Why Critics of the 'Microaggressions' Framework Are Skeptical

Many acknowledge that there are minor slights that do cumulative harm, but believe there are better ways to address them.

Ivan Alvarado / Reuters

Last week, I noted an effort by two sociologists to explain the rise of what they call “victimhood culture.” They focused their paper on “a new species of social control that is increasingly common at American colleges: the publicizing of microaggressions.” The scores of emails I’ve received in response to the article include people on both sides of the larger debate on whether “microaggressions” are a sound or unsound framework. Its defenders often fail to realize how many of its critics share their desired ends, if not their preferred means.

Consider an 18-year-old whose great grandparents immigrated from Japan to the United States. She enrolls at a large state university where she is constantly surrounded by strangers. A few times a week, someone asks her, “What country are you from?” Each interaction on its own is a tiny annoyance that she is inclined to ignore. But the cumulative effect of these interactions add up to a significant burden. No one likes having to answer the same question over and over and over again. And there seems to be something objectionable in the substance of this particular question––an implicit assertion that people with Asian features, or the descendants of Asian immigrants, are somehow less American than their white counterparts, even the ones whose ancestors immigrated here in the same generation. “I’m from here every bit as much as you are,” she might think to herself, “but people prejudge me as if that isn’t so because I don’t have white skin or features.”

Defenders of the term “microaggressions” tend to argue that people like this woman ought to have an intellectual framework and a public forum for airing her perspective.

And many critics of the “microaggression” framework agree!

They grant that a category of interactions are a) minor in each particular instance; b) cumulatively burdensome; c) substantively objectionable or plausibly objectionable; and they find it salutary to publicize, discuss, and ameliorate common examples.

But they believe that there are more effective, less harmful ways of doing so than “microaggressions” culture, at least as they see it practiced on American campuses. These critics belong to every racial, ethnic, and gender group in America. They include liberals, conservatives, libertarians, and the decidedly apolitical, as well as college professors, college students, and people who never attended college. The strongest arguments that they offer are worthy of engagement, or so I’d argue. Here are the critiques that I have found to be most persuasive:

1) The term “microaggressions” is often inapt. To be sure, there are minor, objectionable, cumulatively burdensome actions that can accurately be called “aggressive.” Catcalling is a familiar example. A man who crowds alongside a woman for a half-block while trying to get her phone number is behaving aggressively. It strikes me as rhetorically defensible to label that catcalling a “microaggression.”

But a well-intentioned white or black student asking an Asian American classmate, “What country are you from?” is unfortunate even as it is unaggressive.

Aggression is “hostility” or “violent behavior” or “the forceful pursuit of one’s interests.” If there’s going to be a term for behavior that is burdensome partly because the often well-intentioned people who do it are blind to its wrongness and cumulative effect, baking “aggression” into that term is hugely confusing. ​What’s more, the confusion seems likely to needlessly increase the tension between the person experiencing the grievance and the person who is ostensibly responsible.

​2) The important work of educating people about wrongheaded, cumulatively burdensome slights can be accomplished in many ways––in fact, it was accomplished in many ways long before “microaggressions” became popular in academia.

Individuals object to words and behaviors in direct, interpersonal conversations; they write blog posts and essays to persuade mass audiences to change their behavior;  college faculty and staff educate students about cultural sensitivities to bear in mind; stand-up comedians and tv shows use humor to convey information––a white person who unwittingly contributes to a cumulative burden born by many black people is far more likely to grasp his mistake and to change his behavior due to a Key and Peele sketch than a “microaggressions” website (and that TV show would’ve failed had it obeyed the norms of “microaggression” culture).

Even “microaggressions” websites themselves would be unobjectionable to some of their critics if they merely made the case that certain phrases and behaviors should be avoided. What these critics find objectionable are two other aspects of “microaggressions” culture: attempts to publicly shame “microaggressors;” and attempts to punish alleged “microaggressors” by reporting them to the authorities.

Those approaches have high costs.

When a person is engaged in objectionable behavior, publicly shaming rather than engaging them causes them to become defensive or hostile in turn. (Is it ever more difficult to admit to a mistake than when lots of people are angrily confronting you about it?) Shaming is often carried out by mobs with no mechanism to make the punishment proportionate to the offense. And public shaming targets some people who did nothing wrong (friendly criticism is better for fallible critics).

3) Reporting “microaggressions” to college authorities empowers administrators to wield ever-greater control over campus life; it chills even unobjectionable speech by faculty members and students alike; and it deprives students of the ability to learn how to coexist without adult supervision or intervention in an environment where the stakes are lower than a first job or group-house or marriage. Plus, why savage individuals for “micro” offenses when everyone ostensibly agrees that the problem is cumulative? The logic is similar to that of drug warriors who urge harsh punishments for random users because drug use is harmful in aggregate, then act like their critics just don’t get how damaging heroin is.

4) While many public complaints about “microaggressions” pertain to objectionable, cumulatively burdensome interactions, others do not. Yet many campus aggregators of “microaggressions” nevertheless bundle all complaints together. The emotional experience of accusers is treated as sacrosanct. In this way, the subjective emotions of the most mercurial teenagers come to disproportionately shape campuses, whether or not they accord with group opinions or reality.

An Hispanic student at Oberlin was able to viciously attack a fellow student in a curated public space largely for having used the Spanish word “fútbol” despite being white. There is, however, nothing inherently objectionable about a white person using a non-English word––and even if there were, not even the aggrieved student claims this incident was one in a long run of white people using “fútbol” instead of “soccer.” Her grievance was unlike “where are you from?” or catcalling. Virtually no Hispanic person is burdened by white Americans speaking Spanish.

Some defenders of “microaggressions” as a framework objected to using the Oberlin incident as an example, casting it as an absurdity unrepresentative of the framework generally. There are lots of legitimate examples of minor but objectionable slights that impose a cumulative burden on those subject to them. Defenders of “microaggressions” do laudable work pointing some out, and I’d love to hear from emailers with stories of the framework being used successfully. What’s in dispute is whether the framework inevitably encourages excesses. Its critics believe that it is too vulnerable to gaming to be workable; that it will always trend toward absurdity; that its defenders do too little to remedy its excesses; and that one needn’t put up with the costs because there are other ways to get all the benefits.

​5) Those beliefs are shaped by the many anecdotal examples of parodic complaints that appear on campuses where “microaggressions” as a framework prevail, but also on the insight that if status accrues to people based on expressing grievance and demonstrating victimhood, the incentives to exaggerate both will be strong, especially among immature people in their late teens and early twenties.

What’s more, the burden of the most specious attacks will fall disproportionately on progressives, left-wing activists, and other people in the circles where the premises of the “microaggression” framework is most widely embraced. A white fraternity member speciously accused of a “microaggression” will be ensconced in a subculture of people who suspect that the whole concept is bullshit––at this point even the New Yorker magazine’s liberal humor section is mocking its excesses. But a black activist accused of “micro-aggressing” against a Hispanic activist, or a feminist accused of microaggressing against a queer man, is going to be attacked by some of the same people who they rely on for community, or so it seems from observing many examples of social-justice infighting over the years. As when French Revolutionaries were put to the guillotine, purity tests always turn inward.

​6) As the “microaggressions” framework gains prominence on campuses, micro-grievances increasingly becoming the focus of social justice debates and efforts. The effect is that some of the most privileged people in the world––students of all races at highly-selective, prestigious colleges––dedicate a highly suspect amount of their time to adjudicating minor slights and perceptions of slights among one another.

​7) As UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh argued when his institution’s administration disseminated an over-broad list of what it labeled “microaggressions” to be avoided, “this concept is now being used to suppress not just, say, personal insults or discrimination in hiring or grading, but also ideas that the UC wants to exclude from university classrooms.” This undermines academic freedom and the core mission of universities. “The document that I quote isn’t about keeping classes on-topic or preventing personal insults—it’s about suppressing particular viewpoints,” he continued. “I’m afraid that many faculty members who aren’t yet tenured, many adjuncts and lecturers who aren’t on the tenure ladder, many staff members, and likely even many students—and perhaps even quite a few tenured faculty members as well—will get the message that certain viewpoints are best not expressed when you’re working for UC, whether in the classroom, in casual discussions, in scholarship, in op-eds, on blogs, or elsewhere.”

​8) The conceit that white students, or at least white men, cannot be subject to “microaggressions” by definition is wrongheaded too. One can easily imagine a white person subject to an interaction that is a) minor in each particular instance; b) cumulatively burdensome; c) and substantively objectionable. Think of a white Mormon student constantly asked by his peers if they can see his religious underwear; or a white male who grew up getting beat and molested in foster homes after his parents died being told daily by clueless peers that he has led a privileged life.

Said Megan McArdle, arguing that conservatives experience “microaggressions” on campuses where they are an ideological minority, “no doubt many of my readers are preparing to deliver a note or a comment saying I shouldn't dare to compare historically marginalized groups with politically powerful ones. I dare because it highlights the basic problem with extensively litigating microaggressions, which is that it is a highly unstable way of mediating social disputes. Deciding who is eligible to complain about microaggressions is itself an act by which the majority imposes its will, and it is felt as alienating by the minorities who are effectively told that they don't have the same right to ask for decent treatment.”

For our purposes, the point isn’t really whether ideological minorities should or shouldn’t be allowed to participate in “microaggression” culture––it’s the inevitably of ongoing, divisive fights over group status until everyone can participate.​

9) The nature of “microaggressions” co-exists uneasily with the fact that different things bother different individuals. All along, for example, we have used Asian American being asked, “What country are you from?” as an example of something that is cumulatively burdensome and that people ought to be warned against. Enough Asian Americans feel that way for me to be comfortable with the illustration.

Nevertheless, here’s someone on Reddit discussing my article. “I'm south Asian,” he writes. “But, whether it's my goatee or gelled hair, I'm usually mistaken for being Hispanic––typically Mexican. Hispanics inevitably always speak to me in Spanish, and even other south Asians often don't realize I'm one of them… Because of a non-profit I help run, I get asked ‘Where are you from?’ on a weekly basis...Victimhood culture tells me this is a ‘microaggression’ based on racism that should offend me. But it's not. We live in a multicultural society, and it's not always clear what someone's background is. I don't assume they're racist just because they're curious about my background. But victimhood culture tells me I should.”

The point isn’t that this guy’s perspective is correct or incorrect, but that different people of the same racial background will have different opinions even on what seem like the most clearcut cases. So what to do when it comes to muddier slights or grievances that few members of a group are bothered by and that no one could reasonably be expected to assume? Those “outliers” will inevitably experience “microaggressions;” and they’ll arguably be ill-served if they regard them as aggrieving assaults on their dignity rather than inevitable parts of a pluralistic society. There is not and never will be a fixed list of things that all educated people can be taught that will enable them to predict the emotional sensitivities of everyone else.

In coming days, I’ll be sharing particular responses from readers on all sides of this issue over in the Notes section. It isn’t too late to offer your perspective via email, especially if you have an example of the “microaggressions” framework accomplishing good results that would’ve been impossible or unlikely in its absence.