Microaggression theory could be seen as a sign of progress. The luxury of obsessing over tiny hints of racism or sexism implies that the problem of macroaggressions has been solved.
If your environment – to draw a parallel – is dirty and unhealthy, then you focus on the big messes first. Only when those are cleaned up will you consider bringing out the microscope to look for dirt in tiny nooks and crannies.
Trigger theory, as discussed in this article’s first half, wants us to put first the needs of hyper-sensitive individuals who could be damaged further by hearing certain words or phrases. Microaggression theory goes on the offensive against the speaking of certain words or phrases, on the ground that they betray unconscious racism, sexism, or some other unsavory -ism.
Of course there is an ideological agenda at work, and it is enabled by some heavy-duty theory.
The context is the apparent great progress that we have made against social prejudices.
Sexism, racism, and ethnocentrism were stains upon human existence everywhere until the Enlightenment of the 1700s. Since then we have made huge progress towards liberty, equality, and tolerance.
Good data show that in many parts of the world we have made great strides. And especially in higher education, where I spend my days, virtually everyone is sensitive to race, class, and gender issues, sometimes excruciatingly so, and they are careful to avoid any possibility of being perceived as making a slight or giving offense or giving an unfair grade.
For most of us anti-racists and anti-sexists, the progress is excellent news and a matter of pride.
But for a minority of intellectuals and activists, the progress seems fraudulent and a threat to their very being. If one’s identity and one’s career are dependent on fighting racism and sexism, the absence of racism and sexism is a serious problem.
Microaggression theorists therefore feel fortunate to have learned from Marx and Freud. When the lot of workers improved dramatically under capitalism, contrary to Karl Marx’s prediction, many Marxists did not see this as a defeat. They told themselves that the capitalist exploitation must still be there and went hunting for hidden structural exploitations. When patients told their therapists that they had no deep traumas from childhood, many Freudian therapists dismissed that as a false-consciousness defense-mechanism and went searching for repressed neuroses.
Microaggression theory is a variant: one of its core claims is that racism and sexism have not gone away or even declined but have gone underground and become embedded in our institutional structures. Hence, Institutional Racism and Institutional Sexism.
Such “Institutional” theories are thus a kind of doubling-down on a bad bet. In the face of unexpected progress made by their intellectual adversaries and a lack of evidence of the kind of prevalent racism and sexism their theory requires, they turn to quasi-conspiracy analyses. The cultural progress must be merely apparent – and the job of the critically-trained theorist must now be to detect and expose the culture’s hidden racist and sexist machinations.
All of this includes our linguistic structures. Microaggressions are words and phrases that are codes for racism and sexism, even if the speakers are unaware that they are speaking in code. Ordinary politeness asks us to be careful about slurs, but Microaggression theory tells us that we are not the best judges of whether our words are slurs, and it redefines slur to include the substantive positions that it disagrees about on controversial issue.
A leading theorist is Derald Wing Sue, whose Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation is the work that leaders at universities such as Berkeley and Michigan are using to enact soft speech codes that silence views they disagree with. Professor Sue’s purpose in his text, as he says, is to identify the many “hidden insulting and hostile messages” in academic and everyday discourse.
Consider the debate over affirmative action as an example. Opponents of affirmative action say: We can and should strive to be gender- and color-blind in admissions and grading and hiring and promoting, so affirmative action is a bad idea. Advocates of affirmative action say: We still need to take color and gender into account, so affirmative action is good.
To the chagrin of the Advocates, the Opponents have often carried the day and affirmative action is popular only with a minority of intellectuals and activists of a certain sort. So, the Advocates conclude, the case for affirmative action needs new tactics.
One such tactic is to reinterpret the Opponents’ statements as themselves being slurs. We should strive to be colorblind, for example, can be said to be code for opposing affirmative action – which in turn is a cover for racism. Whether they know it or not, those who promote color-blindness are propping up a system that disadvantages people of color, and their mouthing We should be colorblind makes them complicit. That is, they are micro-aggressors.
So if an opponent of affirmative action says We should be colorblind, the Microaggression-theory-informed Administrator can announce, That statement cannot be expressed, because it expresses racism. The opponent of affirmative action will reply in shock, I’m not a racist! But that claim can be dismissed as naïve – its maker has merely been constructed with a false consciousness and doesn’t know how to decode his statement to reveal its real message. A further benefit is that the fear of being accused of racism will put most people on the defensive, and those foolhardy enough to persist can be shut up formally by speech codes.
The point is not that there are no subtle insults. Of course there are. The point is not that there are no subtexts. Of course there are. The point is the strategy of finding insult or subtext when there isn’t one in order to intimidate one’s intellectual adversaries and suppress the expression of their views.
But why is the Microaggression theorist’s interpretation of your words better than your own? Microaggression theory is also given support by subjectivist theories of language. Just as aesthetic subjectivists will say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and ethical subjectivists will argue that moral value is in the feelings of the beholder, linguistic subjectivists will argue that meaning is only in the mind of the user.
It follows that if words do not have objective meanings, only relativistic subjective ones, then language is no longer a tool that one uses to learn about reality and communicate with others. Language then becomes a weapon of social conflict. It’s your word against mine, and your group’s words against my group’s – always and everywhere. Ad hominem is no longer a fallacy because language is always about the subjective, and it’s my group’s “truth” that your group’s ideas and values are alien and threatening. Your intent no longer matters; only what we hear does.
And especially if the hearers are members of a weaker and oppressed group, their interpretation must be given precedence. Microaggression theory thus incorporates a kind of linguistic altruism: the meanings of the powerful oppressors must be sacrificed to the meanings of their weaker victims.
In his great novel The Man Who Laughs, Victor Hugo described the Comprachicos – a group of traveling entertainers who intentionally distorted young children’s growing bodies so as to be able to use them and sell them as freaks to earn a profit. Ayn Rand analogized Hugo’s example to indict those educational theorists who distort children’s developing minds so as to make them fit their ideological agendas.
Trigger and Microaggression theory is now a higher-education version of the same. Trigger theory sabotages the impressionable and causes them to think and act as victims, and Microaggression theory then uses the victims as weapons against those who challenge the Micro-theorists’ ideological goals.
This two-part article has been diagnostic in the service of pointing to where solutions must be found. A reinvigoration of liberal education, including its principled use of free speech, will take two pairs of developments, one pair financial and one intellectual.
The financial developments must include lessening the dollar-leveraged power of the federal government over the content of higher education. And until that happens, the intellectual autonomy of universities must be protected by administrators with enough backbone to overcome their fear of losing government dollars for not toeing the line.
The intellectual developments must include an updating of the case for academic freedom as essential to real education – with its fearless, open-minded, and often adversarial pursuit of the truth. And that in turn, as we can see from the kinds of claims the Trigger and Microaggression theories use, will require some serious psychological, moral, and linguistic work.
Don’t miss the first part of this series discussing Trigger Theory.
Stephen Hicks is the author of Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault and of Nietzsche and the Nazis. He blogs at StephenHicks.org. For future columns on The Good Life, feel welcome to send your philosophical questions and moral dilemmas to him at .
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