Criticism of Microagression Theory

Recently The Atlantic, content sweat-shop of the neo-liberal ego ideal , ran an online piece by Conor Friedsrdorf on microagressions. His article was a response to a journal publication which claimed a cultural change is happening of which microagressions and victim culture are a part.  I found the specific article unconvincing but this general issue is closely associated with the notion of cultural appropriation, so I wanted to elaborate on some points I made in that previous post.

My contention would be that belief in microagressions is a psychological defense which serves to hide the reality of actual aggession – an inescapable part of everyday life. I’ll save you the mystery: We can’t escape aggression because we don’t want to.

The social justice crowd could loosely define microaggressions as “brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to certain individuals because of their group membership.” (Emphasis mine)*

This sounds an awful lot like what we used to call slights:  An insult caused by a failure to show someone proper respect or attention.

The noteworthy difference between a slight and a microagression is the concept of group affiliation as justification for offense.  People slight eachother all the time.  You can’t do otherwise.  Even in analysis where you pay a highly trained professional to listen to you for hours at a time to help explore yourself they will inevitably misunderstand you.  You will also learn that you often misunderstand your analyst, and even yourself!

The assumption that race and gender are significant important categories upon which to view yourself and others masks the macroaggression taking place – that of the person using the concept of microagressions as reactive entitlement to escalating aggression.

If you can take on this perspective (microagressions as slights) what becomes noteworthy is considering the question: “Given that experiencing slights is a part of being human, what is it that enables some people to be resilient to their effect?”

Some people would answer structural inequality. My answer would be shame proneness as a legacy of structural inequality. The belief in structural inequality as the product of present agency, not past circumstance, is a defense against experiencing conscious shame.

Microagressions are illustrative of a very human problem which shows up in analysis and all our relationships.

Consider a woman who tells her therapist excitedly that she had a great date the night before.  This is what she consciously wants her therapist to know.  Call this the “haystack.”  A traditional approach would be to look for the “needle.”  This could be one of several things:

  • Conscious avoidance:  She doesn’t want her therapist to know she drank too much and slept with the guy.
  • Unconscious message:  She wants to convince herself and her therapist that she wants this relationship to work out, and isn’t at fault for sabotaging it.
  • Unconscious avoidance:  She doesn’t want herself or her therapist to know how inadequate she feels and the resentment she has toward men which motivates her to set herself up as a victim to sadistic men who “only want sex.”

Any and all of these things may be happening, or none of them – it depends.  Usually we fill in “the needle” with our own unconscious fantasies projected into others “haystacks.”  This doesn’t mean it isn’t there, it just means it’s difficult to discover.  Sometimes discovering is inventing.  For the world to continue spinning, in our day to day relationships, it is important to pretend that the haystack is all there is.  Go with the haystack – or keep the needle to your blog.

If you don’t want to feel slighted all the time it pays to note that you are being motivated by competitive, aggressive emotions.  What will solve this for you is developing the ability to return quickly to pro-social motivations of affection, affiliation and equality.  Social justice is fast becoming an excuse to indulge controlling behavior and aggression under the pretense of activism to preserve race and gender as issues of importance.  .

You can’t solve the problem with society.  There is no problem with society, there is only your problem with it.  Better yet – society is the sum total of our problems with each other.  Microagressions are the solution to actual aggression.

The needle haystack dilemma of the SJW’s is:

  • Conscious message:  “I’m offended by your disrespect for my race/gender.”
  • Conscious avoidance:  “I resent you for your race/gender.”
  • Unconscious message:  “I am morally superior to you – shame on you.”
  • Unconscious avoidance:  “I feel inferior to you.”

Nobody respects each other as much as our ideals would imply. We’ve always known this and and it is one reason we create manners and etiquette to begin with – it is very easy to offend one another without agreed upon (false) pleasantries.  You need manners and etiquette to show people you respect them when it isn’t obvious that you respect them – like when you don’t respect them.

The most optimistic way to view microagressions is as a morphing sense of modern etiquette.  If you aren’t full of shame, you could see a microagressor as a coward or a fool – one who is too afraid to be direct or too uncouth to keep it together.  You can’t see this because it’s how you think they see you.  Microagressions are a belief about a relationship.

*As an aside – the definition of microagressions conspicuously leaves out the notion of whose group membership creates the perceived slight – the offender or the offended.

8 thoughts on “Criticism of Microagression Theory”

  1. ‘Cultural appropriation’ is just about the most offensive, appalling and grotesque foolish idea rooted in abject ignorance to come from the progressive ranks. Is this nonsense part of ‘critical theory’?

    1. Not directly. Though many authors in that realm site Foucault’s theories about power structures as part of their argument.

  2. This is great writing, Blond Beast! I have really enjoyed reading your thoughts, especially on disavowed shame and narcissism. I’m curious: you write a lot about Freudian ‘loss’ (as in ‘Dr Jay’) and the need to experience shame (or at least acknowledge it consciously?) in order to enjoy life. How does this work, practically? If you feel inferior, does actively feeling ‘less than’ eventually lead to enjoyment?

    1. Thanks for taking the time to comment. You mention two issues which I think rightly are distinct, but similar. In the case of loss/grief/mourning the idea is that by grieving you become whole again or regain the capacity to invest your important feelings in something new. In the case of the “narcissism” cluster including shame/contempt/inferiority my contention would be that if you live with disavowed (can’t realize you feel it) shame and contempt it does not disappear but becomes part of your character. Think of deeply religious people who may thoroughly consciously reject the idea that they are contemptuous but everyone else can see their arrogance.

      The final question you left off with would ultimately be very personal. But, in general, exposing the core inferiority to the light of day (in a therapeutic relationship, or being able to talk about it within a safe, close relationship) is what will let you work through it.

  3. Another great post. By the way, I feel microagressed against by “customer,” which is something you’ll never hear the splendid blond beasts of the world calling one of the batteries.

    We are [i]consumers[/i]. Our orientation is fetishistic. Our romantic inclinations are atrophied. Our pronoun is “mouth.”

    “To preserve race and gender as issues of importance.”

    Is this the source of the ultimate (sequential, not universal) shame? The inferiority is still felt, in absence of what a neutral observer, the “other omnipotent entity” might plausibly view as a “good reason?” In the absence of what they might think is a “good reason,” the subject creates one?

    “I feel inferior to you. Normally when this happens, I am a righteous victim of some injustice. I can see no injustice, but it must be here somewhere – maybe it’s under this insistence that you’re an equal opportunity employers?”

    Meanwhile, the microagressor looks at the microagressee, and feels their own righteous victimhood swell to an engorged priapism. Two independent but mutually inseparable slave moralities emerge. The splendid blond beasts go about their business untroubled.

    Is this the world you’re describing? If so, get me a ticket for the Trans*Siberia.

    1. Thanks for reading – let me know if this gets at your questions:

      I think shame is part of a whole motivational system or “mood” that is part of being human. It shows up in perceptions of hierarchy and related motivations like contempt, domination and vicitmhood. This whole aversive system of feelings is largely repressed in society so that we don’t learn when we’re having it as a personal feeling rather than a fact. As a result it is poorly understood and explodes in often bizarre ways.

    2. Your reaction to being called a customer sounds like shame. And the “blond beast” executive officers, along with most business people, use the term `customer’ all the time. This is done without negative connotation.

      A consumer is just an ordinary person enjoying the products of civilization. What could be more normal? Most people have little to no use for romantic notions. Unless you’re a heavyweight thinker, romanticism will almost certainly do you more harm than good. In such cases, I think romanticism is self-imposed punishment, a response to feeling that the pleasure of consumerism is too good to be true, and so must be a sin. Your jumping to “mouth” is interesting; I see consumerism as a more anal thing.

      You have your causality reversed. Shame comes first, and justification for it is a defense from shame about shame. “Yes I feel ashamed, but because of X. So my shame is justified, and I don’t have to feel bad about it.” For more on this, see the Genealogy of Morals, First Essay.

      I think you mean “self-righteous victimhood”. Truly righteous victimhood would be unproblematic.

      The unconscious doesn’t have a concept of justice; it’s a pure fabrication to stand in for a very complex mental structure. So when “feelings of injustice” are used in causal reasoning for human action, you can be sure that there’s a defense from the real motives taking place. In this case, I’d guess it’s a defense against shame.

      The blond beasts are untroubled because they have accepted their shame. Of course consumerism makes a reasonable person feel ashamed, like a good finger in the ass. But generally, the pleasure outweighs the discomfort. The discomfort starts to dominate when we feel shame about shame, thinking that we _shouldn’t_ feel ashamed, for whatever reason. I argue this is pathological, and the blond beast has avoided the pathology by breaking the shame-about-shame cycle.

      You don’t want a ticket for Siberia, or else you’d consume less, save up for a ticket, and move. All your choices point towards the natural desire to enjoy the fruits of civilization. Your shame about shame arrests you from feeling this pleasure to a sufficient degree, so you feel empty and unhappy. The result is rage, the underlying driver of our time, and maybe all times. The way out is to accept your shame, to love it, so that your burden is left behind in your heavenly flight, and you become the blond beast.

      1. *Edit: I realized you may have been replying to poster Mendacity, not me. Sorry for the confusion.

        Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

        I would suggest you hear my response to the customer/provider dyad as romantic contempt rather than shame. I am sure many view this symbiosis positively – just as the lovely dance of the nobles and the smallfolk. I enjoy hating consumerism rather than I need it to be true that it is bad.

        I hear your causality argument and disagree. Shame as an affect is intersubjective – transactional, or social/interpersonal. We spin causal narratives largely in arrears. The affect of shame or contempt is a signal of the presence of a motivational system – to Nietzsche this would be the will to power – wherein I think he has collapsed a number of motivational systems. See Alfred Adler first on this and his departure from Freud on the subject of shame vs guilt, more modernly you could reference Joseph Lichtenberg and Stolorow, et. al. for their work with Motivational Systems Theory. I would say the presence of shame or contempt indicates the dominant presence of an aversive heirarchical motivational system.

        I appreciate your other comments but will leave them for the time being since the gravamen of my argument is that microagressions exist, are slights, and the offended are hypersensitive to these slights based on the presence of disavowed shame which indicates the activity of their own aggressive motives. My commentary about consumer culture is secondary, and to be fair less relevant, so I hope our disagreement does not detract too much.

        Thanks again for your comments.

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