Thursday, August 20, 2015

Microagression

I first came across the term "microagression" on the website Everyday Feminism sometime over the summer. It caught my eye but I didn't realize that it was actually a technical term in the social sciences. Then I began to see it seemingly everywhere. Eventually it percolated its way up into my consciousness. It is an evocative image. In so far as an image can be from a particular perspective it is from the perspective of the person against whom the (micro)aggression is directed. Aggression as a concept is transitive (like some verbs): it requires a subject and an object. The picture "microaggression" conjures is a view of the perpetrator of a slight (verbal or otherwise) from the point of view of the victim. Aggressive (= evil) intent is an absolutely essential part of the image as is the victimization of the recipient of the slight.
Before I go on, I want to be clear. I am not seeking to reduce, demean, or otherwise ignore feelings provoked by what I'm calling "slights." The feelings and sensations are real. Feelings and sensations provoked by slights can sometimes be intense, disabling and painful. I am not arguing that "sometimes you just gotta suck it up." To do so would be too much of a rationalization for not doing anything and for not investigating further. I find the term's appeal itself fascinating.

I find "microaggression" to be a stunning confirmation and explanation of one of Nietzsche's seemingly throw away remarks in Toward a Genealogy of Morals about what slaves hate in their masters is their casual indifference to the suffering and unhappiness in their slaves. The image conjured by "microaggression" is incomplete without (secretly) implying and postulating evil intent in microaggressors. Even if this "secret evil intent" is explicitly disavowed.

Why am I uncomfortable with the term? It is misleading. The concept of aggression even on a micro scale is too vigorous for what it refers to. Every example of microaggression that I've seen is just as easily explainable as a product of ignorance, lazy habit and limited capacity for empathy. It is far and away the exception when slights are used to consciously and purposely belittle and demean someone. There is another well known term for such behavior: abuse.

But in America today it is all about who's the "real" victim. The more innocent and undeserving the recipient of a harm the stronger the claim to being a "real" victim. Preaching against laziness and ignorance does not fill pews, as it were. Self-examination (critical or otherwise) is too closely associated with guilt for my countrymen to engage in with anything approaching useful. There is no time to consider the possibility of error or to remind oneself that every opinion (even the religious ones) has its limits. Again, it's easier play at being the victim than it is to actually get at the roots of social problems.

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The term's appeal fascinates me. I find myself reaching back to undergraduate courses on Wittgenstein to get at the relation between thinking and language. And to the odd remarks I've encountered over the years about metaphors and thinking leading in turn to Nietzsche's penchant for striking and original metaphors in his philosophy.

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