Microaggressions And The Feedback Problem

Or When Do Attempts To Make Things Better Backfire?

I was reading an interesting and insightful post by theunitofcaring offering a useful perspective on microaggressions and what is going on with them (she identifies them with the actions/statements that create the subtle sense one isn’t welcome in some group). I very much urge everyone to read the whole thing since her point about what microaggressions really are is probably more important than the quibbles/speculation I have to offer here but once you’ve done that I want to call your attention to the following passage in her post:

But I think the actual thing with microaggressions is that feeling of ‘people like me are not welcome’ or at least ‘people like me are only conditionally welcome, welcome if we’re friendly and careful and unthreatening and reassuring and match other peoples’ narratives about us and aren’t angry and don’t make anyone uncomfortable and toe the party line’. It’s really helpful for people to collect and corroborate and discuss and complain about all of the little cues which add up to that impression, but scrupulously memorizing the list of cues and avoiding the things on your list won’t actually make spaces where people feel welcome. The problem is the ‘this space is not for people like you’ thing.

Now I certainly agree that the feeling of being unwelcome is at least part of what is going on with micro-aggressions. I also understand why people want to hash out their experiences and complain about bad treatment. We all do this when we complain to our friends “Can you believe he did blah?” and it serves a useful emotional purpose. However, in face to face interactions our friends will also tend to encourage us not to dwell on it if we keep going on about it to and getting more angry and upset. However, when instead of sharing an experience with a friend we share it with a group that identifies itself with concern about the treatment of some (or many) underprivileged groups or that explicitly exists to share such experiences the dynamic is likely to change. For one, there will be considerable disincentive to tell anyone that they are overreacting or to encourage someone to just let it go and stop thinking about it. After all, the group norms explicitly favor such sharing and other group members are unlikely to be willing to take the flak for discouraging your participation just out of the concern that you are exacerbating your suffering.

While the risk of further exacerbating a hurtful event by focusing too much on it is something that people can decide how to deal with on their own this isn’t the only such risk posed by this kind of sharing. When we encourage this kind of sharing with a (social justice sympathetic) group there is the very real danger that by making these microaggressions so salient and creating lists of behaviors that in some circumstance qualified as unwelcoming makes people who would otherwise not have felt unwelcome conclude that they are.

I mean suppose I’m considering joining the ballroom dance club at my school. If I know nothing about it and go when someone says “Ohh, you’ll need some shoes with a such and such soul” I think ‘Ohh great, thanks’ and don’t feel unwelcome.

In contrast, suppose I’ve read a great deal about how ballroom dance clubs are horribly elitist, populated by rich snobs who think they are better than the rest of us and read detailed accounts by a guy who was treated badly by a ballroom dance club including the way in which they used the fact that he lacked the same 1000 dollar shoes they had to exclude and belittle him. Now, when I get up the courage to go to the club I’m full of trepidation, constantly on the look out for the expected insults based on my middle class background. Normal human communication is filled with little quirkys, misunderstandings, accidental offenses which I would have just passed over in the normal course but now I obsess over them and examine them for evidence I’m unwelcome. Now when I hear the perfectly friendly suggestion that I need shoes with a different kind of soul I don’t just think they are being helpful but instead assume that its a jab at me for not having super expensive shoes.

Note that, even if the salience/likelihood of being unwelcome doesn’t itself incline me to unwarrantedly assume friendly comments are really unwelcoming the mere fact that I’m aware of the way in which certain comments could be a microaggression makes me interpret them as such. After all, I will think (falsely assuming other people share my cultural context and knowledge of microaggressions) that given the charged nature of comments about shoes in the ballroom scene the mere fact that a club member brought my shoes up without showing great sensitivity to its aggressive nature is itself a slight against me. After all, if this group really cared about having people like me as members they would exercise much more care to avoid comments that so obviously risk offense.

I’d like to be clear that I’m not trying to minimize the real suffering that this kind of sense of being unwelcome can create. Indeed, it is precisely the fact that it matters which makes it so important we don’t accidentally increase the incidence of people feeling unwelcome in such a way.

Speculation About Social Justice Acrimony

So far everything I said is relatively obvious. Of course there are reasonable disagreements about the benefits offered by such sharing (which I barely touched on) as well as the risk of these harmful effects. However, I don’t think it should be particularly controversial that there is at least some such risk. What follows is much more speculative and while I think it is true but I could well be wrong (which hopefully someone will point out to me if I am). Also I think it is important to emphasize that I certainly am not trying to lay any blame or make any claims about who is in the right as not only do I not believe in blame/guilt as moral concepts but I think concern with such notions is a substantial contributor to much of the worlds suffering. Thus, the following account should not be understood as an attempt to say anything about whose behavior is or isn’t reasonable but just to hypothesize about what’s happening (which will hopefully guide us in finding ways we can make things better).

I think the kind of dynamic I describe above explains some of (but not all) the multiplying accusations of racism, insensitivity etc.. including in contexts that previously were genuinely not seen as racially/gender/etc.. charged by either side1 as well as the the increasingly militant and angry anti-privilege rhetoric and the equally angry and bitter snowflake accusations from the other side. The cultural bubble that individuals on the progressive left (including those members of underprivileged groups that high socioeconomic status people tend to encounter2) carry with them, especially online, includes extensive focus on emotionally charged stories about slights experienced by members of underprivileged groups at the hands of visible members of privileged groups. Just like nationwide news reporting about crimes creates a false sense of both the danger crime presents and the likelihood that minorities are criminals the continual focus on outrageous treatment of members of underprivileged groups gives rise to an inflated sense of how common such behavior is within the relatively elite social content of these college educated liberals. Continued interaction with a community in which the discriminatory/aggressive nature of certain phrases/subjects/etc.. is taken for granted encourages people to assume that its hurtful/offensive nature is obvious to anyone who considers it. This attitude is reinforced whenever the community comforts members who feel unwelcome at some event by assuring them they are in the right and its those awful men/whites/straights/TERFs who are subjecting you to aggressive attacks. By copying a trick from religion and adopting the explicit view that expressing doubt/skepticism itself betrays the community and allies one with the enemy the brakes that might otherwise keep attitudes from drifting too far from the mainstream are disabled3.

When members of such a community go out into the world they implicitly assume (just as they correctly criticize privileged people for doing) that their experience is representative-ish, i.e., they know its not representative but underestimate the extent to which other people’s experiences vary. As a result of the mechanisms discussed above these individuals genuinely feel unwelcome and see behaviors non-initiates don’t think anything of as a constant stream of aggressions or at least deliberate intolerance but when they do so they aren’t being particularly sensitive or demanding special treatment. They are acting no differently than blacks who justifiably view anyone using the n-word as engaging in racist speech no matter how much they insist they have no animus against blacks. Culture determines that certain behaviors, regardless of intent or motivation, are unacceptable attacks and members of the community in question are simply applying the same rule. Unfortunately, the cultural gap between those with social justice sympathies and unallied white men who they then interact with is far larger than either side intuitively appreciates. Lacking the same culture background those without social justice sympathies don’t even suspect that the phrases/arguments/subjects which get them in trouble are even unusual or controversial. Unfortunately, the resulting interaction only serves to further reinforce the views on both sides. Members of the underprivileged community feel hurt and attacked confirming the narrative they hear from their community while the members of the ‘privileged’ group unsurprisingly are upset when what they see as perfectly friendly behavior is met with anger and accusations of micro-aggressions. Making the same mistake about the representativeness of their experiences as members of the underprivileged community made they infer that all these people whining about microaggressions, privilege etc.. etc.. are either just absurdly sensitive ‘snowflakes’ or deceitful manipulative jerks. Everyone feels extremely justified, righteous and is absolutely certain they are the wronged party.

If this hypothesis is valid and we want to make things better, its absolutely critical that we do something to fix this dynamic. Social media self-selection makes it worse but facebook isn’t going away. Ideally, more contact and interaction between individuals from different backgrounds would be enable mutual understanding and let each side can see where the other is coming from. However, a variety of memetic defenses have made such progress particularly difficult. Social justice allies on the left explicitly reject the idea that they have any responsibility to educate/teach those they see as privileged and morally culpable4 and viewing any attempt to even convey the situation from the perspective of members of ‘privileged’ groups as itself an attack on the legitimacy of their complaints. Similarly, those on the right (or who are pushed that way by this dynamic) see any attempt to convey the situation from the perspective of underprivileged groups as an attempt to use guilt and emotional pressure to silence them and regard the race/gender based terminology that permeates social justice discussions as crossing a line into overt racism and moving beyond the realm of legitimate discourse. Sadly, bad behavior in the past by both sides means that these suspicions aren’t unreasonable and can’t be easily pushed past.

Obviously, the right answer probably isn’t to deny people who are honestly suffering from rejection (especially on account of their race/religion/etc..) a sympathetic hearing but I do suspect there may be things we can do to break apart the useful and beneficial aspects of shared community and support through shared experiences and the outrage feedback loop. In particular, I think we ought to strongly advise people (for their own good and societies) looking for such support and sympathy to find it somewhere other than social media or groups with an over social justice or partisan agenda. Indeed, I strongly suspect the best solution would be if those in need of sympathy/support as a result of micro/macroaggressions were encouraged to receive it from others who share their ethnicity/orientation/race/etc.. but aren’t specifically organized as a social justice cause. The alternate purpose prevents the unfortunate feedback created by focusing on slights and aggression while also providing an audience who can be both appropriately sympathetic and skeptical in turn. Moreover, by encouraging this to happen in groups with some other focus it would hopefully ensure cultural diffusion of the experiences presented, e.g., if women who have been assaulted or treated badly share their experiences with their basketball team or the women in their dorm then those accounts reach both those sympathetic and unsympathetic to social justice concerns rather than creating the two disjoint worlds that cause the problems above. The question is just how to make this happen.

On the other hand, perhaps I’m exaggerating the role that first hand accounts play in this whole process and it is really driven primarily by media accounts of bad behavior. If so then the only recourse is probably to work hard at convincing people that, for all the reasons that normalizing racism/sexism/etc.. is bad and others, by spreading such accounts and further reinforcing fears of mistreatment one is actually perpetuating the very harms one is so upset about. I realize this is a hard sell, no one wants to snub someone standing up and advocating for them, but that’s the best idea I’ve got at the moment.

Another Factor

One reason I’m hopeful that moving such commiseration and bonding away from groups with an explicit liberal or social justice agenda would solve the problem is that I suspect there is another important factor in this whole affair.

Ironically, I think (and I’m sure I’m not the first) much of the dynamic on the left is driven by privileged white liberals who, far all their verbal obeisance to the less privileged, have become both the face and the voice of a movement which is supposedly not about them often by wielding the norms barring skepticism into claims of oppression as a weapon to prevent any inquiry into whether or not lesbian academics with high status jobs and international speaking gigs really should count as underprivileged. Exactly as their own theory predicts, they use institutional power to delegitimize any attempt by those who, despite no belonging to a recognized underprivileged group, nevertheless suffer under socioeconomic conditions far worse than many of the white academics pushing the ideology that cis-hetero-men always count as privileged regardless of personal circumstances. Despite what many on the left assume, most (but certainly not all) people, even those who identify as strongly conservative are quite willing to listen to credible accounts from minorities about what it feels like to grow up poor and black and be marginalized on account of your skin color. They just aren’t willing to be lectured about their privilege or be told that, on account of their race/gender/orientation, their opinion is illegitimate by someone dripping with social status, institutional power and (relative) wealth.

I’m not going to argue at length for this position here but I will make two quick points. First, at least in my anecdotal experience, those social justice advocates which, while quite possibly the victims of some unfairness, haven’t (on the basis of group membership) experienced true need, oppressive violence or threat of imprisionment are the quickest to make accusations, call people names and disengage from well meaning skeptics. In contrast, those who have experienced more serious oppression don’t feel the same need to protect their position by calling attention to their zeal nor find the standard criticisms of the focus on group properties so threatening. After all, it isn’t their status that is threatened if everyone has to stand on their own rather than laying claim to the mistreatment of others who share a property with you. Second, notice that this theory explains the puzzling behavior of social justice advocates in prioritizing ideological purity over good will (if you are genuinely worried about oppression, e.g., a Jew in 1930s Germany, any friend/ally is desirable even if they use words that are disrespectful or are strong critics of your movement) and in antagonizing individuals disagree or criticize but express a genuine willingness to listen to their facts and arguments. It also explains why words like mansplain or whitesplain aren’t, as one might expect, get applied against men or whites who spend the most time discussing matters of social justice, i.e., community members who talk the talk, because they are ultimately a means to block challenges to the power/legitimacy of relatively privileged members of the social justice community not a true concern over whether or not whites or men speak on the subject.

This theory, if true, is a compelling illustration of why it is so bad to roll back legal and traditional rules that protect unpopular groups from prosecution and other penalties despite all the noise about them protecting oppressors. Humans are social creatures with intensely strong drives to gain power, influence and status which can be easily used to subvert groups and institutions supposedly dedicated to helping the worst off and instead using them to maintain their own power.

Note that, I’m not suggesting that those relatively privileged individuals in social justice communities are particularly morally blameworthy. While they may be aware of the danger here in a theoretical sense they honestly believe they are doing good not harm. Moreover, they are merely behaving in the same way that we all do unless we work very hard to catch ourselves doing it and change our behavior: adapting seamlessly to function in the culture you find oneself in and unconsciously learning what it takes to draw praise and guard against criticism. AS someone filled with an passion for social justice, excitement about what you and likeminded compatriots can do and anger at the unfairness of the system it is very hard to notice that by acting in the ways that draw praise and congratulations from your fellows you are merely promoting yourself and your compatriots at the expense of your cause. Indeed, if I could only say one thing about this whole issue it would be that righteous conviction, outrage and even empathy directed at particular narratives/accounts are all dangerous temptations leading to unintended consequences and that only careful studied consideration can be counted on to improve the situation.


  1. Yes, of course, there is always the (almost universally counterproductive) charge that unless you are a member of an underprivileged group your skepticism merely reveals your privilege. Now for those who have chugged the kool-aid and are ready to totally upend our usual epistemic framework (or even the idea of mind-independent, scientifically discernible reality) in service to the idea that whatever (the relatively privileged representatives of) underprivileged groups assert about what is or isn’t discriminatory/aggressive/etc.. then you might as well just skip to leaving angry comments on this post or holding me up for ridicule. But everyone who isn’t an extremist should accept the fact that personal experience is neither necessary to believe a claim nor a particularly reliable way to get at the truth generally. Thus, lacking personal experience in now way prevents one from talking to those who do have it, evaluating their credibility and degree of bias and looking at what people said and did in the past. Of course, I could be wrong and it could be that bias and kneejerk defense of my privilege blinds me to the truth. But this kind of deeply skeptical worry is a problem for everyone and ultimately we can only act based on our best guess about the truth despite whatever biases and shortcomings we may have. 
  2. My misspent youth spent in sketchy parts of Oakland hanging out with various IV drug users left me with an intense awareness of just how much the concerns and focus of rich white liberals on college campuses and the educated, relatively privileged members of ‘underprivileged groups’ they associate with differ from what matters for people in actual poverty and those minorities who are more likely to be the victims of police violence than rant in outrage on facebook about it. Spending time being outraged, particularly about merely verbal slights or behaviors, is a privilege that requires comfort and free time. While poor minorities are intently aware of discrimination and often very angry about unfair treatment their anger is directed at policies that directly make their life worse and overt animus against them. Indeed, coming from a rich well-educated world I was constantly shocked by willingness of poor whites to unselfconsciously make claims about race that would draw condemnation even from conservatives on campus in front of black friends. I was even more surprised by the willingness of poor blacks to not only laugh or agree but even encourage such conversations though in retrospect I shouldn’t have been. When life is tough and you face real animus and discrimination you don’t have the luxury of caring if people comply with the norms rich white liberals have adopted. What matters is who will stick up for you when shit goes down and who won’t and it makes all the concern over propriety seem viscerally absurd and even immoral insofar as it takes concern away from the poorest neighborhoods that are really suffering one group of rich white people (and a few minorities) who claim to care about the underprivileged can poor all their energy into alienating another group of white people (further discouraging them from helping) rather than actually making a difference on the ground. Sadly, humans are tribal creatures and it is far more motivating to get out and attack the other side’s outrageous behavior than it is to simply focus on making the daily reality of life for the worst off slightly better or try and work out how to reform the system and stop the kind of horrible abuse by bad cops, prison guards etc.. that everyone will admit are problems. Conservatives are no less guilty. Indeed, I’m arguably engaging in exactly the practice I criticize here right now though I do think there is real value in trying to work out a way to lesson animosity and redirect energies to fixing problems. 
  3. Of course, these are human flaws not liberal flaws and a similar process explains how groups on the right made up of otherwise pleasant, friendly and morally conscientious people can urge each other own to every more impressive heights of cruelty directed at those who are unable to defend themselves. The people on the right who end up sending women rape threats just for expressing their concern about gender equality or similarly charged issue (whether or not they are right) aren’t subhumans. They are caught up in the same spiral of reinforcing stories representing the other side as the enemy, discouraging doubt and moderation and prioritizing standing up for the moral righteousness of the community over kindness and compassion. However, as a liberal apostate rather than a conservative I’m more interested in convincing/arguing with people who identify as liberal simply because those are the people I tend to associate with and not because I in any way believe they are doing more harm. Indeed, just the opposite. 
  4. I find this attitude particularly absurd given the supposed goal of social justice advocates is to enable peaceful change eliminates structures of privilege. Given that, by hypothesis, its members of privileged groups who have the power and influence what the hell do they think they are doing if their job isn’t educating/persuading those with privileged? Are they really saying that for all their posturing when push comes to shove their visceral dislike of engaging with those they see as unsympathetic privileged assholes is more important than actually improving the lot of the less privileged? Yes, I realize there are perfectly defensible versions of this belief which simply amount to the attitude that individuals, particularly less privileged individuals, have a personal obligation to explain/persuade at any one time in the same way that a random Catholic you stop on the street doesn’t have a personal obligation to explain or defend Catholic beliefs to you. However, to extend the metaphor, they do (on the assumption their beliefs are correct) have an obligation to do their part in the communal effort to save souls by politely responding to anyone expressing a genuine desire to know about the faith and avoiding alienating them (even if they have a very skeptical attitude) while directing them to resources/people who are better equipped to persuade them of Catholic doctrine. Of course, sufficiently deep disagreement can’t always be bridged but if you aren’t even going to try how do you hope to prevail?