Microaggressions and Academic Freedom
Any characterization of the United States as “a melting pot,” for example, is classified in widely used training materials as a microaggression signaling a refusal to acknowledge the role that race plays in American society. The same goes for saying “Everyone can succeed in this society if they work hard enough” or “I believe the most qualified person should get the job.”
That is from, “Campaigns Against Microaggressions Prompt Big Concerns About Free Speech” in the Chronicle of Higher Education this morning (currently paywalled). The article provides some of the reasons for taking microaggressions seriously, describes how some institutions are treating microaggressions, and shares the concerns of critics of such policies.
So far, it is unclear whether the concerns are overblown. The Chronicle’s only examples are training programs that teach faculty, staff, and students about microaggressions, an online system at one college by which students can anonymously report microaggressions, and one contract at the University of Washington, described as follows:
Under the terms of a new collective-bargaining agreement between the public university’s administration and its graduate researchers and teaching assistants, such employees’ work environments should “be free from everyday exchanges — including words and actions” that denigrate or exclude them as members of some group or class. If they encounter subtle racism or sexism on the job, they can file a grievance potentially leading to third-party arbitration.
Readers, if you know of any additional examples of policies or practices regarding microaggressions that might be worrisome, please share them in the comments here.
Derald Wing Sue, a professor of psychology who works on microaggressions, was interviewed for the article, which reports him holding the view that “some of the worst perpetrators of microaggressions are well-intentioned faculty members who do not realize how their statements or actions hurt students and undermine academic achievement.” The article adds:
[Professor Sue] characterizes his work as driven by a desire to help people who suffer psychological damage from repeatedly putting up with slights and snubs that might look harmless in isolation. He is unapologetic about treating as microaggressions many commonly held views — that we live in a meritocracy, for example — because he believes they truly hurt many people who hear them.
There is ambiguity as to what counts as a microaggression, and there is some concern among critics that academic debate over some issues—such as affirmative action—might be “chilled” because people fear making statements that could be seen as racist microaggressions. It seems there is also concern about what could be called “micoaggression creep,” where comments that aren’t themselves harmful, but imply or suggest views the expression of which might be, are lumped in as microaggressions themselves (see the examples at the top of the post).
For his part, Professor Sue says he is interested in merely educating people about microaggressions. “In his training sessions, he says, he seeks to provide a setting where people can discuss microaggressions ‘without being punished or blamed.'”
(image: detail of “Beach at Gravelines” by Georges Seurat)
I was actually a little worried when I started reading this post. The three examples in the first paragraph seem so grossly overstated. Those aren’t microagressions, they’re merely characterisations of someone’s perception of the political landscape. Maybe they’re wrong (I think they are), but they doesn’t seem aggressive to me. Perhaps part of the problem is perceiving any disagreement as aggression.Report
So the psychologist who studies microaggressions is unapologetic about seeing everything as an instance of microaggression?
I’m just gonna leave this here…. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Experimenter%27s_biasReport
“There is ambiguity as to what counts as a microaggression, and there is some concern among critics that academic debate over some issues—such as affirmative action—might be “chilled” because people fear making statements that could be seen as racist microaggressions.” It would be a bad thing if this silenced debate, but I think the concern over microaggressions could be useful for people to realize the implicit biases and perhaps even the racist assumptions they might have about issues like affirmative action. For example, Louis Pojman’s article “The Case against Affirmative Action” is rife with racist assumptions that, perhaps if he was more aware of this problem, would have forced him to rethink how he presented his argument. It’s important to note that this article still gets reprinted in ethics textbooks today. Here’s a link: http://www.csus.edu/indiv/g/gaskilld/business_computer_ethics/the%20case%20against%20affirmative%20action.htm/the-case-against-affirmative-action-sacramento-state
Before any asks there are at least two really bad examples of these racist assumptions in the piece that I can remember:
He thinks it’s normal to just assume minorities and women in positions of prestige like physicians are unqualified for those positions:
“Furthermore, even if it is of some help to people with low self-esteem to gain encouragement from seeing others of their particular kind in successful positions, it is doubtful whether this need is a sufficient reason to justify preferential hiring or reverse discrimination. What good is a role model who is inferior to other professors or physicians or business personnel? The best way to create role models is not to promote people because of race or gender but because they are the best qualified for the job. It is the violation of this fact that is largely responsible for the widespread whisper in the medical field (at least in New York) “Never go to a Black physician under 40” (referring to the fact that AA has affected the medical system during the past twenty years). Fight the feeling how I will, I cannot help wondering on seeing a Black or woman in a position or honor, “Is she in this position because she merits it or because of Affirmative Action?” Where Affirmative Action is the policy, the “figment of pigment” creates a stigma of undeservedness, whether or not it is deserved.”
This is the pernicious myth that affirmative action puts unqualified people in such positions, completely ignoring that there is a long history of white males doing favors for other white males by putting unqualified friends in positions of authority (who was it that ran FEMA during huricane Katrina? http://content.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1103003,00.html Also, this is obviously racist and sexist since it assumes that blacks and women cannot succeed at these positions without resorting to any data analysis.
Pojman also takes anecdotes as examples of prevalent phenomena, again without any data to support this assumption. There are three different examples about academic employment:
“I knew a brilliant philosopher, with outstanding publications in first level journals, who was having difficulty getting a tenure-track position. For the first time in my life I offered to make a phone call on his behalf to a university to which he had applied. When I got the Chair of the Search Committee, he offered that the committee was under instructions from the Administration to hire a woman or a Black. They had one of each on their short-list, so they weren’t even considering the applications of White males. At my urging he retrieved my friend’s file, and said, “This fellow looks far superior to the two candidates we’re interviewing, but there’s nothing I can do about it.” Cases like this come to my attention regularly.”
How regularly? Can this be meaningfully quantified? Is this discipline specific? Who knows, just take his word for it that it happens enough to think affirmative action is cheating whites of jobs they deserve.
“A few years ago Jesse Jackson joined protesters at Harvard Law School in demanding that the Law School faculty hire black women. Jackson dismissed Dean of the Law School, Robert C. Clark’s standard of choosing the best qualified person for the job as “Cultural anemia.” “We cannot just define who is qualified in the most narrow vertical academic terms,” he said. “Most people in the world are yellow, brown, black, poor, non-Christian and don’t speak English, and they can’t wait for some white males with archaic rules to appraise them.”19 It might be noted that if Jackson is correct about the depth of cultural decadence at Harvard, blacks might be well advised to form and support their own more vital law schools and leave places like Harvard to their archaism.”
I’m pretty sure this lead to the hiring of now renowned founder of Critical Race Theory Derek Bell, so obviously there were qualified black candidates that didn’t get a shot before the call for preferential hiring.
“At several universities, the administration has forced departments to hire members of minorities even when far superior candidates were available. Shortly after obtaining my Ph D in the late 70’s I was mistakenly identified as a black philosopher (I had a civil rights record and was once a black studies major) and was flown to a major university, only to be rejected for a more qualified candidate when it discovered that I was white.”
Again, vague assertion of a prevalent phenomena without any statistical backing. Three separate anecdotes that somehow speak to a prevalent phenomena without any recourse to unemployment figures, faculty makeup, or anything that might be recognizable as research.
And, my last example of implicit bias:
“By giving people what they deserve as individuals, rather than as members of groups we show respect for their inherent worth. If you and I take a test, and you get 95% of the answers correct and I only get 50% correct, it would be unfair to you to give both of us the same grade, say an A, and even more unfair to give me a higher grade A+ than your B+. Although I have heard cases where teachers have been instructed to “race norm” in grading (giving Blacks and Hispanics higher grades for the same numerical scores), most proponents of Affirmative Action stop short of advocating such a practice. But, I would ask them, what’s really the difference between taking the overall average of a White and a Black and “race norming” it? If teachers shouldn’t do it, why should administrators?”
How often does this happen? Who knows because Pojman is just basing this claim off of rumors. I tell my students that if they find such logic convincing then I should be suspicious of any assignments white males turn in since the majority of students I caught plagiarizing were indeed white males. Obviously, if I were to hear other stories about the same phenomena I would have to leap to the conclusion that white males just aren’t cut out for academic work.
To be fair, Pojman does indeed have a footnote referring to statistical support for his claim, but just one footnote. The bigger problem is that this article gets used a lot when professors teach the Affirmative Action debate since it is frequently published in ethics textbooks. Some probably miss the implicitly racist assumptions that blacks are unqualified for the upper middle class positions they hold, that blacks unfairly get preferences in academic job interviews over whites (that’s why they’re a whopping 1% of all philosophy faculty positions in the US), and that blacks get preferential treatment in grading. There’s a willingness to believe injustice in favor of minorities (black mischief) especially if the harmed party is whites and one can ignore injustice that favors whites. Forcing someone to be a bit more critical about the unsaid assumptions of their position would help the debate and force that person to be a more critical thinker, something I would expect out of a philosopher.Report
I find this topic very challenging. And I don’t do philosophy of language, so maybe specialists can correct some of my terminology.
On the one hand, I think that the term “microaggression” sometimes usefully picks out speech acts that that not only lead to hurt feelings, but also can perpetuate real harm, and reflect casual racism/sexism (etc). Identifying these instances (“you don’t sound black,” “it must be that time of the month”) can sometimes lead the speaker to reevaluate their language and avoid the problem in the future. I consider myself an ally to those trying to make workplaces, especially higher ed, more friendly to marginalized and under-represented groups. I am a strong believer in the work around implicit bias, and I think that there are many ways we cause harm unintentionally. I don’t think that those worried about microaggressions are just being “too sensitive.”
On the OTHER hand, I’m very frustrated by the current work on microaggressions. If a university or department were to enact a policy punishing microagressions, I’d see this as obviously problematic (for all the reasons many people have pointed out). But putting that (admittedly worrisome) implication aside, I’m terribly frustrated by the fundamental framing of this issue, including the term “micro-aggression” itself. For a phenomenon that is supposed to be defined in terms of what the hearer feels (this is part of validating the experience of someone who is disturbed by a comment, even if the speaker doesn’t intend to offend), the word “microaggression” has the feel of being a property of the speaker rather than the hearer. “Aggression” – by my lights – connotes some quality of the actor, not the acted-upon. Just this quirk of the language imbues the whole conversation around microaggressions with “blaming” that is often unfair, inaccurate, and counter-productive. I feel that there must be a way to re-frame this issue that respects the feelings of the offended party without blaming the speaker.
I want everything on my wish-list below. How can it be achieved?
(1) We should encourage people to be more careful with their words and actions
(2) We should seek to recognize patterns of speech/action that systematically slight people from marginalized groups
(3) We should NOT enact policies that punish hurtful language, nor create an atmosphere where the avoidance of hurtful language stifles productive discourse
I worry that the work on microaggressions (starting with the very term “microaggression”) leads down a path that will breach (3). But those that oppose the work on microaggressions don’t seem to pay enough attention to (1) and (2)Report
It’s been rare that I see accusations of microaggression appear in the wild (IRL as well as virtual), but when I have they typically follow this formula:
Speaker: I like that car but I’d like it better if it wasn’t black
Listener: Your use of ‘Black’ in negative terms is a microaggression and I am offended.
Speaker: I apologize for the misunderstanding but I am not using the word black to denote skin colour but rather the colour of that vehicle. I am clarifying to you that my intention was not to offend.
Listener: Check your privilege racist white male, etc.. shitlord. Hey Everyone! We got’s us a racist over here! I demand satisfaction! Everyone! Everyone! Oh, and if you question this in any manner or you’re a racist too!
Although I’m sure that’s not how the ‘tool’ of microaggression was intended to be used, it seems to be applied more and more in such a manner. A Hammer used to smash faces instead of build houses if you will. Could a control be added to the base concept of microaggressions so as to ensure it is used to curb aggression as opposed to increasing it?
On a side note, it doesn’t seem to be applied universally across all humans either. That is, would a statement such as ‘Pffft! Everyone knows white people can’t dance!’ be considered a microaggression? (That might be a bad example, but I think it describes the concept. If you can think of a better example, please do contribute.) Also, keep in mind I am a seeker of wisdom and therefore do not know all, so have a bit of patience and assume a lack of willful ignorance on my part. Thanks. 🙂Report
On the flip-side, some professors of color have had their positions imperiled or out-right lost because they’re speech was perceived racist against whites or even antisemitic. Of the top of my head, Steven Salaita, Zandria Robinson (stepped down from U of Memphis to go to Rhodes), and Saida Grundy (who didn’t lose her job but came under a lot of scrutiny for her tweets). This is a pretty good article about Robinson’s plight: http://thesocietypages.org/cyborgology/2015/07/02/why-critical-race-theory-doesnt-work-on-twitter/Report
I find sine nombre’s read of Pojman’s article uncharitable in the extreme.
Sin nombre says Pojman “assumes blacks and women cannot succeed at [professional positions] positions without resorting to any data analysis.”
Data analysis isn’t necessary because Pojman is considering the ramifications of a hypothetical policy which says: “preferentially hire women and minorities despite the fact that they are less qualified than other candidates.” He calls this “strong affirmative action” and defines it explicitly in contrast to “weak affirmative action” which he does not oppose. If an institution endorse strong affirmative action then there are good reasons to think that the women and minorities it hires will in fact be less qualified than others. Pojman is clearly not assuming that women and minorities *are* less qualified–let alone that they are *essentially so* in some kind of racist, misogynist sense. At any rate, Pojman shows us that that hypothetical policy shouldn’t be adopted because it won’t meet its aim–it won’t actually increase equality. You might think he’s wrong; but it’s not racist.
Similar objections hold for the rest of the post. Sine nombre doesn’t find the anecdata compelling. Does s/he really think that university HR departments, or search committees are going to go on record saying, “why, yes, we are illegally discriminating against white candidates, males especially”? It’s one thing to say that you don’t find the anecdotal evidence compelling; I don’t find it compelling either. It’s quite another to say that reliance on anecdotal data is racist.
As a matter of fact, there is empirical evidence that the phenomena Pojman reports for hiring in philosophy does happen in legal academia. See, Merritt and Reskin, “Sex, Race, and Credentials: The Truth about Affirmative Action in Law Faculty Hiring,” Columbia Law Review, vol 97, no 2, (1997): 199-311. Merritt and Reskin find that white women and men of color (but not women of color!) enjoy a modest advantage at location of placement over white men with similar qualifications. (So white women and black men get better jobs than they would have otherwise, but they are not necessarily more likely to get a job at all.)
I haven’t followed these debates and I’m not competent to scrutinize the methodology of Merritt and Reskin, nor do I know if the inference that philosophy might be like law in the relevant respects is a good one. But neither do I know any actual empirical evidence this isn’t the case. (Apparently neither does sine nombre, else I assume s/he would have cited it.)Report
I’m looking at these examples and I can see how they might prima facie seem ridiculous, but let’s look a little closer:
“Any characterization of the United States as “a melting pot,” for example, is classified in widely used training materials as a microaggression signaling a refusal to acknowledge the role that race plays in American society. The same goes for saying “Everyone can succeed in this society if they work hard enough” or “I believe the most qualified person should get the job.””
The first example: the US is a melting pot. This sounds totally harmless and is part of the creative fiction that helps unify the United States. The problem is that it’s an integration thesis and commonly understood that immigrants should shed their ethnic ways and become like Americans. I know because my dad who was an immigrant from Latin America bought into this big time. We did American things like have hotdogs and hamburgers for dinner, rarely did we have Latin American food. That’s just one example, but the thesis is a way of promoting cultural hegemony. So if you are different, somehow unamerican (which often meant non-white in some way) then you didn’t really belong. So this can very easily contribute to psychological strain and stress. It also promotes a version of white superiority in this country.
Second example: “Everyone can succeed in this society if they work hard enough.” This is another helpful American myth. It’s part of our characteristic optimism and one many people believe. Two problems here: 1. lots of people believe it, even though historical and empirical evidence has shown that this is simply not true do to systemic racism that keeps people out of job opportunities, getting good rates for loans, and even has black people paying more in rent than whites might; 2. since people believe it they tend to think that a person’s failures in their career is that own person’s fault. That person who is poor just didn’t work hard enough completely ignoring the possibility that they didn’t have the same opportunities as others and very likely had far more disadvantages. This is the pernicious lie of the Horatio Alger myth. This is mostly classist, but since most people assume the poorest groups in the US are blacks and Latinos they assume that they are poor because they have poor work ethic. Another way of making the same assertion is blaming black culture.
Third example: “I believe the most qualified person should get the job.” Sure, why not. Well, because (a) most qualified people had advantages over others, (b) the overcoming of great disadvantages might make someone more qualified than the so-called most qualified people, (c) what are the objective standards of qualification and how might they sometimes be conditions by unstated biases (like people hiring people like themselves), (d) it pretends that we had always lived in a just meritocracy before those bad things like affirmative action came to ruin it with unqualified candidates getting handed jobs, (e) it plays into white male resentment of women and minorities. There are probably more problems, but I think the key one is that it covers over the privileges often enjoyed by one group and folds that into the narrative of meritocracy which is a way of justifying the present social hierarchy: whites are better off in the US because they earned it, but now minorities are wanting a piece of that pie without putting in the effort. This conveniently forgets that wealth in the US is largely built off of the efforts and forced labor of nonwhites for the benefit of whites.
I know these aren’t obvious readings of these three examples, but digging into the unsaid assumptions of these claims is important since often these claims are used to justify our present social hierarchy. I would hope that it does not get to the point of being abused as the hammer A Micro Agressor Appears mentioned, but I also think it’s a little unfair to compare legitimately problematic assumptions with the very uttering of a color.Report
To be honest, I struggle with this question about charity: does calling out racist assumptions or out-right racist claims conflict with the principle of charity? I want to say no, but I think it is disingenuous to deny that people might not have implicitly racist biases when they are so willing to believe that injustice benefits blacks in the US despite all empirical evidence to the contrary. Before people start thinking I am calling Pojman a racist, I am not. I am saying he is working with some implicitly racist assumptions. In case you don’t see the difference, please watch this very helpful video on the distinction between calling a person a racist and calling his views or words implicitly racist: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b0Ti-gkJiXc
So, since I struggle with this issue I clearly fall on the side of calling out the implicit biases that sound racist than I do by saying well, maybe they didn’t mean it that way. Another Anonymous writes: “Data analysis isn’t necessary because Pojman is considering the ramifications of a hypothetical policy.” Pojman is warning his readers of a phenomena that he both believes to be wide-spread and morally wrong. His reasons for it being wide-spread are just anecdotes and I do not find them convincing. His reasons for them being morally wrong is because clearly unqualified candidates are getting jobs over qualified candidates. I think this is less obviously false and perhaps true in some cases, but the reason one might likely find it true in most cases is because we might likely think minorities in women to be unqualified. But why? There are a lot of reasons we might think this: white men are usually doctors and professors, women and minorities tend to test worse, I’ve heard of a case or two where someone just up and handed a woman a job as a doctor. Think about it for a moment: what makes a person qualified? Presumably education, training, commitment, experience, etc. Why can’t women and minorities have all these qualities. Let’s say that on average women and minorities do poorly in school, on tests, etc. Well, those are averages so surely some are doing well and others aren’t. Why should we assume the ones in those positions are the ones doing poorly any more than they might be the ones who succeeded? Nevertheless, Pojman himself states: Fight the feeling how I will, I cannot help wondering on seeing a Black or woman in a position or honor, “Is she in this position because she merits it or because of Affirmative Action?” Of course you could say that his belief that this policy (if it exists) is morally wrong because it is wrong to give unqualified candidates such positions in abstracto, but it’s important to remember that this is not an article about an abstract phenomenon but a concrete one with real people, a real history, and a really unclear assumption about what qualified might mean and who might be actually qualified. Given those factors and the assumptions against blacks, it is hard for me to see how this claim isn’t racist.
Another anonymous writes: “Pojman is clearly not assuming that women and minorities *are* less qualified–let alone that they are *essentially so* in some kind of racist, misogynist sense.” I take it that the force of this claim is the essentialism is important for racism. Sure, I buy that and maybe Pojman doesn’t think blacks and women are essentially unqualified, but all the black doctors under 40 are likely to be unqualified. That sounds suspiciously like Mexicans are rapists and drug dealers, but some, I assume, are good people. So Mexicans aren’t essentially criminal, just too many of them and all the ones coming to the US. We still call that claim racist, don’t we? And quite frankly, the racist part of this particular claim is that he doubts blacks and women can be qualified enough to earn their position unlike whites, who he just takes for granted have always earned their positions. So it’s a lot more complicated than some simple essentialism.
Another Anonymous writes: Sine [sic] nombre doesn’t find the anecdata compelling. Does s/he really think that university HR departments, or search committees are going to go on record saying, “why, yes, we are illegally discriminating against white candidates, males especially”? It’s one thing to say that you don’t find the anecdotal evidence compelling; I don’t find it compelling either. It’s quite another to say that reliance on anecdotal data is racist.
I didn’t say reliance on anecdotal evidence is racist, I said the willingness to belief anecdotal evidence that shows black mischief or injustice that favors blacks over whites is racist. Those are actually part of the base mythologies of white resentment in the US. Think about the “white hands” ad: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KIyewCdXMzk So no, using anecdotal evidence is just bad reasoning, but using particular anecdotal evidence that is steeped in racist traditions is actually racist, even if the author might not recognize it as so. I’m wiling to believe that Pojman never considered whether his assumptions were racist. That doesn’t make them any less racist, that makes them important biases and assumptions to explore and I take it that’s the point of the microaggression concern.
Another Anonymous writes: As a matter of fact, there is empirical evidence that the phenomena Pojman reports for hiring in philosophy does happen in legal academia. See, Merritt and Reskin, “Sex, Race, and Credentials: The Truth about Affirmative Action in Law Faculty Hiring,” Columbia Law Review, vol 97, no 2, (1997): 199-311. Merritt and Reskin find that white women and men of color (but not women of color!) enjoy a modest advantage at location of placement over white men with similar qualifications. (So white women and black men get better jobs than they would have otherwise, but they are not necessarily more likely to get a job at all.)
Important word here is modest and that’s telling since Pojman portrays it as a prevalent phenomenon. Also, this could be because qualified black and women candidates are finally given a fairer shot at a faculty position than before. Maybe they actually earned it?
Lastly, Another Anonymous writes: I haven’t followed these debates and I’m not competent to scrutinize the methodology of Merritt and Reskin, nor do I know if the inference that philosophy might be like law in the relevant respects is a good one. But neither do I know any actual empirical evidence this isn’t the case. (Apparently neither does sine [sic] nombre, else I assume s/he would have cited it.)
Am I misunderstanding this or is this person expecting me to prove a not? If I am misunderstanding you, can you explain to me what sort of empirical data you want me to provide. I am happy to provide the empirical data that shows that there are worrisomely few black and Latino professors of philosophy, or that blacks and Latinos have much higher rates of unemployment (surprising given that they are given all these jobs being denied to qualified whites), or that blacks and Latinos and others are passed over for interviews because of their name.Report
Is it just me, or do many people offended by “microaggressions” feel themselves entitled to engage in macroaggressions in response?
Pot, meet kettle.Report
Arthur Greeves, can you provide examples?Report
Person 1 says something that, taken a certain way, might be offensive — but, taken another way, might be nothing of the kind.
Person 2 takes offense, and aggressively tells Person 2 not to act that way.
#1 commits a microaggression. #2 commits a macroaggression.
#2 had the option of calmly telling Person #1 how the comment made them feel. But #2 did not take that option. They instead chose to fight offensiveness with offensiveness.
I feel the same way about “classes” to avoid microaggressions. This is the powerful trying to condescendingly manipulate people into never saying things that will shake up the status quo. It is the enemy of freedom of speech, and the enemy of academic inquiry.Report
Could you clarify a few things:
1. How does Person 2’s aggressively telling Person 1 “not to act that way” constitute a microaggression? Perhaps I don’t know what you mean by “aggressively tell.” If a boy and a girl are in the back seat and the boy pulls the girl’s hair and she screams “stop it!” is this a microaggression?
2. Related to 1: how is telling someone to “not to act that way” offensive? I don’t understand this point.
3. I think the point about microaggressions I got from the post is not so much that they are offensive but that they contribute to more concrete harms like psychological stress. In which case, can it be so simple as telling someone how they feel when person 1 says something that constitutes a microaggression?
4. Is your problem with microaggressions or with people who use them or both?
5. Do you have real life examples of this tu quoque problem?
6. I can see how you might conclude that “This is the powerful trying to condescendingly manipulate people into never saying things that will shake up the status quo” but the odd thing here is that, if I understand microaggressions right (and maybe I don’t), they are instituted to protect the least powerful. That generally isn’t what the powerful do. Further, I’m inclined to think that the point of microaggressions is to shake up institutions of power by not just questioning powerful myths but calling them out as fundamentally hostile to diversity. So I guess I would like to hear more on why you think that microaggressions are a tool of the powerful to maintain status quo.Report
(1) I said it is a “MACROaggression”, not a microaggression (in both posts). That might be where you’re missing my point.
(2) Loudly and forcibly criticizing someone is always offensive — though sometimes the offense is warranted!
(3) “Can it be so simple as telling someone how they feel when person 1 says something that constitutes a microaggression?” What else do you suggest? If I hurt you unintentionally, tell me nicely (or suck it up). I don’t see any other moral ways of proceeding.
(4) My problem is with people who take their being offended as a license to offend others.
(5) Not off the top of my head. But if some student spoke up and objected to one of my students calling America “a melting pot”, and loudly said that they were personally offended by the use of that term, I would think THAT would be completely out of line.
(6) “If I understand microaggressions right (and maybe I don’t), they are instituted to protect the least powerful…” But consider the context. In the context of most — not all — modern universities, the student who says that “the most qualified person should get the job” IS the least powerful. They are certainly the student who feels least comfortable speaking their mind. Now I don’t agree with what they say, but I would certainly give them the benefit of the doubt that they honestly believe it, and I would gently correct any student who tried to bring “being offended” into the conversation.
(Excuse my use of the singularizing “they” throughout. I support a revision of the dictionary, on that point!)Report
Instead of defining the view that that we live in a meritocracy as a micro-aggression why don’t we instead demonstrate, through argument, that we don’t live in one, or undertake militant action on the assumption that we don’t. The condescension towards students involved in the assumption that they can’t handle hearing about, and responding to, the view that we live in a meritocracy (or the view that the most qualified get a job, etc.) is massive. We should be aiming at instilling in our students intellectual virtues such that they can take part in open agonistic dialogue, to confidently assert their point of view, yet have the strength and forbearance to hear other views and adjust their view accordingly if convinced by them. The discourse around micro-aggressions does not accept this as the proper aim of education as it wishes to put predetermined boundaries on dialogue. For on that view one ought not even proffer the view that we live in a meritocracy as this view is defined in advance as aggressive and hurtful. One’s view about meritocracy should not be determined in dialogue but rather BEFORE dialogue. I am unclear how this is not a threat to an open discourse space. Of course, harassment, bullying, threats, racist taunts, etc. are not acceptable in the university space. But those are different things than being confronted with a view that one disagrees with and might even be hurtful to one.Report
1. My mistake. Looks like I need better glasses. But I guess I’m unclear on what a macroaggression is unless you mean some sort of shouting. I guess that’s offensive, but it seems as if it’s offensive in a whole different way. You say America is a melting pot to a woman in a hijab you are saying to her get rid of that hijb; if she screams back at you to stop saying things like that because she doesn’t want to feel excluded (since she is likely stared at a lot everywhere she goes, among things) it seems like that microaggression is worse. They don’t seem to be on the same level.
2. Sure, I keep thinking now of Wittgenstein’s poker. Still don’t think they’re always or even often morally equivalent.
3. My point is that if I say to you that calling America a melting pot is offensive to me you might scoff and think I’m overly sensitive. Don’t you need to show that it’s more than just feelings at stake here. I think the whole line of discussion about offensiveness misses the real problem of microaggressions.
4. I just think offensiveness is the wrong way to think about it. So for example, I find red lining offensive but it’s morally wrong because of the larger systemic problem of racial segregation.
5. I guess, but I think your point would be more convincing if there were actual examples of this. Also, if I read this right the problem seems to be with faculty and staff microaggressing against students. Sure, students can microaggress, but they’re there to learn and presumably don’t realize the problems of those statements.
6. You say: “But consider the context. In the context of most — not all — modern universities, the student who says that “the most qualified person should get the job” IS the least powerful. They are certainly the student who feels least comfortable speaking their mind.” On what basis are we supposed to believe this? Also, like I said, I think this is supposed to be about faculty speech that harms students. And I don’t see how that addresses my other concerns about the power structure issue I raised.Report
One of sin nombre’s comments (#6) struck me as odd and troubling: “some professors of color have had their positions imperiled or out-right lost because they’re [sic] speech was perceived racist against whites or even antisemitic.” I’m perturbed by the suggestion that the charge of antisemitism is as ridiculous, if not more so (“*even* antisemitic”), as that of racism against whites (which according to some fairly reasonable definitions of racism is a contradiction in terms). Comments that are generally insulting to white people are not a serious threat to anyone; suggestions that a large group of Jews should be killed are a little disturbing to people who remember that a very large group of Jews was killed not so long ago. I’m concerned that there’s a tendency on the extreme Left (and I’m pretty far left myself) to regard Jews as an especially privileged group of white people, more white than white. We were not always white; racially restrictive housing covenants were applied to “Hebrews,” too.Report
Anon Jewish grad,
I don’t think there is anything ridiculous about antisemitism and it certainly is a real and persistent phenomenon. I was speaking specifically about the case of Steven Salaita who was fired over anti-Zionist comments that some perceived to be anti-semitic. I thought that was clear when I used him as an example, but probably not everyone knows who he is.Report
I know you were talking about the case of Steven Salaita. I also know that it is possible to be anti-Zionist without being antisemitic. I’m not sure Salaita succeeded in keeping that line clear when he tweeted that he hoped all the West Bank settlers would “disappear” in the same way as the three boys who were kidnapped. I don’t know what I think should have happened with his job offer, but I don’t think it was unreasonable for people to be shocked or offended by what he said.Report
You said, “I just think offensiveness is the wrong way to think about it.” I’m thinking your alternative proposal is “psychological harm” or “increased stress”. But of course, from one perspective, ANY opposition to my set of views is this sort of psychological harm. Should we classify a professor strongly stating the problem of evil as a microaggression against theists? Of course not. But it will CERTAINLY create psychological stress and defensiveness on the part of the theist.
So in order to clarify “which microaggressions matter”, we will need to impose value judgments about which moral claims are correct. Otherwise, you would have to say that “women have a right to their own bodies” is a microaggression against pro-life people with just as much certainty as you would say that “abortion is murder” is a microaggression against pro-choice people.
And if we discourage ALL such statements, we have just said that academic freedom is bunk.Report
Anon Jewish grad,
Now I’m confused. I thought I wasn’t clear that I was talking about professors of color challenging power structures, but if you already knew who Salaita is and the context of my claim why the charge of me being dismissive of anti-semitism. Salaita’s tweet was: “You may be too refined to say it, but I’m not: I wish all the fucking West Bank settlers would go missing” and I’ll buy that it was a reference to the three boys who were kidnapped, but I don’t understand how we get from there to anti-semitism. I’m not trying to be difficult, but I do think we should recognize that his sentiment is common to other anti-colonial sentiments people have: hoping for their colonial oppressors to go away or just die, etc. I hope for more peaceful solutions in this matter, but I’m having a hard time seeing how this is anti-semitic and not anti-Israeli expansion, which is an illegal expansion that continues today. Could you clarify. Interestingly, in searching for this tweet (I thought he got in trouble for the Netanyahu tweets about a necklace of Palestinian children’s teeth), I found this from mondoweiss: http://mondoweiss.net/2014/08/reading-salaita-illinois-1#tweet3
About that tweet specifically, the author writes: Moreover, if Salaita had actually wished for the West Bank settlers to be kidnapped, would Nelson find it any worse than a wish for settlers to “drop dead” or “go jump off a cliff”?Report
In teaching a course in ethics, I may simply take it for granted that evolution by natural selection is true in order to go on and discuss some aspect of its ethical relevance. For some students, this may imply that I think it is irrational to believe literally in the biblical account of creation and, if asked, I would say that it is irrational to read the bible in this way. I am implicitly assuming and may explicitly state, that certain religious identities, as groups who believe this, are irrational. Does implicitly accusing a whole religious group (evangelical Christians, conservative Muslims, Orthodox Jews) of being irrational count as micro-aggression? There are obviously other examples where entire, well-defined religious identities, believe things that I will implicitly and, if asked, explicitly reject as irrational. Is the implication, “as an X (religious identity), you are irrational,” an act of micro-aggression? I fear that some religious students would seriously think so.Report
“why the charge of me being dismissive of anti-semitism”: because you were lumping Salaita in with cases of people of color making snarky or socially critical comments about dominant white culture, and thus putting his remarks into the class of criticisms of a group whose dominance puts them beyond the possibility of being legitimately threatened by a subordinate group — which is not true of Jews everywhere. Wishing all the West Bank settlers would pack up and leave (which I do, too) could not possibly be mistaken for advocating violence against a group of Jews; wishing they would “go missing,” with implicit reference to people whose fate was already reasonably clear, could be read that way. (I don’t know about the hypothetical “jump off a cliff” case, but the obvious use of a hyperbolic figure of speech does strike me as less menacing than an allusion to an actual instance of violence.) I somehow missed the “necklace of Palestinian children’s teeth” tweet, but that also looks pretty horrible.
In the context of the rest of his Twitter activity, it seems clear that Salaita is not actually an antisemite, but he should have been more careful about pushing certain buttons with the descendants of European Jews — which fits right in with the general discussion of microaggressions. Anti-colonial sentiments are completely understandable, but educated westerners should also recognize that Israel is unusual as colonial powers go. Absolutely, they are in power on the ground, and the Israeli government has been unjust and oppressive for a long time. But lumping in the existence of the state of Israel with “settler colonialism” worldwide is historically misleading. Unlike the English and the French who colonized parts of Africa and North America, the existence of Jews was precarious when they colonized Palestine, and they are still a hated minority group in many parts of the world. That does not excuse the way the Israeli government has treated the Palestinian population, but it does complicate the standard “they should just get out” response to colonialism (and I mean people living in Israel proper, not in West Bank settlements) — there’s no England or France to go back to. And it adds a different color to threats or advocacy of violence against the colonial occupier: it’s not just “fight the Man,” it’s also “let’s destroy a last remnant of a group that was already mostly destroyed.” Maybe it’s not intended that way, but it reads that way to people who remember different parts of the relevant history.Report
That is precisely my point. Complaining about microaggressions is a post-structuralist method of claiming power over people we disagree with, and intimidating them. (“Their opinions are attacks on our psychological health.” Yeah, right. Considering oneself a perpetual victim is the real psychological attack).Report
A different helpful metaphor? https://twitter.com/kissane/status/618832767925809156Report
Anon Jewish grad,
I still think this charge is unfair because I am clearly not talking about Jews everywhere but about Israel in particular. In that case, the Israeli government has very clear impunity to act as oppressors and so the state of Israel is, to use your words, “a group whose dominance puts them beyond the possibility of being legitimately threatened by a subordinate group.” You said earlier you understand the distinction between anti-zionism and anti-semitism, but you keep blurring the lines introducing claims I never made or even inferred. Suppose he is advocating violence in that tweet and that’s a legitamte interpretation, he’s not advocating violence against a group of Jews because they’re Jews but because they are a main reason why there’s been violence between Israel and Palestine for the last half century, a violence that has disproportionately killed far more Palestinians than Israelis and is the reason behind the incredibly terrible living conditions of Palestinians in both Gaza and the West Bank. Context matters here and there’s no indication that he is upset that they are Jews. It’s just an intellectually dishonest way of approaching this problem since you yourself say that the context of his tweets do not suggest he is anti-semitic.
You are absolutely right that the settler colonialism of Israel is different from that of England, France, etc. but it is still settler colonialism and the settlements that are being referred to are illegal and yet permissible. Further, while there clearly are people who want the Jews to go, that’s unrealistic. Some Palestinians have been open to a shared state. It is Israel who is not open to that. There are solutions here that are more reasonable than asking the Israeli Jews to go back to Europe or America. It should be noted that the Palestinians have been made stateless people in this entire process and had nothing at all to do with the conditions that necessitated a Jewish exodus from Europe.Report
There’s actually a lot of scholarship on the connection between racism and psychological health. I think it is unfair to blame that on one’s self perception as a victim when often people are real victims of racism and psychological abuse. I’m not really qualified to assess this scholarship, but I think dismissing it out of hand like you seem to be doing in your remark to Avi shows a lack of understanding on your part.Report
I want to voice agreement with your concern about overlooking the genuine psychological damage that results from being a victim of racism or sexism. That is something we have a responsibility to avoid making worse through careless speech. I wonder if there is a useful distinction between unavoidable offense (e.g., assuming the truth of evolution might offend some religious students but it might be necessary to the content of a course to make this assumption) and unnecessary micro-aggression or offense (e.g., telling a woman not to be so emotional). Even saying things like “everyone can succeed in this society if they work hard enough” or “everyone is privileged in different ways” seems unnecessary. Why would anyone need to say these things in a classroom? This is not just an ethical issue, but also a pedagogical issue, as it is obviously counter-productive to alienate students unnecessarily.Report
I’m not saying the best interpretation of Salaita’s tweet was that it was antisemitic, but that is a possible and not completely insane interpretation. The same issue has been raised with regard to perceived microaggressions: the speaker may not intend them as racist or sexist, and that may not even be the best interpretation, but they can be taken that way, not always unreasonably — and the speaker should be able to anticipate that. The leftist approach to this issue tends to be to give more credit to the interpretation of a member of a historically oppressed group, but Jews don’t count, apparently — I guess because we’re doing OK in the U.S., we generally look white, and we even have our own country now, we’re just paranoid. Of course it matters that the West Bank settlers are Jews, in the same way that it matters that colonial settlers in India were English. Obviously Salaita wanted them gone (perhaps even dead) qua colonial settlers, not qua Jews, but it’s a little difficult to abstract away from the fact that they are also Jews, given that they wouldn’t be considered representative of the colonial power in question if they weren’t. This is why the remark might understandably touch a nerve among Jews everywhere, considering — as I pointed out at length above — the unusual status of Jews vis-a-vis other nationalities that have had colonial settlements. “Context matters” cuts both ways.
I’m not always sure what people mean when they say they’re anti-Zionist. If they mean they’re against illegal expansion of Israeli settlements into Palestinian territory, that’s great, so am I. If they mean they oppose the violent actions of the Israeli government, great, so do I. But if they mean they don’t believe there should be a Jewish state, I think I would need some explanation. For example, people who think there shouldn’t be a Jewish state but supported the Scottish independence referendum or an independent Kurdistan should consider why it’s important for some nationalities but not others to have a state in which they are a self-determining majority. I think the ethnic nation-state is a shitty model, but it is the prevailing model in most of the world, so it’s understandable that Jews in the lead-up to and the wake of the Holocaust felt compelled to seek one out (if only there had actually been a habitable but uninhabited tract of land to establish one…). For the same reason, it’s also not totally unreasonable for Israeli Jews to be worried about becoming the demographic minority in every state where they live, which is what made them so vulnerable in Europe. That is why (in this non-ideal world of nation-states) I support a two-state solution, so that both the Palestinians and the Jews have a state in which they are the self-determining majority.
I agree that charges of antisemitism are thrown at anti-Zionists too freely. But I also think that a great deal of anti-Zionism — at least, as I have seen it expressed, often by my own friends — can be justly accused of historical forgetfulness, which, if it were a question of, say, forgetting the legacy of slavery by calling America a meritocracy, people on the left would not hesitate to call racism. Holocaust denial is definitely antisemitism (and look at some polls — it’s disturbingly common around the world); convenient Holocaust forgetfulness is… something short of that. Perhaps a microaggression? And maybe you can chalk up my initial reaction to your phrasing — “racist against whites or even antisemitic,” as if those two accusations were equivalent — to a perceived microaggression. Apparently I misread your intent. Nonetheless, I am accustomed enough to seeing people dismiss all perceptions of antisemitism as paranoid that I have a bit of a hair trigger about it.Report
The term “microagression” is specifically designed to describe insensitive or offensive views in the sort of legal language that will place them within the purview of existing harrassment/hostile work environment laws. Agression requires a specific sort of attitude on the part of the agressor. It requires that someone not only harm someone, but that they do so intentionally in order to go after them. In contrast, the arguments put forward by sin nombre and others blatantly ignore intention.
The hermeneutics of suspicion cuts both ways, I’m afraid. A certain group of mostly middle class academics have been pushing an ideology on which social relations of power happen to override common moral distinctions based upon people’s intentions or attitudes. This ideology supports asymmetrical treatment of things like racism and identity-based hiring practices. It also results in the advocacy of policies that just so happen to benefit the same group of middle class academics. Policies about hiring practices and microagressions in academia can’t really benefit people who are imprisoned or unemployed because they grew up in poverty and had no access to a decent education. But in spite of this fact these policies are justified according to appeals to power-differentials that exist in society as a whole, not in the narrow section of society to which they actually apply. I’m certainly not saying that all of this is intentional or a conspiracy. People simply give more credence to things that affect them personally.
Now, if the psychological studies truly provided strong evidence that stereotype threats were a significant cause of broad and long term social trends, we might have good reason to start enacting some changes. But to be blunt, psychological studies are structurally incapable of providing us with strong evidence of causal links between specific utterances and broad societal trends. The distance between cause and effect is too great: it requires so many assumptions and so much abstract statistical inference that it really only tells you about the ideology of the researcher. And this is on top of the already innumerable problems the field faces, such as widespread p-hacking and replication failure, not to mention the fact that the entire field is incredibly left of center. All of this casts significant doubt on any results that are broad enough to have political implications.Report
I’m working off the examples in the original post. I see no way that a psychologically healthy person could possibly experience psychological harm from those examples. None whatsoever. There is nothing inherently racist in those expressions.
I am not, to be clear, defending expressions like “Well, coming from a woman, what should you expect?” or “Some cultures are inherently more lazy than others, and you can see that in the demographics.” Those expressions are hurtful in ways that have no possible pedagogical purpose. If a woman or a minority dealt with that environment, they would be worn down and psychologically strained. This sort of thing happens with women in philosophy sometimes — they have to deal with all sort of subtle slights that men don’t, and that is wrong, and it takes its toll.
My objection is that the line being appealed to by the *examples in this post* is way too overprotective. If we apply it equally to other plausibly disadvantaged groups (e.g. Mormons, creationists, hardcore libertarians) we are constantly issuing out unintentional microaggressions.Report
Since it’s relevant here, let me recommend that people read Benjamin Ginsberg’s the Fall of the Faculty. Ginsberg provides something of a public choice analysis of the dysfunctional behaviors we see in modern universities. He argues we should see the agents within universities as vying for power and resources. He argues (you can read the book to see why) that administrators have strong incentives to be seen as busy, to maintain a predictable and quiet atmosphere where no one inside or outside is ever made angry, and to control what faculty think, say, and do. For this reason, he argues, administrators look for ways limit faculty speech, e.g., with the mid-90s political correctness movement. Much of what he says would apply to the current pressure to control “microaggressions”. The book can be a bit of a rant at times, and he often paints faculty as being nicer than they really are, but it’s a good read.Report
It strikes me that philosophers are often drawn to formal characterizations of respect. Such characterizations fit nicely with a wide-ranging space of inquiry, and allow for a certain humility about how far the truth might turn out to be from wherever we (now) (personally) find ourselves. But anyone who is attracted to a formal characterization of respect will instantly see how much substantive content is being packed into the idea of a ‘microaggression’ as picked out in these applications (here, the treatment of the ‘melting pot’ line seems especially politically laden).
I suspect that people who are more enthusiastic about microaggressions would have a chance at making more progress if they addressed this concern head-on, e.g. by arguing that the constraints they’re bringing in are not just based in truth (which is kind of off topic) but also no more substantive than other constraints we already accept, or by arguing that the idea of a discourse structured by formal notions of respect is a myth, or…Report
Without taking a stand on institutional policies designed to limit microaggressions, it’s worth pointing out that Kelly A. Burns has a recent paper in Teaching Philosophy on minimizing microaggressions when teaching: http://www.pdcnet.org/pdc/bvdb.nsf/purchase?openform&fp=teachphil&id=teachphil_2014_0999_4_1_11Report
My comparative religion courses would probably be microaggressive towards most of the Bible Belt students who took them, because I wouldn’t let them rebut all of the other world religions with “…but The Bible says…”
Also, I’m deeply bothered by the microaggression in the title of the film White Men Can’t Jump.Report
The major problem I have with the concept of microaggressions is that they exist entirely in the subjective view of the listener. What was said and how it was intended is irrelevant. By that measure, anything anyone says to another person, no matter how innocuous, could be labeled a microaggression just on that other person’s say so. I’ve seen some fairly odd claims of microaggressions: students claiming it is a microaggression to correct grammatical errors in papers, an interim dean claiming a gender microaggression when someone questioned whether she could still vote in department meetings while serving as dean, a black faculty member claiming a racial microaggression when mistaken for a student (she was extremely young at 26 and by her own description dressed very casually–in other words, she was pretty close in appearance to undergrads). Each of these interactions appears justified or understandable to me, but apparently the only standard that matters in determining what counts as a microaggression is whether the listener felt offended.Report
The issue of micro-aggressions can be lumped together with gay marriage, the confederate flag, religious freedom, polygamy, in that what is being debated are the social boundaries in which we interact. Where do we draw the lines? No one is going to be truly traumatized by someone else saying, “America is a melting pot.” The dynamic, instead, is a debate over who asserts the authority to shut down the speech of others, and how/why. The objection is what is going on is not about dialogue, but assertions of control.
I’m a white man married to a black woman. My kids are black. However, we lived in South Korea for ten years, and I have to say to the person who said a “reasonable” definitions of racism not including racism against white has probably not spent any significant time in any non-majority white country. Racism is using “race” in a given societal power paradigm to subjugate and restrict anyone outside of whatever privileged societal class. In the United States, that is white, but not in Korea, Japan, China, etc. (Twenty-five years as an American living outside the U.S. in distinctly non-“masters-of-the-universe jobs” I could go on from personal testimony about observed racism on at least four continents.)
My wife is a coloured South African. Most of the people reading this will have to refer to Wikipedia to understand what “coloured” means in South African context. She came of age when apartheid fell. In America, however, she’s black. All distinction lost. Where exactly does she fit into the scheme of things?
Most people reading my response here are going to be white, educated, and have achieved a certain amount of cachet in academic circles, whatever background. Sorry, but guilt in the privilege of the accident of birth is palpable sometimes on this blog.
Yes, white guilt. Is that a micro-aggression?
I went to elementary school in Dhaka, Bangladesh, middle school on the White Mountain Apache Reservation in Arizona, all four years of high school in Lima, Peru. I went to war in Iraq. I deal every single day with veterans and their families from World War II on forward, and I give everyone proper respect.
Yes, I am the white son of a Johns Hopkins professor, but it’s been a hell of a ride.
If you de-couple intent from statement, you can twist the accusation to be about anything. Then it becomes about control, not truth. That’s the problem with the concept of “micro-aggression.” I can reasonably assert I have experienced, or witnessed or directly know people who have seen the very worst of humanity. I’ll let others argue semantics.
My children were born in South Korea, but they will NEVER be considered Korean in any way, shape or form. And perhaps that is the point of the “melting pot.” My wife, who is working on her American citizenship is not trying to “forget” where she came from. It’s not denying whatever heritage for anyone, it’s acknowledging what we are or have become: American. Why is nationalism a pejorative compared to racial, ethnic, gender, sexual or religious identity? Why is everything BUT national identity supposedly more fundamental?Report
Apologies to all for the not-very-well-organized brain dump comment from last night. My fundamental objection to “micro-aggressions” is it focuses on and makes us hyper-sensitive to what sets us apart, and not on what binds us together. I think it also trivializes the very real experiences of people like me, a combat veteran, my wife, who grew up in apartheid, and too often gets mis-used as a bludgeon to “shout down” different points of view. And it’s a real danger to have offense defined solely by perception and not intent.
My wife and I don’t want our kids to be drones, but genuine critical thinkers engaged in the questions of what it means to citizens of the real world, and more fundamentally what it means to be human. We don’t want them to use their identities as shields, but as means for connecting to others. We as humans are always going to have differences, and at times misunderstand each other. I’d rather my children take the philosophy of looking at the bigger picture instead of intentionally trying to get lost in the weeds as the tool for navigating life.
One of my father’s “flaws” was and is he wants to “save the world” in the whole. And he tried. Damn, he tried. My little piece of “saving the world,” however, involves veteran’s issues.:
I am the original volunteer on this project.
It’s a more formalized “bar experience” of instead drinking with Korean Korean war veterans, North Vietnamese, North Korean, Cubans, Americans, Russian Aghan vets, Sendero Luminoso, Sandinistas, Australian mercs, etc., talking and most importantly just listening. (For you non-vets, think of the vets you ever saw getting together at the end of the bar, and opening up in ways to each other you as a civilian never experienced with any veteran in your life.) And writing it down. It’s giving the dignity of attention, and humanizing context for care teams.
The point within the context of this thread about micro-aggressions is why should I give a shit if I untintentionally offend you? I will be authentic to myself, but treat you (everyone) with complete respect. I do recognize this is not an easy question, but when my kids get to college I hope you (generic professors) encourage engagement, not separation. “Micro-aggressions” just seem too much a tool to keep walls up, instead of tearing them down.Report
A few people have asserted claims to the effect that whether or not something is a microaggression is determined entirely by the hearer. The contrast was once identified (implicitly, at least) as between objective standards (intent of speaker) and subjective (experience of listener). Not sure why the intent of the speaker is any more objective? But that’s not my main point. I think the point of identifying something as a microaggression is supposed to be that it meets an objective standard. Something like “does the statement cause harm/perpetuate imbalanced power relations”.
In practice, whether or not a statement meets the objective standard is often determined by the putative target/victim, who typically occupies a less privileged position in a social hierarchy. Given some deference to the experience of such people, their claiming that something is a microaggression may often count as sufficient evidence that it is. Maybe that’s a bad thing, maybe not (depends on how you feel about standpoint epistemology or something?) but it’s not built into the notion of microaggressions. The framework aspires to an objective definition, but the epistemic standard for determining whether they meet it or not tends to presuppose more epistemic authority for the marginalized. Even so, if I say “it’s raining outside” or “my dog eats dog food” and someone occupying a less privileged position in a social hierarchy accuses me of committing a microaggression, most people will probably not buy it because it’s hard to see how that could plausibly meet an objective standard of causing harm or perpetuating injustice (at least, absent an argument). On the other hand, if I say “Well, coming from a woman, what should you expect?” and no one around is offended, it’s still a microaggression. It meets the objective standard no matter how anyone feels about it.
Whether Justanotherprof’s examples are of non-microaggressions identified as microaggressions, or genuine but extremely subtle microaggressions, I won’t comment on. But if the former, it’s because they fail to meet the objective standard of genuinely causing harm, and if the latter it’s because they meet it. Questions of how we assign epistemic authority, thorny as they are, are distinct from whether or not “microaggression” picks out a genuine agent of harm that ought to be addressed.Report
If a 90-year-old man in hospice said “Coming from a woman…” just exactly how much offense would you take, and what exactly would you do about it?
The point is context.
I accept that something independent of intent can be unacceptable, but it is still a very slippery slope to define “genuine agents harm” solely by whatever arbitrary “objective” standard. You don’t end fights by provoking fights. You end them by coming to an understanding.Report
Here’s an interesting article on CHE: http://m.chronicle.com/article/Campus-Diversity-Efforts/231233/
The general theme is that diversity efforts need to focus more on class in addition to race, heritage, ethnicity, etc. This seems to me a legitimate viewpoint, although I am not sure that I agree with it. Still, if seemingly innocuous sayings like “America is a melting pot” count as “micro-aggressions”, then it seems to me that general theme of this article counts as one too. Here, I’ll fill in an entry for a micro-aggressions chart to illustrate, borrowing heavily from that which was released by University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point:
Theme: Color Blindness – statements that indicates that a white person does not want to acknowledge race
Micro-aggression: “What we should really talk about is class”
Message: Deying the individual’s racial/ethnic experience, denying the reality of racial oppression.
Is this an uncharitable interpretation of the above CHE article? Surely. But it’s just as uncharitable as some of the outrageous interpretations of innocuous phrases now declared verboten by certain administrations. No doubt someone out there feels micro-aggressed by the above CHE article, but this just shows that the concept of a micro-aggression is objectionably over-broad. Obviously, if the viewpoint expressed in this article or if it’s publication counts as a micro-aggression, then that is problematic.Report
I’m inclined to agree completely that there is something that’s really, objectively, bad to do – namely, say apparently innocuous things that actually perpetuate unjust hieararchies, harming particular people on the bottom rungs of these hierarchies in the process. And I agree that it would be a good idea to defer to people who are often harmed in this way on the question of whether this kind of harm has happened in any given case.
HOWEVER. I’m very uncomfortable with the term ‘microagression’ for this phenomenon. As others noted above, ‘aggression’ connotes malignant intention, which is often absent in these cases. Intention matters (it’s not all that matters, but it matters). My concern, then, is that ‘microaggression’ language blurs a very significant distinction between intentional hate speech and accidental offense. This blurring can be counterproductive (among other things!). I’ve never been personally accused of ‘microaggression’, but if I were I imagine it would be hard not react defensively – ‘hey, maybe I made a mistake, but that makes me sound like I attacked you! I didn’t do that!’. It would be hard to listen, after that, and learn how to do better in the future.
I feel like, as philosophers, we can contribute to this discussion by offering up terminology that reflects the distinctions that matter – between, e.g., perpetuating everyday injustice intentionally/unintentionally; recklessy/blamelessly. Any thought, anyone, on how to do this? Or, am I missing something – is ‘micro-aggression’ good enough as it is?Report
In the article in the OP, most of the statements that are used as examples of microaggression just so happen to be the kinds of things that conservatives think. Why might that be troubling? Conservatives and conservative ideas are marginalized at most universities. A recent study found that a majority of psychologists admitted that they would explicit discriminate against a conservative in hiring. Political psychology in general finds that our implicit bias against people with different political beliefs is stronger than our implicit bias against people of other races–we’re more partyist than we are racist. (And high information voters, like college professors, tend to be even more partyist than average.)
So, there’s something unseemly and ironic about this. Let’s make sure we pass rules aggressing against marginalized conservative beliefs in order to make sure conservatives don’t upset other people.
(Note: I am not a conservative, so I don’t take this personally. But it sure does look like the attempt to regulate “micro aggressions” is for the most part a power-play with the goal of further excluding conservatives from campuses. Now we don’t even have to debate them. We can just call them aggressors. Hooray for us liberals.)Report
There are a lot of comments about what microaggressions are, why they are/are not wrong, and when they are a topic of legitimate concern. That’s worthwhile. I just want to point out that the article pushes this discussion into the abstract at the expense of understanding more deeply what the actual policy against microaggressions do.
The Washington contract applies to graduate employees. Not to undergraduate students, or graduate students outside of their role qua employee. You cannot even remotely hope to win a grievance based on the offense you take to a microaggressive statement (or for that matter clearly offensive one) made in class, unless this is part of a pattern of harassment. And that is a non-trivial standard, as any 3rd party arbitrator would laugh the union out of the room for most of the examples cited above. Is it possible there is an arbitrator in the world who would take “America is a melting pot.” as an example of a microaggression? Sure. Is there a reasonable interpretation of the contract language that would lead an arbitrator to conclude that the contract has been broken? The language (in the tentative agreement at http://www.uaw4121.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/TentAgree.pdf) states:
“The parties agree that all employees should be free everyday exchanges – including words and actions – that denigrate or exclude individuals based on their membership in a group or class. The parties agree that such inappropriate behavior does not further the University’s business needs, employee well-being, or productivity. All employees are responsible for contributing to such and environment and are expected to treat others with courtesy and respect.” (Article 19)
[or a grievance may be filed.]
How this policy will actually be interpreted is what I’d like to see discussed, since it appears reasonable to me and consistent with much of the rest of the policies against harassment and discrimination. We don’t seem particularly concerned about the challenge to academic freedom that sexual harassment policies raise (not for most academics, and not anymore, at least). Are there distinct interpretive issues that the microaggression policy raises? I suspect that there are, for instance: Can classroom microaggressions that are related to pedagogy create the equivalent of a hostile work environment? I see the answer as no (as these discussions are legitimately part of ‘University business’ – a phrase I interpret to mean a core functions of the university), but I am sure that there will be disagreement. I’m sure there are other good questions as well.
But please, instead of abstractly parsing the concept of a microagression policy or seeing another irreperable harm to academic freedom – discuss what is actually going into effect.Report
“But please, instead of abstractly parsing the concept of a microagression policy or seeing another irreperable harm to academic freedom – discuss what is actually going into effect.”
I think the problem for you all is going to be what happens in any number of work environments, and that is someone pushes the lines. (Like, for example someone who decides *very*-tight-fitting bicycle shorts are appropriate attire for ‘Casual Fridays’ in a business environment.)
We’re not talking about the common sense medium where reasonable people of evendifferent perspectives agree to responsibly disagree. What we’re talking about are the rabble rousers who intentionally seek to be disruptive.
Some student of one of you IS going to assert classroom microaggressions does create a hostile learning environment, and you are going to have to defend yourself against the charge to your absolute consternation. It might come from a conservative, but just as likely a progressive.
One thing I’ve learned in my working life is to never underestimate the ability of a single troublemaker to manipulate whatever system simply to wreak havoc.Report
“One thing I’ve learned in my working life is to never underestimate the ability of a single troublemaker to manipulate whatever system simply to wreak havoc.”
Agreed – but this only works within the confines of the system. Let’s assume we have person X who desires to “wreak havoc” by using the micro aggressions provision in the CBA. This is what would have to happen: (1) Person X speaks to Union rep. Let’s say person X claims that professor assigning Searle to the class (and thereby making X TA the subject) is a micro aggression because Searle is a hegemonic white male. (2) Next, the union rep has a duty of representation, so that person is bound to take this complaint to the Union and the elected representatives meet to decide whether the CBA has been violated to the degree that warrants filing a grievance, known as ‘offense to the CBA’. Do you know a Union that would agree to represent this person? I certainly don’t. But, for the sake of argument, suppose Union Y agrees to file a grievance on behalf of person X. (3) Then, depending on the grievance procedure of that particular union, person X and Union Y would meet with the department to try to resolve the issue. (4) If it can’t be solved at the department level, they would meet with Labor Relation and/or the Graduate School authorities of the University. Assuming *that* fails, (5) they can take the greivance to a third party neutral arbitrator (which costs the union a nontrivial amount of money, by the way). Do you really think an arbitrator is going to side with Union Y on this one? I definitely do not – arbitrators are not known for indulging trivial complaints.
The more likely option: Let’s say havoc-wreaking person X takes complain to Union Y. Let’s say Union Y decides they will not file a grievance for person X — that the Union decides that the alleged violation does not rise to the level of offense to the CBA. Person X has recourse — they could go to the international union and file a complain against their local. OK. They could also go to the NLRB and file a complaint. The international union or the NLRB could take up their case. U of W’s union is the UAW. Do you see autoworkers leading the charge on this one? Or the NLRB, supposing it gets to that level? I do not. The system is not skewed in favor of unreasonable complainants.Report
The ontological individualist presumption surrounding microaggression is philosophically suspect. The campaign against
microaggressions purports to rectify systemic injustice, but attempts to address it by calling attention to the speech acts of individuals. Whether the macro-level systemic injustice or some non-negligible component is caused by, or multiply realized by, or supervenes upon individual microagressions at the level of individuals is assumed. At the very least, the ontology of the social objects and relations involved is unaddressed.Report
@ Distinction Maker — Would you really want to go through that entire administrative process for saying something akin to “America is a melting pot?” to some hypersensitive teenager?
I’m 45 years old. Truth be told, before I went into the Army at 19, and then war at 20, I was a smug little shit. If I was in the mood, I absolutely would have walked through every step of a micro-aggression complaint knowing the system has to bend over backwards to take my “complaint” seriously even though I’m viewing the process as simply a video game to be won or lost, shrugged at, and then reset.Report
@Veteran – I think you are misunderstanding the grievance process. ONLY employees of the university can even bring a complaint, e.g. graduate teaching assistants, as this is a contract between the University and academic student employees. The offended undergraduate student (I’m assuming that’s what you meant by “hypersensative teenager”) gains absolutely nothing from this contract and has no standing to file a grievance.
Supposing an offended graduate student makes a frivolous complaint. Is the supposedly offending instructor burdened by the process… I just don’t see steps 1-5 failing so easily. Grievances are not just something anyone can file… it is a formal demand regarding a contract. A union rep is unlikely to take a frivolous complaint seriously, and after this point the burden for the offended graduate student increases, rather than decreases. Since at this point the offended graduate student would have to convince the international union that the local union has failed to take the frivolous grievance seriously. Failing this the person would have to convince the NLRB that the grievance was ignored… the one who will have to bend over backwards here is the offended student, not the supposedly offending instructor!
Here is the case where there is a problem: The union rep would have to take up the frivolous complaint AND the department would have to abandon its commitment to academic freedom. Any department that offers no pushback at this point has utterly failed, and would be the rightful object of scorn. So, the case where the instructor should be concerned about academic freedom is where the instructor’s department fails to value academic freedom. Yep. That seems right. But the microaggression policy in the union contract is certainly not the explanation for why an instructor might be concerned about academic freedom at the university.
@ordinal: Do you think that this would have any practical implications? Does the same reasoning apply to the “ontological individualist presumption” in discrimination and sexual harassment policies? I don’t think all microaggressions are speech acts; choosing who will take on administrative or social planning tasks for example?Report
“@ordinal: Do you think that this would have any practical implications?” Presumably the grounding and anchoring conditions for something to be a microaggression would be substantially different from those for discrimination and sexual harassment policies. (Of course policies are very different from microaggressions, but these are comments in a blog, and it would be unnecessary to point this out, were matters of ontology not at issue.) It is possible to imagine that no microaggressions (in the narrow sense of speech acts) are ever uttered, but for systemic discrimination and sexual harassment to remain. And there is a better sense of what discrimination and sexual harassment is, and how these relate to systemic injustice.Report