Don't Sweat the Microaggressions

The old pitfalls of new sensitivities in political speech
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Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

The study that might have put to rest much of the recent agitation about microaggressions has unfortunately never been published. Microaggressions, for those who are not up on the recent twists and turns of American public discourse, are the subtle prejudices found even in the most liberal parts of our polity. They are revealed when a lecturer cites mainly male sources and no gay ones, when we use terms such as “mankind,” or when we discuss what Michelle Obama wore when she visited pandas in China, something we would not note about a man.

The study that I believe could have helped a great deal was conducted by a research assistant of mine at Columbia University who disappeared before she completed her Ph.D. Carolyn (I am withholding her last name in order to acknowledge her without embarrassing her) asked members of 80 groups in New York City what they felt about other such groups. She avoided broad strokes and asked not about divisions between black and white, but what African Americans felt about Africans from Nigeria and blacks from the West Indies. She asked Hispanics about Dominicans, Haitians, Mexicans, and Cubans, and so on.

What Carolyn found was that there was little love lost between any two groups. Members of all the 80 groups she studied attached all kind of unflattering labels to members of other groups, even if they were of the same race or ethnic group. When she interviewed members of subgroups, they were unsparing about each other. German Jews felt that Jews of Polish origin were very uncouth (and surely would not want their daughter to marry one or to share a synagogue with them). The Polish Jews, in turn, felt that those of German background were stuck up and “assimilated,” and hence one was best off crossing to the other side of the street if they neared. Iraqis from Basra considered those from Baghdad to be too modern, and those from Baghdad considered their brothers and sisters from Basra as provincial—and so on and so on. Today they would all be called at least microaggressive.

None of this is surprising to sociologists, who have long held that one major way community cohesion is promoted is by defining it against out-groups—and that there is a strong psychological tendency to attribute positive adjectives to an in-group and negatives on to the outsiders. In short, it’s part—not a pretty part—of human nature, or at least social nature. Choose any group and you will find its members griping about all the others.

I hence urge those who are troubled by the ways others talk about them to use Carolyn’s findings as a baseline. That is, not to ignore slurs and insults, and most certainly not racial, ethnic, or any other kind of prejudices, but merely to “deduct” from them what seems to be standard noise, the normal sounds of human rambling. We may wish for a world in which people say only kind things about each other, but until we get there, we should not take umbrage at every negative note or adjective that is employed. For now, that is something most of us do—yes, I suspect even those who rail against microaggression.

What is normal and what we should not ignore is hard to define. But surely when one does not see the insult unless one carefully parses words, we best pretend we did not hear the slight. Thus, when an Asian student does not get an A, and his fellow students respond with a mock shock, he may overlook the stereotype. This should be treated as the kind of bantering that is normal and tolerable. We all learn to clean up our language and watch for the ‘N’ word, ‘B’ word (it rhymes with witch), and many others. What we are seeing is a return to the peak of political correctness. While sensitivity is warranted, that movement had gone too far by the time a major newspaper's list of prohibited words numbered 5,000, including “going Dutch” and “welshing” on one’s commitments. The current vogue for microaggressions is not more sensible.

A leading authority on microaggression, Professor Derald Sue of Columbia University’s Psychology Department, suggests that we leave it to the victims of microaggression to tell us whether a turn of phrase is or is not an act of aggression. They will let us know that when we slip up and talk about “him” instead of “him or her,” we engage in gender microaggression, and that when we use the term “father and mother” we reveal our homophobic tendencies. When you cannot tell if you are aggressive before the other person responds, and anybody can declare he or she has been abused by anything we say, communion between members of different groups becomes even more difficult. What we need is more contact and fewer grounds for mutual accusations and sense of being victimized.

Instead, let’s focus on acts of aggression that are far from micro. Where? See tomorrow’s headlines. People are killing each other because they belong to the “wrong” confessional group, race, or country—in many parts of the world. At home the rich get richer and the poor stay poor, which should insult us more than poor word choice. And people shoot good people, children included, because (among other things) a lobby prevents the Congress from passing legislation that is supported by 90 percent of the public. Such behavior should trouble us more than anything anybody could possibly say. 

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Amitai Etzioni is a university professor and professor of international relations at The George Washington University. He served as a senior adviser to the Carter White House and taught at Columbia University, Harvard University, and the University of California at Berkeley. His latest book is Hot Spots: American Foreign Policy in a Post-Human-Rights World.

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