As I read The Rise of Victimhood Culture (good book, I recommend it), I’m thinking again about the concept of microaggressions. Is there such a thing? If so, how would we distinguish microaggressions from simple bad manners?
One point that’s made in the book is that it doesn’t matter what you said, or what you meant by it. The question of whether it constitutes a microaggression rests entirely on how the person you were dealing with perceived what you said or did. If they claim it was a microaggression, you have no defense. You’re guilty, buster.
This is bad enough, but it occurs to me now that the whole concept rests on the flabby substrate of identity politics. That is, for something to appear to be a microaggression, you (the supposed aggressor) must be seen to belong to a different identity group than the person you supposedly aggressed against. Also, your group must be defined (by some postmodern oracle, we might imagine) as a dominant group in society, while the aggressed-against person must belong to a group that the oracle has deemed non-dominant.
If you and I are both cisgendered heterosexual white men, it’s simply not possible for anything I say or do in your presence to be interpreted as a microaggression, because we belong (supposedly) to the same group. My words or action may be rude or insulting in a way that’s either subtle or glaring, but it’s not a microaggression.
For instance, I might say, “Do you play golf?” Now, if I’m white and you’re black, that could be considered a microaggression, because, you know, golf is widely considered a white people sport. Ditto if I say, “Do you like rap music?” Either way, if you take offense, I’m screwed. But not if we’re both white.
It’s not just that the two people need to belong to different identity groups. It also seems clear that if the person who is identified as part of a non-dominant (that is, “marginalized”) group says something snarky or merely oblivious to a white cisgendered heterosexual male, such as, perhaps, “Do you own shares in any mutual funds?”, that’s not a microaggression. The person in the dominant group is assumed not to be “harmed” by such a comment. The person in the dominant group is assumed to be immune to casual social “harm.” He’s wearing invisible armor.
In the absence of the postmodern concept of identity politics, the notion that there is such a thing as microaggressions just dissolves. We’re left with a dramatic and perhaps painful scene in which the two participants are individuals.
I reject the concept of identity politics. And so, accordingly, I reject the concept of microaggressions. There is certainly such a thing as rudeness. Rudeness can be intentional or unintentional. But it’s something that happens between individuals. Their presumed, or reified, membership in some larger identity group is irrelevant, generally speaking.
There are, of course, situations where it can become relevant. If a white man says to a black man, “Do you like watermelon?”, we have to look at the context. This could be an openly racist dig by a known white supremacist — or it could be two guys who have been friends for years standing in the produce aisle at the supermarket and be a completely innocent and sincere question.
The trouble arises when we’re in a gray area between those two extremes. If the black guy is unable to be clear in his own mind that the remark was innocent, then he may conclude that it’s a microaggression. In which case the white guy could lose his job.
This is no way to run a civilization.