Articulate, bright, and clean are doubtless very worthy things to be. Nonetheless this was deemed by some as offensive to Obama.
Biden’s remarks are an example of what has come to be called ‘microaggression.’
Microaggressions are acts whose common factor is the production of a particular kind of offense in an observer. The observer must be a member of a ‘marginalized’ group, which in an American context includes certain racial minorities, gays, women, and the disabled.
The offense which the observer takes is produced by (i) the act’s apparent appeal to stereotypes regarding a marginalized group and (ii) the suggestion that the observer, as a member of the group, fits (or, in the case in question, fails to fit) the stereotype.
So Biden’s remark traded on a stereotype of African-Americans and seemed to praise Obama by contrast.
In Microaggressions in Everyday Life, Columbia psychology professor Derald Wing Sue gives the following examples.[i]
· Clutching one’s purse/crossing the street when a Black man approaches.
· “I believe that the most qualified person should get the job.”
Can there be a Theory of Microaggression? To the extent there can be such a theory, we already have it.
One thing becomes evident from this list: Except for producing a particular kind of offense, purported examples of microaggression have nothing else in common. Some are speech acts; some are not. Some presuppose an audience; some are actions the agents would prefer remain unobserved.
That is, ‘microaggression’ does not demarcate a kind. There is no theory of gifts, after all, since entities of almost any category can be gifts.
For a subset of microaggressions a theoretical treatment has long been available: Grice’s theory of conversational implicature.
Compare Biden’s remark to Grice’s example of an Englishman saying (smugly) of a fellow citizen, “He is an Englishman; he is, therefore, brave.”[ii] Grice insists that that the utterer has not explicitly said that it follows from being an Englishman that you are brave. Rather the utterer has implicated it. Indeed, the conclusion does not logically follow, yet Grice insists that the utterance in a given case is not false.
Implicature depends precisely on the sort of cooperative, common understandings that stereotypes represent.
Stereotyping is an unavoidable social heuristic – and furthermore in some cases a useful and helpful one. In many social situations a stereotype is the only information available. In the right lane in front of me is an elderly lady in a Lincoln Town Car; in the other lane is a twenty-something young man in a muscle car with flames painted on the hood. Whom should I pull up behind? When the light turns green Granny might lay rubber through the intersection; The Dude might drive off sedately, keeping five miles under the speed limit. But that’s not the way to bet.
If something of moral importance hung on the choice, you would be irresponsible to ignore the stereotype.
Someone who secures her purse, who acts in a self-protective manner in the face even of an improbable threat, is just acting sensibly.
We cannot be required to pretend that we are unaware of stereotypes. Indeed, if we were to become unaware, the stereotypes would still persist, driven below the conscious level; but a critique of microaggression would become unstateable.
The more diverse society the more socially important stereotypes will become. Consider Sue’s example: “I believe that the most qualified person should get the job.”
According to Sue, this example presupposes the ‘Myth of Meritocracy,’ suggesting that “people of color are given unfair benefits because of their race.” But believing (i) that the most qualified person should get the job and (ii) that people of color occasionally receive preference in hiring is neither inconsistent, nor unreasonable, nor even illiberal. A liberal could accept both of these propositions as a general principle. What does seem unreasonable, though, is to avail oneself of preferential hiring and then take offense at the presumption that one has in fact done precisely that.
A further conceptual point. Whether an act is offensive depends on facts about the agent, the observer, and the context. An act can be offensive even though the agent did not intend it so. Just as conversational implicatures are ‘cancellable,’ so are offenses. “I didn’t mean to offend” can be uttered truthfully and sincerely. But the observer has something to say about whether it was offensive, and can accept that disavowal.
But whether an act is an aggression depends on facts about the agent’s intentions. The observer can take to it to be an aggression and just be wrong. He has very little to say about it. Therefore, most microaggressions, whether or not they are offenses, are not really aggressions.
Besides the conceptual resources of Grice’s theory we also have the moral resources to give a critique of many of the acts factitiously bundled under the concept of ‘microaggression.’ To characterize an act as offensive is to give a moral reason to refrain from doing it. But the moral ban on offending others can be overridden by more urgent moral obligations, including duties of self-preservation.
What seems more important in this realm is to develop a reasonable standard for non-offensiveness in social dealings. The ancient definition of a gentleman as ‘one who never unintentionally gives offense’ implicates (among other things) that no one can be a gentleman all the time.
So what level of sensitivity to what might offend others is required for ordinary social dealings? Individuals differ in their awareness of the potential for offense. (They don’t call him ‘Clueless Joe’ for nothing.) Demanding a level that the averagely-sensitive but good-hearted cannot sustain will render ordinary social interactions more difficult and conflictful than necessary.
A certain amount of amused tolerance seems preferable on all sides.
Department of Philosophy