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.