PC World

The Cult of Microaggressions

March 20, 2013

Multiple Pages
The Cult of Microaggressions

While reading up a couple of weeks ago on the Oberlin College KKK fiasco, I became fascinated by the various Web pages at colleges such as Oberlin, Smith, Scripps, and similar advanced, lesbian-heavy institutions for the documenting of “microaggressions.” Since the Ku Klux Klaxon can’t be sounded every week (at least not yet), in the meantime young people are encouraged to fondle and document for posterity the subtlest of slights they feel they’ve suffered.

As I pored over the microaggressions endured by victims/students at expensive liberal-arts colleges, it struck me that this ongoing dumbing down of America is a joint project of both sexes, with men and women each contributing their own special something.

In the wake of the Obama campaign relaunching the Battle of the Sexes a year ago, it’s worth noting that the peculiar contemporary version of ressentiment that assisted the president’s reelection can’t be blamed on either sex alone. The current mode, of which microaggressions websites are only the outer edge, combines female conformism and self-absorption with male abstraction, aggression, and gang loyalty.

First, though, what are microaggressions?

The Smith College site explains:

A microaggression is a brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignity, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicates a hostile, derogatory, or negative slight or insult….

“Screaming about microaggressions is a privilege only for the officially unprivileged.”

So far, that definition sounds pretty much like the stuff of human life. At many a family reunion, I only learned on the ride home that, say, Aunt Sue’s effusive thanks to Cousin Linda for her present was actually a devastating putdown that my lumbering male brain was simply too rough-hewn to register.

In fact, “microaggressions” could be an apt description of the matter of much of British literature and theater, such as the works of Jane Austen, Lewis Carroll, Evelyn Waugh, and John Cleese. The Brits may be the all-time world champs at blandly hurling microaggressions from their stiff upper limits.

For example, in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, the rich country girl Cecily righteously announces, “When I see a spade, I call it a spade.” The rich city girl Gwendolen impassively replies, “I am glad to say that I have never seen a spade. It is obvious that our social spheres have been widely different.”

Not all of literature is confined to microaggressions, however. In The Iliad, for instance, Achilles expresses his lack of rapport with Hector by dragging the Trojan prince’s dead body behind his chariot.

This knack that the English had developed 3,000 years after the wrath of Achilles for keeping their hostility toward each other swathed in formal manners may help explain their success at conquering other countries. The ability to keep one’s internal aggressions micro aided the British in such external macroaggressions as the subjugation of India. It’s likely not a coincidence that the Victorian English-speaking cultures that invented most of today’s major sports (which limit male violence with objective rules of fair play) also came to dominate the world linguistically and militarily.

In contrast, the real-life alternative to microaggression is not nonaggression, it’s sputtering rage. Consider the talk page behind the party line Wikipedia entry on microaggression. A skeptic asks:

Could it be that some people, dare I say blacks or Hispanics, might be more than a little hypersensitive?

A true believer replies:

You clearly cannot understand what the article is talking about. Has none of it resonated with your stupid brain? Do you know nothing about history? Are you blind?

You might think that’s pretty funny, but you aren’t supposed to think anything at all. Screaming about microaggressions is a privilege only for the officially unprivileged, or as the Smith College definition concludes, microaggressions can only be committed against “people of non-dominant identities.”

According to Oberlin:

If you see or hear racist, heterosexist/homophobic, anti-Semitic, classist, ableist, sexist/cissexist speech etc., please submit it to us so that we may demonstrate that these acts are not simply isolated incidents, but rather part of structural inequalities.

The cult of microaggressions is not something that either sex could have developed wholly on its own.

Granted, the role of women is readily apparent in the obsession with propriety, with feelings over logic, and the dislike of impersonal principles. Yet on their own, women are less interested in logic, which makes their likes and dislikes more idiosyncratic. A woman can only be pregnant by one man at a time, so women normally put a huge amount of effort into thinking about individuals.

In contrast, these long, airless lists of identity-politics categories appeal to the Aspergery male systemizing mind more than to the female empathizing mind (to use Simon Baron-Cohen’s terminology).

The more alarming problem for the culture, though, is that identity politics’ enthronement of female subjectivity serves as an excuse for males to do what comes naturally: form teams, companies, gangs, or armies and do battle with other men. As Lenin, that exemplar of masculine mentality at its most toxic, liked to say, the central question is always: “Who? Whom?”

This male urge is the most constructive and destructive force in the social universe. So wise societies have restrained it and channeled it by appealing, in the name of sportsmanship and justice, to the male penchant for objectivity and logic.

Indeed, the idea that 21st-century politics is brewed from the worst of the two sexes may help explain the peculiar appeal of microaggression theory to lesbians and the non-cisgendered.

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