Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Notes on a prolegomena to any future theory of microaggression

During the 2008 campaign, Senator Joseph Biden, seeking the Democratic nomination for president characterized his rival Barack Obama as “articulate and bright and clean…”

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.

Tom Pyne
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

[i] Sue, Microaggression in Everyday Life (Wiley 2010).
[ii] Grice, “Logic and Conversation”


  1. Great post Tom!

    I agree that the speaker's intentions seem important in establishing aggression, albeit micro. I would be offended if I were accused of being aggressive because of some well-intentioned but under-informed words I had uttered in a sincerely positive tone.

    But, perhaps it is possible for micro-aggressions to create an oppressive, and possibly aggressive, atmosphere for some people when they are taken cumulatively. Perhaps a person from one of the groups you mentioned experiences each "micro-aggression" as being aggressive (or, more likely, oppressive) because they have already used up all of their good-natured tolerance forgiving the previous 100 stereotypical implications.

    Anyway, I take your main point. I won't continue, though. I'm probably already risking widespread breeches of the readers' "amused tolerance" thresholds.

    1. Dan,

      Yeah, I get that. Constantly being stereotyped must get pretty exasperating. It would wear at your amused tolerance even if the stereotype is favorable. (“You Asians are good at math, so what’s the homework answer?”) We all like to be treated as individuals, not as representative of groups we belong to.

      The assumption I’m making is that the cluelessness involved does not rise to the level of oppression. If it does, then microaggression is the least of the problems with the transaction. I’m taking the ‘micro’ in microaggression seriously.

      If you mean by ‘atmosphere’ that the object of the microaggression feels oppressed, then the question arises whether the feeling corresponds to the moral realities of the situation. We are the World Authority on whether we have been offended; we’re not so authoritative on whether we’ve been the object of aggression or oppression. Teenagers frequently complain of being oppressed. But unless they’re Congolese child soldiers, Yazidis in the hands of ISIS, or kidnapped Nigerian girls under the control of Boko Haram, and not just American kids being required to clean up their room, they're probably not.

      To ‘stick out’ from other members of society is to invite stereotyping. My daughter was a Peace Corps volunteer in a West African village, the only ‘anasara’ (white person) the locals had ever seen. The more diverse the society, the less any particular form of sticking out will produce unwelcome and offensive acts.

      But still, some people in society will just have it harder than others in this respect. The remedies to their plight are all morally worse than the plight itself.

    2. My daughter had to endure the good-hearted sympathy of the villagers, since she had reached the advanced age of twenty-three without an offer of marriage.

  2. I am wondering what your views on implicit bias are? We all hold unconscious prejudices and discriminatory views against marginalized groups that often may conflict with our conscious views. It seems to me that macroaggressions can be an expression of this type of implicit bias.