression, I think we can be a bit more reflective. And I guess finally, the occasional overzealous activist is hardly ever a threat, but with much recent nonsense talk about white privilege and the rise of the so-called "black lives matter" activist core, I think we're regressing rather than progressing toward any sort of reconciliation or helpful dialogue. I'm posting here under my real name -- if you hadn't figured it out, I'd written a follow up too.

Regina Rini said...

Thanks for your comment Howie Berman.

Your worry about the private being made public is a reasonable one. One way to allay it might be for people reporting public microaggression to anonymize the report when possible. This won't always be possible - and sometimes won't be desirable - but there are some cases where it would be best. A lot of microaggression reporting is already done without naming names. That would avoid part of the panopticon worry.

You also say "maybe too a certain bit of prejudice is not a bad thing". This I don't think I can agree with. If prejudice were an evenly distributed thing, then I could be open to an argument like this. But as things actually work, the effects of prejudice fall almost entirely on certain groups of people (people of color, queer people, etc.). I don't think I could see any way for even a little prejudice to be good if the burden isn't shared by all.

Regina Rini said...

Thanks for your comments Luke.

Can you clarify what you mean by 'manipulative' and 'non-manipulative' social relations? I don't see exactly how that fits to this topic. Microaggressions aren't necessarily manipulative (though perhaps some might be). Are you suggesting that reporting microaggression might be manipulative? If that's it, could you explain why?

Regina Rini said...

Thanks for your comments Vanitas.

I think Campbell and Manning do accomplish a few helpful things. One is drawing attention to the way in which solidarity (which they care calling 'victimhood') seeks to influence authority indirectly. This seems right to me, even as I doubt much of the rest of their analysis. And it's a helpful point for people working toward equality - knowing that tools of solidarity are still eventually forced to work through existing power structures. Of course, activists already know this, but I'm not sure it's fully appreciated in theorizing, and on this point at least C&M's potted history is useful.

Regina Rini said...

Thanks for your comment Unknown.

I'm not sure I entirely follow your point about individual/group motives. How do you see that mapping onto the culture of solidarity? You say "the morality of justice serves only a individual" but I think many social movements are about helping an entire group of people (sometimes with assistance even from people outside the group).

Marcus said...

The culture of microaggressions is incomprehensible without putting it in political and ideological context. The current push on 'microaggressions' is an effort to police discourse in a way that silences opponents of particular left progressive/identity politics ideologies. This is quite obvious when you look at something like the University of California 'microaggressions tool' (google it), in which a large proportion of the microaggressions listed are contestable statements of political belief. Other 'microaggressions' listed give a privileged position in ordinary discourse to members of racial or sexual groups presumed disadvantaged by their identities, essentially by presuming that certain ways of criticizing individual members of such groups are prima faciae evidence of racism/sexism. Notably lacking are any microaggressions directed at e.g. religious people, conservative people, males, whites, etc. (It is easy to think of some of those -- 'you just got in this school because you're a privileged white male', 'happy zombie Jesus day!' as a greeting at Easter, etc.). What distinguishes a 'microaggression' is *not* whether it is offensive, insulting, or even whether it is based on race or gender, but how it corresponds to a particular set of ideological beliefs around identity politics. Even some racialized epithets against members of historically oppressed groups would probably not fall under this umbrella -- e.g. I'm not sure that calling a black Republican an 'Uncle Tom' would trigger the microaggression police.

'Microaggressions' themselves are absolutely ubiquitous in human interaction and always have been -- people are extremely sensitive to subtle signs of interpersonal disrespect in discourse and are also very skilled at dealing them out. (An example of an ordinary 'microaggression' in debate is moving beyond pointing out errors in the opponent's argument to imply that the opponent him or her self is stupid or venal. The line between logical disagreement and personal insult is subtle enough that it's often necessary to consciously police one's tone and language to avoid have this kind of 'microaggression' occur). The line of permissible offense is always set as part of localized discourse norms, but if the line is shifted too far then discourse around particular topics becomes impossible. In the case of microaggressions, the effort is to shift the line of permissible offense so far that it just becomes impossible to question the assumptions of left identity politics. I read the Lukianoff/Haidt piece, which I liked a lot, as talking about the impact on public discourse of training people to take offense at even comparatively minor forms of disagreement or disrespect.

As some above pointed out, one of the things that is highly questionable in this post is the presumption of a 'solidarity culture' among oppressed groups that unanimously supports all the shibboleths of current identity politics beliefs but has been repressed until now. This erases all kinds of division, dissent, complexity and individual voice, and it's simply assumed in the post with no evidence. It's true that expanded representation in public discourse is going to lead to new kinds of experiences being described, including new experiences of offense, and perhaps demands for changes in civility norms. But there's no particular reason to think that such demands will align so neatly with a particular form of identity politics -- unless you are a convinced believer in such politics, in which case you should probably argue your politics directly instead of saying that a mysterious 'culture of solidarity' mandates them.

Luke said...

Dr. Rini,

Racism, sexism, and all sorts of other things are ultimately the result of one group manipulating another group into an inferior position and keeping it there. Manipulation has no direct correlation with introspected intentions, because many aspects of behavior have subconscious causes, introspection can be woefully inaccurate, and a person can be exercising good intentions while standing on deeply perverted ground (think many of the Germans in Nazi Germany).

In my view, the key question is whether I am helping or hindering the other person's telos (neutrality is an iffy thing). Microaggressions are but one way to hinder; there are plenty of other ways and if we were to significantly attack 'microaggressions', I predict another problem would pop up like the Whac-A-Mole game.

My suspicion is that unless we are actively pursuing what is good for those around us, individualism will inexorably drive enough people to be focused enough on their in-groups that manipulative things will be done to the out-groups as a consequence. In lieu of working toward common goods (a huge focus of MacIntyre's), there will be continual jostling, to service my private good a bit more than yours, our collective good more than theirs. Microaggressions are one way to do this, but not the only way. They are a symptom, not the cause.

howard berman said...


On a little bit of prejudice being a good thing: first, prejudice is in some cases ambiguous or tricky to identify. Take the speaking the word 'niggardly' in a play.
Or take the ban on evoking or invoking Hitler in Israel- which ironically stifles political culture and discussion.
I'm not sure if the 'I know it when I see it' rule is workable in practice, and I think we have to wonder whether banning prejudicial thoughts or words really cures prejudice.
You may view these matters from the front lines seeking total victory. Me, I'm not so sure

Arnold said...

Regina Rini...Evolution shows life can be looked at as systems with Motives of solidarity gravitating toward survival...atom, molecules, compounds...plants, animals, us...
At this moment, my Wife questions "If evolution could also motivate solitude" solace consolation, not for survival, but for one's own individuality, then there is morality in reconciling survival and self for justice...
I agree with you on social movements, though we seem to forget about the forces of Nature...

D. Ghirlandaio said...

"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."

So when we have a culture of equality, the cultures of honor and dignity can come back. And until then the weak must be cared for by the strong. The culture of solidarity is the culture of condescension."We had to destroy equality to save it." Does that ring a bell or are you all too young?

Agency is moral responsibility. I'll switch the game on you: the culture of solidarity is the culture of silencing.

Life is tough for most people, and it's harder on the poor. But this is mostly about the self-pity of the middle class. Workers at McDonalds are used to being condescended to. The people who pick up after college students and their teachers are used to being treated as if they don't exist. I've experienced it first hand.

On top of that, this is all the culture of collaborative academia, of the kids in the library not in the playground. But the reason lawyers are considered in popular culture to be part of the "real world", following the division that academics refuse to except, is that courtrooms are places of aggressive exchange, and frequent humiliation. I don't think any of you, if you thought about it even for a minute, would want it any other way.

Finally, what's really galling, for all of the sensitive educated Americans who show so much solidarity for so many, is that on the real issues of the day, the complex ones of life and death, mostly in foreign countries, of actions carried out if not exclusively by Americans then with the blessings of our elected government, I'd trust none of you 'philosophers' more than I would trust any other American to respond in a way fitting your responsibilities. I'd have more faith in a random sampling of cab drivers from every country on the planet than the considered expert opinions of American PhDs

Regina Rini said...

Thanks for your comments Paul Bello. (If I'm understanding the thread, you're identical with Eric's originally anonymous correspondent. Please correct me if I've misunderstood.)

I'm not sure that you and I have to disagree. You're pointing out that there are serious difficulties in holding someone morally responsible for a thoughtless remark, or an accidental gesture, when this might be construed as racist. I agree that there are serious difficulties here. Most of what we do and say is not something we consciously control, at least not at any level of detail, and it's a very subtle thing to hold anyone responsible for details of their unreflective action. I've been working for a couple years on the question of moral responsibility for implicit bias - I've given conference talks on the topic - and I've repeatedly changed my mind. It's immensely complicated.

But here's my central conviction. There are ways we should respond to microaggression that don't depend on how we resolve that complicated question. The additive effect of a pattern of microaggression is harmful whether or not any given microaggressor intends to be harmful and whether or not any given microaggressor is morally responsible. Maybe most microaggressions aren't intended. But cumulatively they still harm people, the same people who have been hurt by oppression for centuries. That pattern of harm is what needs to be exposed and ended. We don't need to settle questions about moral responsibility in order to agree to this much - and that was the key point of my post.

I want us to employ imaginative empathy on both sides here. Yes, of course it hurts to be accused of racism when you didn't intend to be racist. But it hurts a lot more to be the target of racism, intended or not. I have sympathy for people hurt in both sorts of way, but for the moment, while police officers are regularly shooting unarmed people of color, I am convinced that the suffering of the latter is far more urgent. We need to err on the side of noticing and correcting racism.

Regina Rini said...

Thanks for your comment chinaphil.

I agree that the label 'victimhood' was an unhelpful way of loading the discussion. Campbell and Manning briefly consider this as an objection, but they dismiss it without much argument. If you have a chance to look back at how they justify it, I'd be curious to hear what you think.

Regina Rini said...

Thanks for your comment Grayzie.

I think I agree with you, in that you're pointing to a genuine phenomenon. (Whether or not I'd want to called it a 'culture of victimhood' is something else.) Social media has certainly changed the way that we're all under pressure to manage our self-presentation. I'm sure people in certain communities (academia maybe most of all) feels some pressure to visibly flock to the same ideological banner. And perhaps reporting microaggression is one way of establishing one's credibility. All of that might be true - if it is, I think you're right to say that it's a separate phenomenon, and it seems to be much broader than concerns about microaggression - it has to do with social conformity mediated by social media. I think that does merit a lot of serious reflection, but it's a mistake (on Campbell and Manning's part) to run it together with central discussion of microaggression.

Regina Rini said...

Thanks for your comment Callan S.

I think I see what you are getting at, though I'm wondering if attention to microaggression has to fall into the same trap. Part of the culture of solidarity is the focus on bringing together many people to support one another. To the extent that this is effective in bringing about support and (eventually) social change, perhaps it will not longer be quite necessary to reply upon unreliable authorities.

Regina Rini said...

Thank you for your comment nathan.

You're right of course that 'microaggression' as a term has most currency in college and university culture. But I don't think the underlying concept is a creature of the academy. Ask almost any member of a minority or marginalized community whether they have been subject to tiny slights that imply their inferiority in a way that provides the offender some plausible deniability. Most will be able to provide several examples easily. My claim is that fairly recent coinage 'microaggression' is just a technical term tracking a phenomenon that has been around forever.

Regina Rini said...

Thank you for your comment Jonathan Zaikowski.

The 'culture of solidarity' label is my own, so you probably won't find other resources. I'm not a historian, so I don't have archival information to offer. One thing I'm relying on is that the overall historical picture painted by Campbell and Manning is a reasonable one. (They are professional sociologists publishing in a professional sociology journal.) I am offering a reinterpretation of one of their historical claims. If you doubt their historical claim, then I'm not in a position to offer better evidence, though it seems then you'd join me in doubting their conclusions as well.

Regina Rini said...

Thank you for your comment Marcus.

It seems to me that you are reading a lot into my post that I didn't say, nor intended to say. You seem to have a disagreement with certain particular policies (e.g. at the University of California) and I'm not defending every last employment of the term 'microaggression'. I agree with you that some of the things you list probably shouldn't be called 'microaggression', but that doesn't show there is something wrong with the term, just that someone has used it in an unhelpeful way. Every term is potentially subject to abuse or error.

You seem to think that there is an essential connection between discussion of microaggression and some form of leftist 'identity politics'. I doubt this, and don't see that you've offered evidence for the claim. So long as there is no such essential connection, then it sounds to me as if you are arguing with something other than the topic of my post. At most, I think, you've argued that there is one particular way in which we ought not employ 'microaggresion'. Maybe you're right about that, but it wouldn't show that the term has no useful purpose.

Anonymous said...

Since my last comment didn't make it, I'll put it simply.
The post is indulging the romance of otherness than people who work in aid and development now mock.

Also this is amusing
---A year ago I received an invitation from the head of Counseling Services at a major university to join faculty and administrators for discussions about how to deal with the decline in resilience among students. At the first meeting, we learned that emergency calls to Counseling had more than doubled over the past five years. Students are increasingly seeking help for, and apparently having emotional crises over, problems of everyday life. Recent examples mentioned included a student who felt traumatized because her roommate had called her a “bitch” and two students who had sought counseling because they had seen a mouse in their off-campus apartment. The latter two also called the police, who kindly arrived and set a mousetrap for them.---

Marcus said...

Thanks for responding Regina.

To make things clearer, my post is implicitly arguing that there is a necessary connection between any use of 'microaggressions' as a *regulatory* concept -- a concept used to regulate speech in some way -- and some set of political/ideological assumptions. In my second paragraph I claim that this is because the actual phenomenon of 'microaggression' is too ubiquitous in human speech and interaction to allow us to restrict or regulate all of them. So there is always some particular subset of conversational 'microaggressions' that is at issue and the reason why has to do with political/ideological assumptions.

To see this more clearly, look at the definition of 'microaggression' from the University of California:

"Microaggressions are the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership "

(My emphasis)

everyday verbal, non-verbal, and environmental slights insults and snubs are absolutely ubiquitous and it is difficult to have meaningful discourse without risking them. What is special about the current push on microaggressions, what distinguishes it from a general call for civility or politeness, is the tie to a particular set of notions about marginalized group membership, including the definition of such membership, the effects of such membership, the causes of such membership, etc.

This use fo the 'microaggression' concept actually can result in increasing conversational aggression and incivility, for example by calling people racist or sexist on very limited evidence, engaging in 'callouts', etc. The very people who push microaggressions will often criticize excessive emphasis on civility because it makes it harder to engage in such aggression. The calculation is that this increase in conversational aggression is justified by the need to prevent specifically those microaggressions that cause offense to members of 'marginalized groups based on solely on their group membership' (or in practice, more narrowly due to violations of identity politics beliefs). I'm not necessarily saying that's wrong (although personally I think it's problematic for a number of reasons), I'm just saying we should try to be as clear as possible about what's really at stake.

Paul Bello said...

Dr. Rini,
I think we'll have to agree to disagree on this. I do appreciate your position and can certainly understand its merits, especially its appeal to our empathetic selves, but I can't make sense of how your conclusion follows from your premises.

I find the idea that the sins of the father must necessarily be visited upon the son at odds with common sense and standard moral practices, at least in the case of individuals. You can probably make the argument that as a nation, we've been unjust toward certain groups and perhaps reparations are due, but the means by which those changes are affected is through the law. It's not clear to me that one can draw any sort of analogy to individual cases of microaggression, since these are, ex hypothesi, individuals. To be clear, I'm parcelling out microaggressions from vanilla aggression here. Police brutality, unequal wages for equal work, quota systems and the like are all discriminatory in the standard sense. Microaggression seems qualitatively different from this -- and many of the cases that have people like Jon Haidt so exercised are not instances of vanilla discrimination toward groups -- he, as well as I, agree that something ought to be done about such unfortunate instances. No, my concern (and I suspect his), is about people rationalizing their neuroses by claiming persecution where there is either ambiguous evidence or a lack of evidence altogether by appeal to oppression that they've never really personally experienced (even though, e.g. their parents or grandparents might have). "Erring on the side of noticing and correcting racism" just begs the question against the defendant and strips them of any opportunity to stand up for themselves. The whole phenomena is reminiscent of the Salem witch trials, and it is exacerbated by social media, a forum where perception of agreement becomes a more important goal to strive after than coherence in the content of what one posts.

Callan S. said...

Hi Regina,

In my estimate, bringing people together to support one another just makes another authority - or due to our psychology having developed in dire, survivalist past, it makes a mob with torches and pitchforks (though that's another kind of authority)

I think it'd be an interesting study to look at how authorities came to be, to see if they came from many people coming together to support each other and if they did and one sees mistakes in how the resultant authority handles microagression - and perhaps armed with that knowledge, to use it to not repeat their mistakes.

Luke said...

Fascinating point, Callan. This matter comes up in Nathan O. Hatch's The Democratization of American Christianity, in the shift from church authority figures to popular preachers who sometimes became demagogues and were able to do bad things that the church authority figures would never have gotten away with. While authority may have been temporarily eliminated, it very quickly popped back up, and not necessarily in a better form. Another study of your general idea can be found in Jacques Ellul's The Subversion of Christianity. Ellul, a sociologist, traces the shifting in power structures, with the ideal being [Christian] anarchism—no authority structure—an ideal which he thinks cannot actually be realized. Ellul makes this observation:

>>     There is also another element that is intolerable for different reasons, namely, freedom. It is true that people claim to want freedom. In good faith attempts are made to set up political freedom. People also proclaim metaphysical freedom. They struggle to free slaves. They make liberty a supreme value. The loss of freedom by imprisonment is a punishment that is hard to bear. Liberty is cherished. ...
>>     Adam was bold enough to act as a free man before God, disobeying him and transgressing. In so doing he inaugurated human history, which is in truth, the history of freedom. How beautiful all this is! But this fervor, passion, desire, and teaching are all false. It is not true that people want to be free. They want the advantages of independence without the duties or difficulties of freedom.[5] Freedom is hard to live with. It is terrible. It is a venture. It devours and demands. It is a constant battle, for around us there are always traps to rob us of it. But in particular freedom itself allows us no rest. It requires incessant emulation and questioning. It presupposes alert attention, ruling out habit or institution. It demands that I be always fresh, always ready, never hiding behind precedents or past defeats. (166–67)

(I claim that the truth or falsity of Christianity is irrelevant for the descriptive observations.) Key here is the focus on freedom requiring responsibility: if one doesn't actually want to develop and exercise this responsibility (also requiring competence, admitting error, suffering the consequences of one's bad decisions without passing the buck), one will want an authority to act and to blame when things go badly.

I might also throw in Bent Flyvbjerg's Rationality and Power: Democracy in Practice, where he observes:

>> Kant said that the possession of power unavoidably spoils the free use of reason. We will see that the possession of more power soils reason even more, that the greater the power, the less the rationality. The empirical study is summed up in a number of propositions about the relationship between rationality and power, concluding that power has a rationality that rationality does not know, whereas rationality does not have a power that power does not know. (2)

Combined with Ellul's observation, this seems to predict a cycle, with authority getting strong enough that the reason is so "soiled" that the people rebel, but where unwillingness to take responsibility builds up an authority's power again.

Callan S. said...

Not sure, Luke. Seems to me often enough rules systems get weasel words built into them (the charitable reading: Because people don't think someone would go against the spirit of the wording), then people (for various circumstantial reasons) use that ambiguity to ring power from the system that the system wasn't meant to grant.

When following a system, I'm not sure there's power for an individual unless that system grants it explicitly (or implicitly, when they wring the power from the system)

So I'm not sure how it just comes down to power, as you say, unless you've written a system that grants someone power. If you don't want them to have that much, why did you write it that way? Of course if it's writing is left to a bunch of upper income people out of touch with lower income lifestyles, perhaps that's an issue? Or if it gets left to the upper incomes because frankly people with lower incomes cant afford to stand for political positions, then that's an issue with the design of the system to begin with.

Luke said...


I think you've critically missed out on the time dimension, of how the interpretation of given law evolves. A great little treatment of this is Steven D. Smith's 1989 Law Without Mind. Alexis de Tocqueville noted that wherever he went in America he saw "equality of condition". This makes quasi-equality of power a decent approximation. But things changed, and the laws which functioned well while "equality of condition" obtained started failing. Indeed, they start getting interpreted differently and/or ignored. Modifying law is not necessary to get drastic change.

Callan S. said...


Modifying law is not necessary to get drastic change.

Only if you want to go into the future blind.

Callan S. said...

Woops, bad reading on my part - I meant that last post to reply to Luke, not Regina. I've been staying up late too often!