The Microaggression Question
Lilian Min


‘Microaggressions’ and the responsibility of the offended

Microaggressions are bullshit.

Which is not to say that they don’t exist, but rather that the harm they cause should not be acknowledged as legitimate to a serious, adult person.

In an article for Culture Club, Lilian Min argued, in a piece that was thorough, thoughtful and well-researched, that microaggressions are real and the harm they cause is significant. Her preferred definition: “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color and marginalized communities of all stripes.”

I agree with Ms. Min that microaggressions are ever-present, but her definition is too limiting. If you remove the qualifiers of ‘race’ and ‘marginalized communities’, you have a pretty good description of everyone’s daily experience in a crowded, modern society.

Everyone suffers minor indignities and insults on a regular basis. It’s an integral part of living with other people.

Take, for example, the story with which Ms. Lin leads off her column: she is at a book tour asking a question of the author and halfway through the question she sees someone in the row in front of her snicker. It’s an insulting and deflating moment to be sure, but by no means is the experience limited to a particular race, gender or marginalized group. Speaking your opinion in public is nerve-wracking. And a big part of the reason it is perpetually listed among people’s top fears is that it’s uncomfortable to be laughed-at or disagreed with or challenged. But that’s what speaking in public is — an open invitation for disagreements and challenges and, yes, insults.

The snicker, the shrug, the eye-roll — these are all things that torment the speaker whether he is talking to a large group or to a single individual. And it matters not whether the snicker is directed at the point you are making or the color of your skin or the style of your clothes or a thousand other things that might prompt such rudeness. In many ways, it doesn’t even matter if the snicker is totally unrelated to you — it’s still something that threatens to throw you off of the valid point you were offering and make you want to run away and hide.

Where Ms. Lin and the “micoraggressions are terrible” crowd run into trouble is not in identifying the existence of microaggressions, but in attaching to them wildly outsized importance. Microaggressions are blamed for everything from anxiety and low self-esteem to depression and PTSD to the fact that only white males own professional sports franchises. They are an omni-cause that, if you look hard enough, can be found at the root of every issue, every struggle, every hardship.

But the question that never gets asked is: “what is the responsibility of the recipient in all of this?” It is simple, and perhaps satisfying, to blame your heap of troubles on the onslaught of mini-insults that you encounter daily, but at some point the responsible adult must look himself in the mirror and say ‘get over it.’ If I’m going to let the opinions of a few idiots stand in the way of the life I’m trying to lead, than I’m not the strong, independent person that I should be. There is no reason that a person needs to allow the aggressivness of countervailing opinion to dictate his own life.

And on the flip side, by telling me that I need to eliminate these micoraggressions from my behavior because they make you uncomfortable, you are making me responsible for your mental well being. That is a responsibility I don’t want and it’s a responsibility you don’t want me to have.

If we continue to grant license for people to shirk responsibility for their own well-being and mental health by blaming the snickers and shrugs of those around them, we are going to end up with a society of people who are too fragile to live in a society.

The discomfort of living among other people and their hostility is part of daily life. Whether you’re a white, Republican male (which, incidentally, Lin microaggressively tags as the mortal enemy of all things good) or a “woman of color”, the very act of living among others is going to subject you to a constant barrage of insults, slights, rudeness — slings and arrows of all stripes.

What you do with them is up to you.