Last time it was privilege, this time microaggression. It’s another word that plays a pivotal role in current debates about racism, sexism and other structures of inequality. On one side lie the activists who demand action to prevent acts of disparagement, whether intentional or unintentional, or to punish those who engage in them. On the other are those who feel this has gone too far, constituting an egregious example of political correctness. I see language used strategically in a way that erases the distinction between behavior that violates the rights of others versus just rudeness or insensitivity.
People should treat each other with respect and thoughtfulness, but they often don’t. We act in ways that hurt each other, sometimes on purpose but usually because we aren’t thinking carefully enough. We don’t consider our behavior from the perspective of others, or we do and then forget. No one is perfect, but it’s fair to say we have an obligation to do our best.
I would go a step further and say this obligation is even stronger when the demeaning follows lines of race, gender or other social hierarchies. In this case we are not talking about a random distribution of moments of thoughtlessness, but a piling on, a steady diet of inconsiderate comments and actions that, taken together, constitute an important aspect of social inequality. Since demeaning behavior in these cases tends to adhere to recognizable patterns, it’s absolutely appropriate to have workshops, written guides and other measures to combat it. I’m an optimist; I think most of us want to treat everyone fairly and will welcome guidance that helps us do it.
So what’s the problem? It’s that word “microaggression”. The key part is aggression—an invasive act that violates someone else’s rights. That’s strong language: no one is allowed to infringe the rights of others, which is what it means for someone to have rights. My rights set limits to your freedoms, and vice versa. Many acts of disparagement are in fact rights-violating, but others aren’t. To the extent we use rights-invoking language to describe all disparaging behavior, we are eliding an important distinction.
Here is an example. Once upon a time—just a few decades ago—women had almost no rights over how they were treated by men in public contexts. They could be openly insulted or made the victim of thinly veiled threats. Men could deliberately try to embarrass or silence them. They could make unwanted sexual advances and use economic or simply physical power to coerce them into sex. This was on top of the normal dose of thoughtless behavior, like the male tendency to interrupt women or not hear them as readily as they hear other men. Because of the resurgence of feminism in the 1970s, women gained the right to be free of behavior that denied them equal participation in all aspects of life. A category of sexual harassment was created, and equal opportunity case law came to recognize actions that produced a hostile environment such that other rights couldn’t be enjoyed. It would not be twisting language in the slightest to say that a range of hostile and demeaning actions were defined as aggressions, since, by establishing rights we also established types of behavior that infringe on them.
But not all acts of disparagement or thoughtlessness by men are recognized as violations of women’s fundamental rights. An imbalance of interruptions, where men interrupt women more often than women interrupt men, is not an actionable violation, provided it is not motivated by the intent to prevent women’s participation or deny them equal opportunities for success at work, in school, etc. This doesn’t mean it’s OK for men to interrupt, just that we distinguish between bad behavior in general and rights-violating behavior in particular. The line is certainly fuzzy and may well move over time (perhaps it should as the excuses for thoughtlessness gradually become less tenable), but the distinction remains useful.
So my brief against the tendency to extend microaggression to cover the full range of behavior that demeans or hurts is based on the value of retaining a language that helps us make distinctions. In practice, defining all poor behavior as rights-violating needlessly invokes limitations on various freedoms. That in turn has made the valuable effort to promote thoughtfulness and respect, especially in ways that undermine social hierarchies, controversial. It conflates the discussion of how we should behave with how we are allowed to behave. The second has its place, but the first covers a much larger terrain.