by Carole Sherwood, psychologist
Cambridge University was recently embroiled in controversy over a Report & Support’ website launched for the anonymous reporting of microaggressions by students and staff. The university claimed this was to encourage a ‘safe, welcoming and inclusive community’ but academics expressed concern that they could be reported for ‘offences’ such as raising an eyebrow or turning their backs on students. They also warned of the threat to free speech. The Cambridge website has, temporarily, been taken down but it is reported that at least 60 universities in the UK are now licensed for the ‘Report & Support’ tool to enable them to document and publicise microaggressions on campus. My aim in this article is to introduce the concept of microaggressions, explore what critics have to say about them and find out why they have created such controversy.
Definition and Background
The term ‘microaggressions’ was first coined by Harvard psychiatrist Chester Pierce in the 1970s to describe insults experienced by African-Americans. More recently, Derald Wing Sue, Professor of Counselling Psychology at Columbia University, has popularised the term, developing a theory and classification system to describe and measure microaggressions, and writing several papers on the subject. Sue’s original definition of microaggressions focused on racial slurs but in 2010 he widened the definition to include:
‘the brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioural, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial, gender, and sexual orientation, and religious slights and insults to the target person or group’ (Sue, 2010)
Sue identified three types of microaggression:
- Microassaults – conscious and intentional actions or slurs, such as name-calling or avoiding contact
- Microinsults – subtle snubs or displays of insensitivity, such as telling someone ‘Your English is very good’
- Microinvalidations – subtle dismissals of the experiences of people of colour, such as saying ‘Your colour doesn’t matter to me, everyone’s human’
Sue, an Asian-American, relates his own experience of a microaggression when travelling on a small, near-empty plane with an African-American colleague. After taking their seats, three white men entered the plane and sat in front of them. The white flight attendant then asked Sue and his colleague to change seats in order to balance the load. They reacted angrily, believing they had been singled out because of their race and that the flight attendant should have asked two of the white passengers to move instead. Sue says he could not contain his anger and confronted the flight attendant who denied having had any racial motive. The more he tried to explain how he felt, the more defensive she became. He believed she was telling him the truth but he claimed that she was showing unconscious racial bias (Campbell & Manning, 2018).
Concerns have been raised by psychologists, sociologists and other commentators about the concept of microaggressions. They have highlighted the potential for division and hostility that might arise when people are encouraged to interpret subtle statements and actions as forms of aggression without taking any account of intention. Here is a summary of the arguments made by some of those who have challenged the notion of microaggressions:
‘Microaggressions: Strong Claims, Inadequate Evidence’
In a comprehensive academic review, the late Scott Lilienfeld critiques the core premises underpinning the microaggressions research programme. While acknowledging that such research has been helpful in raising awareness of subtle forms of prejudice, he argues that both the concept of microaggressions, and aspects of the research programme investigating them, need further development before their application to real-world situations can be made with any confidence.
Lilienfeld highlights a wide range of problems, including questions of definition, assessment, ambiguity, interpretation, subjectivity, ideology and personality. He points out that the concept of microaggression is so fluid and nebulous that it is hard to define both what it is and what it is not. For example, contradictory statements – one praising a student, the other criticising them – can both be labelled as ‘microaggressions’. The use of terms such as ‘aggression’ and ‘perpetrator’ suggest intentional harm, when microaggressions themselves are said to be unintentional and often unconscious. The ambiguous nature of microaggressions makes it hard to establish whether they have actually occurred and individuals often differ in the extent to which they believe they have been exposed to microaggressions.
Lilienfeld questions reliance on the subjective interpretation of microaggressions and highlights the need for external objective assessment from independent observers. Microaggressions are, as Sue maintains, in ‘the eye of the beholder’ and so unverifiable. Lilienfeld argues that people with particular ideological viewpoints and certain personality traits, such as a tendency to experience negative emotions and attribute hostile intentions to others, are more likely to identify ambiguous events as prejudiced. He also raises concerns about the ‘embedded political values’ inherent in social psychology research that can lead to value judgements being treated as objective truth. He points out that microaggressions research often uses small focus-groups from elite universities, who are likely to share the assumptions of the research programme, and that this can lead to biased findings.
In his conclusion, Lilienfeld recommends using the term ‘perceived racial slight’ rather than ‘microaggression’. He argues that the role of interpretation and the way personality traits may influence that interpretation, are not yet sufficiently well understood and that it is not clear that those accused of using microaggressions are showing ‘aggression’ in the way the word is usually understood. Meanwhile, he calls for a moratorium on training programmes and the widespread distribution of microaggression lists on university campuses and elsewhere.
‘Concept Creep’ and ‘The trouble with microaggressions’
Nick Haslam points out that many psychological concepts, such as ‘harm’ and ‘trauma’ are being ‘defined down’ to apply to milder and less objectionable events. He refers to this trend as ‘Concept Creep’ and suggests that the ‘microaggression’ has extended the concept of prejudice to include unintentional and even unconscious behaviour. He is concerned that the subjective perception of the supposed target is taken as sufficient evidence that a prejudiced act has occurred, even if this is denied by the supposed ‘perpetrator’. The flight attendant in Sue’s story is a case in point.
Both Haslam and Lilienfeld acknowledge that a decline in overt racism does not mean that prejudice no longer exists but they both contend that the concept of ‘microaggression’ is not a helpful way to think about subtle prejudice because its definition is ‘too amorphous and elastic’ (Haslam, 2017). They are also concerned that relying on subjective interpretations to make sense of ambiguous social situations and then attributing hostile intent will ultimately lead to a backlash.
‘The Coddling of the American Mind’
In their book The Coddling of the American Mind, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt maintain that encouraging students to keep looking for evidence of microaggressions has the potential for inadvertently encouraging thinking habits associated with anxiety and depression. These habits, or cognitive distortions, include emotional reasoning – that is, making judgements on the basis of feelings; mind-reading, rather than finding out what someone is actually thinking; magnifying harmless comments and viewing them as major offences; and labelling people as ‘bigots’ and ‘perpetrators’. Such cognitive distortions are often challenged in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, suggesting that this form of psychotherapy could itself be considered a microaggression.
The authors raise concern about ‘the triumph of impact over intent’, citing an essay from EverydayFeminism.com that states: ‘In the end, what does the intent of our action really matter if our actions have the impact of furthering the marginalization or oppression or those around us?’
In response, Lukianoff and Haidt comment: ‘If you teach students intention doesn’t matter and encourage them to find more and more things offensive and tell them that people who do things they find offensive are ‘aggressors’ this will lead to a sense of victimisation, anger and hopelessness’ (Lukianoff & Haidt, 2018),
They go on to argue that:
‘If someone wanted to create an environment of perpetual anger and intergroup conflict, this would be an effective way to do it. Teaching students to use the least generous interpretations possible is likely to engender precisely the feelings of marginalization and oppression that almost everyone wants to eliminate.’ (Lukianoff & Haidt, 2018)
‘Microaggression is the New Racism on Campus’
In an article titled ‘Microaggression is the New Racism on Campus’ linguist and commentator John McWhorter expresses the view that microaggressions are a ‘kind of bullying disguised as progressive thought’ (McWhorter, 2014). He highlights the bullying potential of claims of victimhood and suggests that it feels like ‘payback’ for white people and that simply being white could, itself, be viewed as a microaggression.
‘The Rise of Victimhood Culture – Microaggressions, Safe Spaces and the New Culture Wars’
Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning are sociologists with an interest in morality. Their work helps to put the rise of ‘microaggressions’ into a wider context. They contend that the microaggression programme has created controversy because it arises from a new moral culture of victimhood that differs from the dignity culture that currently prevails in the West. Dignity culture encourages people to be resilient, ignore slights, be charitable and to negotiate and compromise over differences of opinion. In contrast, a culture of victimhood is one ‘in which individuals and groups display a high sensitivity to slight, have a tendency to handle conflicts through complaints to authorities and other third parties, and seek to cultivate an image of being victims who deserve assistance’ (Campbell and Manning, ‘Microaggression and Moral Cultures’). The reason the debate has become so polarised, they maintain, is due to the different moral assumptions of each side.
Campbell & Manning suggest that a combination of a more egalitarian society, together with greater sensitivity to remaining inequalities, a growth in the number of university administrators specialising in ‘social justice’, and the development of modern technology, particularly social media that enables grievances to be aired on an unprecedented scale, has contributed to the rise of microaggression reporting on college campuses in recent years.
They also discuss the growth in websites, such as ‘Report and Support’, that encourage reporting and documentation of microaggressions and point out that by collecting large numbers of ‘offences’, a case can be made that these are not simply isolated incidents but evidence of wider structural inequalities that require a serious response. The authors maintain, somewhat ironically, that concerns about identifying and eliminating racism and bigotry seem to be occurring in places where there is least evidence of them, such as university campuses.
Campbell & Manning recommend that parents and pre-school teachers encourage children to develop greater independence and autonomy and resist the urge to intervene in the resolution of minor conflicts. They suggest that older children could be prepared for an independent life at university without raising expectations that they will need protection from harm. Universities themselves could also play their part in reducing victimhood culture by gradually preparing their students to face a world where offence and disagreement may be commonplace and by expecting experienced students to deal with slights or disagreements. Viewpoint diversity and tolerance on campus could also be encouraged.
Lilienfeld highlights the need to encourage young people to have difficult conversations rather than stifle them. He warns that looking for evidence of microaggressions will lead to vigilance for harm while putting everyone on the defensive.
For their part, Lukianoff and Haidt maintain that the overprotection of children is likely to undermine their ability to deal with adversity in later life. They recommend cultivating a sense of common humanity and generosity of spirit, based on ancient wisdom rather than microaggression theory. In short, there is much to be said for seeking out the many microkindnesses* encountered in life rather than microaggressions.
*With thanks to Neil Thin who coined the term.