A recurring theme of recent human history is that the less of something bad we see in the world around us, the more outrage we generate about the remaining bits.
For example, in the 19th century, outrage about child labor grew as the frequency of child labor was shrinking. Economic forces, not legislation, had raised adult wages to a level at which more and more families did not need additional income from children to survive, and children gradually withdrew from the labor force. As more families enjoyed having their children at home or in school longer, they became less tolerant of those families whose situations did not allow them that luxury, and the result was the various moral crusades, and then laws, against child labor.
We have seen the same process at work with cigarette smoking in the United States. As smoking has declined over the last generation or two, we have become ever less tolerant of those who continue to smoke. Today, that outrage continues in the form of new laws against vaping and e-cigarettes.
The ongoing debate over “rape culture” is another manifestation of this phenomenon. During the time that reasonably reliable statistics on rape in the United States have been collected, rape has never been less frequent than it is now, and it is certainly not as institutionalized as a practice in the Western world as it was in the past. Yet despite this decline — or in fact because of it — our outrage at the rape that remains has never been higher.
The talk of the problem of “microaggressions” seems to follow this same pattern. The term refers to the variety of verbal and nonverbal forms of communication that are said to constitute disrespect for particular groups, especially those who have been historically marginalized. So, for example, the use of exclusively masculine pronouns might be construed as a “microaggression” against women, or saying “ladies and gentlemen” might be seen as a microaggression against transsexuals. The way men take up more physical space on a train or bus, or the use of the phrase “walk-only zones” (which might offend the wheelchair-bound) to describe pedestrian crossways, are other examples.
Those who see themselves as the targets of microaggressions have often become very effective entrepreneurs of outrage in trying to parlay these perceived slights into indications of much more pervasive problems of sexism or racism and the like. Though each microaggression individually might not seem like much, they add up. So goes the argument.
I don’t want to totally dismiss the underlying point here, as it is certainly true that people say and do things (often unintentionally) that others will find demeaning, but I do want to note how this cultural phenomenon fits the pattern identified above. We live in a society in which the races and genders (and classes!) have never been more equal. Really profound racism and sexism is far less prominent today than it was 50 or 100 years ago. In a country where the president is a man of color and where one of our richest entertainers is a woman of color, it’s hard to argue that there hasn’t been significant progress.
But it is exactly that progress that leads to the outrage over microaggressions. Having steadily pushed back the more overt and damaging forms of inequality, and having stigmatized them as morally offensive, we have less tolerance for the smaller bits that remain. As a result, we take small behaviors that are often completely unintended as offenses and attempt to magnify them into the moral equivalent of past racism or sexism. Even the co-opting of the word “aggression” to describe what is, in almost all cases, behavior that is completely lacking in actual aggression is an attempt to magnify the moral significance of those behaviors.
Even if we admit that some of such behaviors may well reflect various forms of animus, there are two problems with the focus on microaggressions.
First, where do we draw the line? Once these sorts of behaviors are seen as slights with the moral weight of racism or sexism, we can expect to see anyone and everyone who feels slighted about anything someone else said or did declare it a “microaggression” and thereby try to capture the same moral high ground.
We are seeing this already, especially on college campuses, where even the mere discussion of controversial ideas that might make some groups uncomfortable is being declared to be a microaggression. In some cases this situation is leading faculty to stop teaching anything beyond the bland.
Second, moral equivalence arguments can easily backfire. For example, if we, as some feminists were trying to do in the 1980s, treat pornography as the equivalent of rape, hoping to make porn look worse, we might end up causing people to treat real physical rape less seriously given that they think porn is largely harmless.
So it goes with microaggressions: if we try to raise men taking up too much room on a bus seat into a serious example of sexism, then we risk people reacting by saying, “Well, if that’s what sexism is, then why should I really worry too much about sexism?” The danger is that when far more troubling examples of sexism or racism appear (for example, the incarceration rates of African-American men), we might be inclined to treat them less seriously.
It is tempting to want to flip the script on the entrepreneurs of microaggression outrages and start to celebrate their outrages as evidence of how far we’ve come. If men who take the middle armrest on airplanes (as obnoxious as that might be) are a major example of gender inequality, we have come far indeed. But as real examples of sexism and racism and the like do still exist, I’d prefer another strategy to respond to the talk of microaggressions.
Let’s spend more time celebrating the “microwonders” of the modern world. Just as microaggression talk magnifies the small pockets of inequality left and seems to forget the larger story of social progress, so does our focus on large social and economic problems in general cause us to forget the larger story of progress that is often manifested in tiny ways.
We live in the future that prior generations only imagined. We have the libraries of the world in our pockets. We have ways of easily connecting with friends and strangers across the world. We can have goods and even services of higher quality and lower cost, often tailored to our particular desires, delivered to our door with a few clicks of a button. We have medical advances that make our lives better in all kinds of small ways. We have access to a variety of food year-round that no king in history had. The Internet brings us happiness every day through the ability to watch numerous moments of humor, human triumph, and joy.
Even as we recognize that the focus on microaggressions means we have not yet eliminated every last trace of inequality, we should also recognize that it means we’ve come very far. And we should not hesitate to celebrate the microwonders of progress that often get overlooked in our laudable desire to continue to repair an imperfect world.