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Microaggressions and Manners by Sebastian Morello

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Microaggressions and Manners

TRUE POLITENESS. "Your eel, I think, Sir?"

Photo: "Punch, or the London Charivari," July 28, 1920.

Recently, I was on a Zoom call with a university administrator whose role is that of finding campus rental housing for incoming faculty. “You’re coming to the US at the right time,” she said, “now that despicable human being, Trump, is gone—gone for good we hope!” This declaration of her political sympathies took place within twenty seconds of the conversation beginning. I suppose she had assumed that I, being an academic employed at an Ivy League university, would naturally be giddy over Biden’s presidential triumph. I smiled and replied, “Well, I understand that Trump was not very popular among university staff; anyway, thank you for finding the time today to talk to me about housing,” and I proceeded to move the conversation on.

“What is your budget for housing?” the administrator asked. “My wife won’t be working as she will be looking after the children,” I answered, “so it’s only from my income that we’ll be paying rent.” There was a moment of silence. The administrator glared at me through my computer screen. “Oh?” she said, eyebrows raised, “so you don’t think looking after children is work?”

I had committed, in the administrator’s view, an unspeakable evil—a ‘microagression.’ That is, I had spoken in a way that could be tenuously interpreted to suggest that I unconsciously sneer at those who devote their time to looking after children rather than earning a salary. This was ironic, as much of the world does sneer at such people, but I really do not. Indeed, in talking to someone whom I had only just met—and virtually—it did not occur to me that I should take this opportunity to make snarky remarks about my wife’s devotion to our children’s upbringing. My offence was a mistake, but clearly an inexcusable one. “Sorry,” I said, “by ‘working’ I meant ‘earning;’ she won’t be earning a salary is what I meant.” 

“Right,” the administrator replied, with the air of someone who was conscious of having just made the world a better place, “let’s continue shall we?” I stared back at her through my screen with the expression of a disciplined schoolboy. “Yes,” I replied.

I realised at that moment that, entering this elite academic world, I was soon to be surrounded by non-academics who had undergone countless hours of training to expertly detect anything that might offend them, or offend others, or offend no one but potentially offend someone. Such offence-professionals have tapped into a moral paradigm by which they might live in superiority to everyone else. They are well-wired to find what is objectionable, or purportedly objectionable, or potentially objectionable, in others. Thus, they are free to live a life of stamping on others when such persons speak clumsily.

Interestingly, my microaggression was met with what might be deemed a macroaggression. Whereas I was seeking no confrontation and sought not to make her or anyone else feel uncomfortable, she confronted me directly, specifically to make me feel uncomfortable—and she succeeded. For some reason, however, my microaggression, which by definition was a small thing, was unacceptable, but her macroaggression, which by definition was a big thing, was (in her view) praiseworthy.

The concept of the microaggression is problematic

One problem with the notion of microaggressions is that it prevents people from sharing views based on concrete experience. For example, if I were to meet a man from India, and we went for a drive in his car, and his driving was impeccable, I might make a remark like, “I’m relieved that you’re such an excellent driver.” Now, someone might say that the presumption that he wouldn’t be a good driver, on account of him coming from India, is a microaggression (even though the statement simultaneously praises his driving). I, however, lived in India. It is simply a fact that the quality of driving, on average, in India would not be tolerated for a moment here in the UK, where such driving would quickly lead to police-questioning. Indeed, all my most hair-raising traffic experiences have been in India. That is a fact. So, a departure from that trait in an individual from India may be a welcome discovery, especially if you’re in the passenger seat. But apparently, it cannot be mentioned. There is, then, pressure to deny the validity of life-experience in order to accommodate the, often imagined, hypersensitivity of others. The question then arises: why is such pressure not a form of ‘structural injustice,’ or at least the making of an ‘aggressive environment?’

One might say (as it commonly is) that I, as a heterosexual, white, able-bodied, ‘cisgender’ male, am inherently unable to experience microaggressions. Microaggressions are oppressive, the argument goes, because they are suffered by members of ‘marginalised minorities.’ ‘White people,’ for instance, are not a ‘marginalised minority,’ and therefore cannot suffer microaggressions, so the thinking goes. But what if my ancestors were Irish peasants, starved to death by malign Westminster policy? What if they were Mediterranean merchants enslaved by Moors? What if they were Greek Christians persecuted by the Ottomans? What if they were Balkans, raped and butchered by Russian Reds? What if my ancestors belonged to any one of a number of ‘white’ marginalised minorities, and that history has affected my own life and decision-making? No. None of that matters, and none of that is relevant, because I am ‘white.’ Thus, the microaggression moral paradigm does the very thing that allegedly makes microaggressions so evil: it projects a trait stereotypical of a supposed community onto an individual, thus invalidating his or her experience as a unique person.

One question that troubles me is this: how are autistic people to avoid committing microaggressions? The experimental psychologist, Peter Hobson, found and documented in his contribution to Joint Attention: Communication and Other Minds: Issues in Philosophy and Psychology that autism is roughly defined by a deficiency in sensitivity towards, or awareness of, the perspectives of others. It is a common trait of autistic people that they make comments and remarks that appear, and are in fact, insensitive towards others. Such people do not ordinarily mean to cause offence, but the interpersonal sensitivity required to know if offence might be taken is simply not part of their repertoire, or if it is, it is not present to the degree normally found in non-autistic people. Therefore, there will always be some people who will commit microaggressions, namely autistic people, and it would be microaggressive to comment upon it, as the autistic community can be deemed a ‘marginalised minority.’ It would also, however, perhaps be a microaggression not to comment upon it, as it can be seen as microaggressive not to highlight a microaggression when it has been committed, for thereby the microaggression goes unacknowledged and in turn is given the appearance of acceptability. It would also be microaggressive to comment upon a microaggression committed by an autistic person when that person is no longer present, as that would be like making an implicitly racist comment about a person once that person is absent. 

Now, one might say that the microaggression committed by the autistic person is not in fact a microaggression because the person, being autistic, had inhibited awareness that his comment was going to cause offence, as the absence (in part or total) of such awareness is definitive of his autism. The problem is, however, that by definition microaggressions are carried out accidentally and absent-mindedly. When someone says to a person of African ancestry, “Wow, I love your hair; can I touch it?” or to a disabled person, “It’s wonderful that you are so self-sufficient,” these are deemed microaggressions, even if the person making such comments is speaking with genuine kindness and sincerity, albeit clumsily. If someone made such comments to deliberately cause offence, that would just be aggression.

One might say that the faux pas committed by the non-autistic person cannot be accounted for—unlike in the case of the autistic person—by any inherent disadvantage. I am content to retort, how could we possibly know? As Hobson and his colleagues are at pains to point out, autism is a wide ‘spectrum,’ on which a large minority of any given population may sit.

In any case, if someone speaks insensitively, but it is obvious that he does not mean to cause offence, surely there is some imperative to make allowances for him in a spirit of patience and generosity. After all, it may be the case that the person is not speaking his first language, or even that the person speaking is unintelligent, and therefore finds it difficult to convey what he wants to say without seeming tactless. Indeed, in such cases, surely it would be microaggressive—or even macroaggresive—to comment on any microaggression committed by the person in question. 

The problematic case of autism for the microaggression moral paradigm is especially interesting due to its explanatory power. As noted, autism can be defined as a deficit of awareness of, or sensitivity towards, the perspectives of others. This, I suggest, is also what defines the microaggression moral paradigm. The microaggression moral paradigm intrinsically requires insensitivity towards others—to what they mean or intend to say or do. Thus, the paradigm itself requires one to act without awareness of the feelings or social comfort of others; in other words, it expects people to take on an autistic attribute. In turn, the case of autism is helpful in considering microaggressions, as it both reveals that their moral paradigm is concretely unworkable, and unveils the epistemic commitments needed to adopt the paradigm at all.

I want to recommend a different moral paradigm altogether: manners. When I was a child, I was taught manners. A part of being well-mannered, I was taught, was that in any conversation, one’s first interpretation of someone else’s comments should always be the ‘charitable interpretation.’ A well-mannered person does not want to cause offence and does not assume such intent in others. A well-mannered person always makes excuses for the clumsy speech of others, knowing that he too has spoken clumsily at times, and at those moments was grateful for the patience and goodwill of others. In the face of a faux pas, the well-mannered person responds with compassion and clemency, seeking to minimise any possibility of embarrassment.

Nothing, perhaps, is more antithetical to the microaggression mentality than the attitude that arises out of an education in manners. Indeed, when I encounter professional offence-detectors, they are often the most self-important and—frankly—ill-mannered people one might have the misfortune to meet. A well-mannered person is not only sensitive to others when he speaks, but sensitive to others when they speak. Those who promote the microaggression moral paradigm often insist that they are doing nothing more than encouraging good manners and decency. It turns out that this is, in fact, the opposite of what they are doing.

Sebastian Morello is a lecturer, public speaker, and columnist. Trained by Sir Roger Scruton, he has published books on philosophy, history, and education. He lives in Bedfordshire, England, with his wife and children.


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