Monday, December 01, 2014


In academic life there are very few things more dangerous than fads; academic ideas are simply not the kind of idea that remains intact when made into a fad. We've seen this recently with 'trigger warnings', which became a very big thing for a while. The basic idea makes sense; triggering does happen, and there are elementary things that can be done, relatively easy, that can reduce the chances of it happening. But the idea began to be applied by people who had only the dimmest idea of what triggering was, and of the actual work done about it, and, as inevitably happens in fads, the practice soon had little more than a purely superficial resemblance to the original idea. The absurdities were quite obvious to anyone who bothered actually to look up even a little of the research on it -- what will trigger post-traumatic or suicidal experiences is not perfectly predictable (e.g., it can be something otherwise entirely innocuous), for instance, so comprehensiveness was never in the cards. Perhaps even more obviously, someone with common sense would have perhaps realized that heading a syllabus, post, article, or discussion with something that effectively says "You remember that traumatic event you had? Remember it at all? Well, we're going to talk about things that will likely make you remember it very vividly," and, not only that, says it pompously and with much fanfare, is not the smartest way to handle the actual problem. What should have been a low-key exercise of reasonable courtesy that doesn't need to draw attention to itself in order to be effective, as long as it gives the relevant people the relevant information -- "OK, class, next time, we'll be discussing the role of consent in rape law, and the discussion can get into some unpleasant matters, just so everyone knows what to expect" -- became a signaling exercise, in which you attempt to make as obvious as possible that you are clever and caring enough to worry about these things, and in ways that seem quite divorced from the actual problem that was supposed to be addressed in the first place.

We're still dealing with the ramification of trigger warnings; there has been some heartening reaction to the absurdities, but it's still entirely possible that within a few years trigger warnings for syllabi will be quite standard, governed by completely arbitrary requirements that have very little to do with actual triggering and a great deal to do with the need of someone in administration to feel like they are doing something. But even if that's not the case, we still have other fads waiting in the wing. One of these is 'microaggression', so I thought I would point out a few things.

Microaggression is a concept first developed in the context of psychiatry, and as with triggering it's an attempt to get a handle on a real matter, the fact that people can experience denigration as part of their community membership in the course of everyday life. The strict meaning of 'microaggression' is precisely this, in fact: everyday exchanges, in themselves minor, that depreciate someone because of their group membership. There are several things that directly follow from this.

First, that everyone experiences microaggressions. Scoffing at Republicans in passing, for instance, is a microaggression against Republicans (a microinvalidation, to be precise). (Another example is that men are microinsulted whenever someone says anything suggesting that males are more violent than females.) There are obvious reasons why one would focus on the effect of microaggressions on minorities: greater systematicity, for instance, and greater potential for harm. But microaggression is not eliminable. We see some of the problems if you look at some cases that are occasionally proposed. For instance, it is occasionally said that placing homosexuality and zoophilia in a common category is a microaggression, which it strictly speaking is, against homosexuals; but treating it as a microaggression is itself a microaggression against zoophiles, because it carries a denigrating message about people who are members of the zoophile population. This is actually quite a general problem with any systematic and generalized campaign to deal with microaggression: it is immensely difficult to do this without denigrating anyone at all for membership in any kind of group.

None of this is a problem in the original psychiatric context; this is precisely the sort of thing psychiatrists have to deal with on a regular basis, and, indeed, could not possibly avoid dealing with. Psychiatrists have to be aware of the problem. Microaggressions wear people down, frustrate them, make little things much harder to do than they otherwise would be, so it comes up naturally. What is more, psychiatrists professionally have to keep in mind that they, regardless of their background, will engage in microaggressions, and that this will sometimes have an effect on treatment or interaction, and have to develop the professional habits required to handle them appropriately in the psychiatric context. It is precisely one of the points of discussing about microaggressions in a psychiatric context that everyone commits them, that they are pervasive and not perfectly eliminable.

When we get to non-psychiatric contexts, however, we face much more severe problems. One can entirely see the reasonableness of pointing out regular forms of microaggression; we do this already, in fact, in trying to avoid derogatory names, and having a concept for doing it more deliberately is not a problem. But people in general are not professional psychiatrists; they are not trained for handling the relevant situations; they do not have the psychiatrist's luxury of being able to assess matters at the individual level, or at a small group level, in order to determine what is causing the problem in a particular case within a relatively well-established space of well-defined rules; they have neither the means nor the background required to handle microaggressions as a psychiatric problem. They usually have to use blanket methods, and these are simply not precise enough to handle any but the more obvious and consistent forms. It is simply going to be the case that the majority of people will have no more sophisticated tool for handling the problem than common courtesy.

This is potentially dangerous when we start talking about microaggression in the classroom. If you look at much of what is said about microaggression in the classroom, it becomes clear that any chances of avoiding it at all are miniscule. It is a possible microaggression to assume that students can afford the textbook -- this is actually a standard example in discussions of the issue. It is a possible microaggression to assume that students will be able to handle the vocabulary of the text, and a microaggression to do anything that could be interpreted as assuming that if they can't, their education has been inferior. It is a possible microaggression to structure your syllabus in a way that does not take into account the specific details of one's students' religious beliefs. And one can see the absurdity arising here, as well; it is a microaggression to do anything that suggests that it is OK to hold that homosexuality is immoral, and it is a microaggression to do anything that suggests that fundamentalist belief that homosexuality is immoral is ridiculous, absurd, or immoral. The absurdity is not the concept itself. The absurdity is thinking that you can handle it properly, in any but the crudest way, in a classroom. Classrooms are not psychiatric contexts. Teachers don't generally meet their students before the first day of class. Teachers cannot foresee all possible group memberships that might be important to students. Teachers cannot usually get to know all their students well enough to learn what they would need to avoid microaggression, or correct for it when it happens.

Even the conventions for handling these kinds of problems are not standard across disciplines. I remember a student I had once who was putting together a gender discussion group, in cooperation with both the sociology and the philosophy departments. Some potentially controversial issue ended up being a topic for a particular event, and she remarked to me that she kept getting completely opposite advice from sociology faculty and philosophy faculty on how to run it. Philosophers handle such matters in philosophy by focusing on arguments and evaluation of arguments; sociologists handle such matters in sociology by avoiding arguments and focusing on things that will not involve any kind of critical evaluation of what people are actually saying. Philosophers tend to think of focus on arguments as a sign of respect (in the sense that evaluating someone's argument as good according to objective standards is a high compliment), and the failure to do so can sometimes be seen as dismissive; sociologists prefer studiously to avoid anything that suggests that they will be evaluating answers according to standards, lest it interfere with the tendency to speak freely and openly. Such was her experience, anyway. Different fields will not handle the matter the same way.

It could hardly be otherwise. 'Microaggression', by its very nature, does not automatically indicate any kind of culpability. It isn't intended to do so. It isn't a moral concept at all, or, at least, only touches on ethical matters indirectly. All it indicates in itself is a potential causal factor for a certain kind of cumulative psychological effect. What one should ethically do with an analysis in terms of microaggressions will depend on things that have nothing to do with the analysis itself. In psychiatry, this is a matter of the professional ethics of psychiatry. In a different profession -- like that of philosophy or of sociology -- the moral principles will not be the same as they are in psychiatry, because these fields are doing different things. And if we are talking about the question of professional teaching ethics, the principles are different yet again, and must depend in part on what the professional aims of teaching a given field are. There may be situations in which there is no definite way to handle the matter. (There is no possible way for a psychiatrist to eliminate all microaggressions or prepare specifically for some of the microaggressions that could cause problems, because in a psychiatric context, anything might end up being the problem; the standard advice given to psychiatrists is just to apologize immediately, without defensiveness, and let patients move on in the way they see fit. Any more specific policy than this, at least as covering microaggressions generally, could well have disastrous results in particular cases, psychiatrically speaking, since in psychiatry you have to tailor your response for the particular people with which you are dealing right then and there, and the particular responses they actually have.) The question of how to handle it is a separate question entirely from the question of whether or even when it occurs. And that's inevitable -- most criticism can be a microaggression in some context.

When a concept like microaggression gets used faddishly, it loses its usefulness. It becomes symbol detached from the real problems it was intended to address. It gets used in ways inconsistent with its proper meaning.

There is also the inevitable problem that these fads lead to a patchwork approach to issues of real import. Why, for instance, is it 'trigger' or 'microaggression' that becomes the focus and not, say, 'periperformative speech act'? It seems to be just because some people happen to talk about them in ways that lead others to talk about them, not because these are the crucially useful concepts for justice. Why is there a focus on the issues connected with these concepts, and not others that might be considered just as important, or even more so? The only reason is that this is what people just happen to be talking about. The use of these concepts gives the illusion of addressing the problem on a larger, more systematic and thorough scale; and they could be part of a broader approach that did exactly that. But the way they get used when they become faddish is exactly the opposite way.

(Microaggression got a lot of play last November in various media sources due to events at UCLA; people are talking about it again because of Heather Mac Donald's out-and-out attack on the notion (ht).


  1. Ye Olde Statistician6:11 PM

    I commented on it from a somewhat different perspective, since I remember cases of macroaggression.

  2. branemrys11:40 AM

    Yes, it's definitely something that needs to be kept in mind. The label makes it sound like a difference in degree; but it is in reality a completely a different kind of thing.


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