Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Microaggressions

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About a week ago, I found that I had a few old comment subscriptions unconfirmed. Confirming them, I took the opportunity to revisit the respective posts, including one on so called microaggressions that (again) struck me as unusually idiotic. I read up on Wikipedia (Microaggression, Microaffirmation), saw my view confirmed—and saw several independent minor mentions of the (alleged) phenomenon during my readings this week.

Since this concept appears to be of importance to some groups, I am moved to a discussion with the main conclusions (that should be obvious) that much of this is nonsense and misinterpretation, that it serves to create a feeling of hostile treatment where non is present, that it provides further excuses for those who do not take responsibility for their own actions*, and that it is a good way for movements who have accomplished their goals and ran out of targets to pretend that work is still direly needed—and likely unending work at that. The concept and state or research appears to be at best proto-scientific, more likely “gender studies” level pseudo-science. In as far as the discussions I have seen have something to offer, then when we leave the area of what can be considered “micro-”… To boot, it is very vulnerable to the problem of “you find what you are looking for”, likely to the point that a primer on microaggressions can make an easily influenced member of a minority suddenly see evil all around him—making his life and the lives of those who interact with him worse in the process…

*Even when it comes to “ordinary” claims of aggression, discrimination, …, the alleged victims are often just misinterpreting events that would have happened similarly for everyone else or are actually resulting from their own behavior. Was your boss mean to you because you are a woman—or because you performed poorly (or because he is an ass-hole)? Did you not get that job because of your skin color—or because someone else was better qualified (or had better personal connections, or made a better superficial impression, …)? We live in a world where we can count on negative things happening to us on a frequent basis, and if we make the mistake of thinking that we are alone and that it must be because of X, well, that is a recipe for victim mentality. I, e.g., could conclude that Germans must have negative feelings about Swedes—and some kind of “Swedar” to boot that allows them to identify me so easily.

The first Wikipedia article gives the following description

Psychologist Derald Wing Sue defines microaggressions as “brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to certain individuals because of their group membership”. He describes microaggressions as generally happening below the level of awareness of well-intentioned members of the dominant culture. According to Sue, microaggressions are different from overt, deliberate acts of bigotry, such as the use of racist epithets, because the people perpetrating microaggressions often intend no offense and are unaware they are causing harm. Microaggressions are known to be subtle insults that direct towards the person or a group of people as a way to “put down”. He describes microaggressions as including statements that repeat or affirm stereotypes about the minority group or subtly demean them. They also position the dominant culture as normal and the minority one as aberrant or pathological, that express disapproval of or discomfort with the minority group, that assume all minority group members are the same, that minimize the existence of discrimination against the minority group, seek to deny the perpetrator’s own bias, or minimize real conflict between the minority group and the dominant culture.

Already from this definition at least the following problems are clear: The concept is hard to investigate and leaves very much up to the interpretation, even imagination, of the investigator; a negative proof or an “acquittal” (i.e. “you are innocent of microaggressions”) is virtually impossible to get. Microaggressions arbitrarily only go from the dominant culture towards others*, for no obvious objective reason, leaving us with the need for another concept in the other direction (e.g. a black man showing the same alleged behaviors towards a white man as a microaggressive white man does towards him) and unfortunate room for political/rhetorical/whatnot abuse of the concept. The “aggression” part is a severe misnomer, seeing that these alleged events are often unconscious—or even friendly or positive**! The concept is removed from the intention of the “perpetrator” and (at least when factoring in examples and wider discussions) reliant on the reactions of the “victim”. (In other words, yet another concept that allows criminalizing even people who are innocent based on both their own intentions and the opinions of reasonable neutral observers. The subjective reactions of the other party, even when entirely unreasonable, are the only thing that counts.)

*A common problem: I note e.g. how the Swedish “hate laws” (“hets mot folkgrupp”, roughly “aggitation against sub-population”) arbitrarily adds women to minorities and leaves men out—despite their being more women than men (i.e. men having a greater claim to be a minority). To say “all Jews should be shot” is a violation of this law, ditto “all women should be shot”; however, “all men should be shot” is not. Even if we were to accept the premise (highly disputable when the law was created; indisputably incorrect today) that women are in need of so much more protection than men that minority protections must be extended, there is no justifiable reason to exclude men—there is nothing legitimate to be gained from this special treatment. (And laws should be written to be general, consistent, and not contain weird exceptions. The same applies m.m. to scientific concepts and theories.) Another example is the sometime deliberate misdefinition of “racism” to necessitate a position of power (very much like microaggressions above), with absurd conclusions like “Blacks cannot be racist.”, irrespective of their actual opinions and behaviors—a misdefinition that with virtual certainty stems from a wish to abuse the concept of racism for self-serving purposes.

**For instance, one of the examples provided by the above Sue is “Ascription of intelligence: When Asian-Americans are stereotyped as being intelligent or assumed to be smart.”: If such things count as microaggressions, then the conclusion is that we must either (unscientifically) deny any difference between groups, be they cultural, genetic, whatnot, or any type of stereotype must be avoided (even when otherwise justified; note that stereotypes serve a purpose and the problems lie in not considering individual variations).

How absurdly this idea can be applied is shown by another Wikipedia quote of Sue: “[…] correcting a student’s use of “indigenous” in a paper by changing it from upper- to lowercase.” Taken to such extremes, any type of direct or indirect criticism, regardless of grounds and justification, would be impossible; correcting papers would be pointless; and school even more unproductive than today.

Among the more absurd other examples we find e.g. “displaying nude pin-ups of women at places of employment, someone making unwanted sexual advances toward another person”: In the first case, it is not clear what would be negative to begin with*, and we have a weird dependency on external circumstance and/or a definition problem—is this a microaggression when no women are present? If “yes”, how can this be without a “victim”; if “no”, why should e.g. the members of an all-male workplace suddenly become microaggressors when a woman visits? In the second, we have a strong dependency on the reactions of the other party—it is impossible to know in general whether sexual advance will be welcome or unwelcome. Effectively, if I approach a woman and she reacts positively—everything is fine. She reacts negatively—microaggression!

*Feminist clap trap about “objectification” and similar aside: I want legitimate reasons—not empty rhetoric. Besides, the one image in such a category that I have seen in one of my workplaces was showing a man and owned by a woman…

As Wikipedia says in the lede:

However, a number of psychologists and other authors, including Bradley Campbell, Heather Mac Donald, Amitai Etzioni, Jonathan Haidt, Greg Lukianoff, Jason Manning, Ralph Nader, and Christina Hoff Sommers, have argued that the concept of microaggressions is scientifically not well substantiated and may be harmful to both individuals and society. The concept of perceived microaggression has also been described as part of victimhood culture.

Or further down:

Some scholars think that the environment of protectiveness, of which microaggression allegations are a part, prepares students “poorly for professional life, which often demands intellectual engagement with people and ideas one might find uncongenial or wrong”.

Or yet further down:

Kenneth R. Thomas claimed in American Psychologist that recommendations inspired by microaggression theory, if “implemented, could have a chilling effect on free speech and on the willingness of White people, including some psychologists, to interact with people of color.” Sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning have written in the academic journal Comparative Sociology that the microaggression concept “fits into a larger class of conflict tactics in which the aggrieved seek to attract and mobilize the support of third parties” that sometimes involves “building a case for action by documenting, exaggerating, or even falsifying offenses”. It has been argued that the concept of microaggressions is a symptom of the breakdown in civil discourse, that microaggressions are “yesterday’s well-meaning faux pas”, that it has become “unacceptable to question the reasonableness (let alone the sincerity) of someone’s emotional state”, making adjudication of alleged microaggressions like witch trials.

Or in the section “Scientific status of the concept”:

Some psychologists have criticized microaggression theory for assuming that verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities are necessarily due to bias It has also been pointed out that it is uncertain whether a behavior is due to racial bias or is a larger phenomenon that occurs regardless of identity conflict. In a 2017 peer-reviewed review of microaggression literature, Scott Lilienfeld, while acknowledging the reality of “subtle slights and insults directed toward minorities”, concluded that the concept and programs for its scientific assessment are “far too underdeveloped on the conceptual and methodological fronts to warrant real-world application”. He recommended abandonment of the term microaggression since “the use of the root word ‘aggression’ in ‘microaggression’ is conceptually confusing and misleading” and called for a moratorium on microaggression training programs until further research can develop the field.

Althea Nagai, who works as a research fellow at the conservative Center for Equal Opportunity, accuses microaggression research of being pseudoscience. Nagai asserts that the prominent critical race researchers behind microaggression theory “reject the methodology and standards of modern science.” She lists various technical shortcomings of microaggression research, including “biased interview questions, reliance on narrative and small numbers of respondents, problems of reliability, issues of replicability, and ignoring alternative explanations.”

The post I originally encountered (s. above) is much of the same nonsense. My original comment:

The specific case of “you speak so well” more-or-less necessitates bad faith on behalf of the observer to be considered even a micro-aggression. In all likelihood, it is a genuine compliment (or flattery…)—and not one that can be considered a sign of e.g. racism, seeing that there are easily observed differences in average language performance between various groups. (Differences that to boot are only indirectly race related through the direct mechanism of migration.)

(As an aside, living in Germany where the third language I learned is spoken, I know quite a lot about the experiences of non-native speakers. Believe me: Such statements are quite likely even when both parties are White Europeans of different nationalities who optically easily pass for natives in each others countries.)

Several of your other examples and/or your reasoning could be vulnerable to similar objections, noting observable differences in typical behaviour of groups. This will to a large degree depend on how the various statements were delivered and contextual information not present in the post. Claims of racism are particularly vulnerable, seeing that the examples can typically be seen as related to non-racial aspects or be explained by other phenomena than racism (even when actually micro-aggressions).

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Written by michaeleriksson

November 4, 2017 at 1:07 pm

5 Responses

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  1. […] opponents. (See also a number of older texts, including the more general discussions in e.g. [1], [2], [3].) Correspondingly, I have been skeptical to this obsession from the start; especially, […]

  2. […] in cases where the opinion or expression is worthy of disapproval. This including even the (already fundamentally flawed) concept of […]

  3. […] in the world, still complain about oppression, discrimination, and whatnot; or the U.S. idiocy of micro-aggressions, which can make any interaction between a White straight man and someone not a White straight man […]

  4. […] condemned whole-sale today. Consider, as extreme examples, the horrifyingly flawed concept of microaggressions or stories of how even asking someone out has been considered sexual harassment. Or consider […]

  5. […] has grown stronger—never mind the facts at hand. Also consider e.g. U.S. phenomena like the micro-aggression issue, which are used to “prove” that the fight against this-or-that is as urgent and important […]


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