Microaggressions: When a Genuine Compliment Becomes an Offense

How can society function like this?

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Photo by Felix Mittermeier on Unsplash

I recently read an article on Medium that shed some light on how people are using the word .

According to all-knowing, all-powerful Wikipedia, are “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioural, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative prejudicial slights and insults toward any group, particularly culturally marginalized groups.”

Do I believe that acts like this go on today? Hell, yeah, I do.

Do I think as a white male I don’t know the half of it, quarter of it, tenth of it? Probably I do not.

Still, a couple of things about the concept of are concerning to me.

First, they can be . True, you can still insult someone by being oblivious. I’ve regretfully done this to numerous friends and partners over the years. And that’s not good. However, it seems wrong to label and acts like these the same thing — it’s signaling that they are both equally immoral and worthy of outrage. Also, microaggressions are being called , which seems at odds with the unintentional nature of many of these acts.

Second, they make creating genuine connection and dialogue between people more difficult than it already is. The article I read on Medium listed as a microaggression the sentence beginning with, “You’re so articulate…” Why? Because the writer assumed there is an obvious and offensive undertone to the comment: “and this surprises me because Black people are generally not as intelligent as Whites”. Reading this put me in the strange position of not knowing whether to compliment this writer for her work simply because of the color of my skin. I admired her writing style, but would she take the compliment as an offense? I was concerned that she would, so I didn’t.

The concept of microaggressions are making normal conversations between normal people more difficult than ever. And they’re dividing us even further than we already are.

Intentional vs. unintentional

If, as Wikipedia describes, someone is communicating “hostile, derogatory, or negative prejudicial slights and insults toward any group” does it matter whether it is intentional or not?

Imagine two scenarios.

I walk into a convenience store and see a male customer talking to a female cashier…

Scenario #1: I overhear the man say angrily, “I know women suck at math, but could you hurry up with my damn change?” There is no note of sarcasm or kindness in his voice, posture, or otherwise.

Scenario #2: I overhear the man say admiringly, “Wow, you did that math really fast!” He is smiling, making eye contact, and appears sincere.

In Scenario #1, I don’t think many people would disagree that offense is . Not only that, the words are hostile and prejudicial toward women, in general. This is a clear case of bigotry.

However, I think Scenario #2 is less straight-forward. Clearly, there is no of offense, given the man’s demeanor. But, the cashier could still assume he means, “You’re really good at math… for a woman.”

Do we want to say that both these scenarios are ? And, if so, do we want to put them on the same level?

To me, the danger of calling both of these instances is that it puts a clear act of bigotry (Scenario #1) on the same level as an act that most people would say is, , unclear (Scenario #2).

Why is this a problem? Calling both scenarios signals to people that they should feel the maximum amount of offense regardless of whether they face Scenario #1 or Scenario #2. Not only that, but the word itself sends the message that Scenario #2 is an . Imagine how dangerous that message is?

What do people naturally do when threatened with violence? They become violent themselves. Is this what we want? Do we want the cashier to become physically violent in Scenario #2? Do we want her to push the man to the ground? Smash him in the head with a bottle? Pull out a gun from behind the counter?

By convincing people that Scenario #1 and Scenario #2 are the same thing, we are encouraging behavior that will be dangerous for everyone involved. And, given that Scenario #2 happens whenever someone feels offended, the potential frequency of situations like these is boundless.

How could it be good for society for all of us to assume the worst of the people we’re speaking to?

To dialogue or not to dialogue

The concept of makes intention meaningless. Therefore, in Scenario #2, it is up to the cashier to decide whether to take the comment offensively or not.

What makes something offensive?

Imagine she’s always been good at math. She knows this and the man’s comment just validates what she always believed. In this case, it’s more likely that the cashier wouldn’t take the comment offensively, though that’s not guaranteed.

Imagine she’s always been bad at math. She knows this and the man’s comment just validates what she always believed. In this case, it’s much more likely that the cashier would take the comment offensively.

Notice that whether she takes the comment offensively or not has to do with her history and relationship with the idea behind the comment. It’s natural for us to interpret the world in a way that validates what we already believe. So, if we remove from the equation, if we convince people it doesn’t matter, we are essentially destroying the barrier that prevents all her past negative feelings and experiences associated with this issue from rushing into the present situation. The customer then becomes the perpetrator of those negative thoughts and feelings, which makes him the “bad guy”.

In other words, the concept of makes it much easier to be offended than it otherwise would be. You might even wonder if it the taking of offense by removing standard psychological barriers that allow us to have normal conversations with each other.

How can society function like this? If we don’t give the people we’re speaking with the benefit of the doubt, if we don’t assume their acting in good faith, we’ll never have a meaningful conversation again.

If we can’t have meaningful conversations, we’ll never bridge the gaps that divide us. Isn’t bridging these gaps exactly what we all want?

Hate and violence will never bridge those gaps. They’ll only make those gaps wider. Yet, hate and violence is what the concept of seems to be encouraging.

What do we really want?

If we want to build a society worth living in we’re going to need to have productive and difficult conversations with each other. To be able to have these kinds of conversations with each other we’re going to need to forgive each other when we accidentally push each other’s buttons. We’re going to need to give people the benefit of the doubt. We need to assume that people are acting in good faith.

Most people are good people. And most of us want the same things. Peace, jobs, security, housing, connection. Yet, I can’t help but get the sense that when we look at each, rather than seeing humans who are capable of understanding us, we see aliens who have nothing in common with us.

We need to fight that urge to feel different from each other. We understand each other. We bridge the divides that are tearing our societies apart.

But I don’t think the concept of microaggressions is going to help us get anywhere productive. By encouraging hate and violence, microaggressions will only further divide us.

I understand that change is hard, but we need to be brave. We need to be patient. We need to be persistent. It’s not our hate and anger that will change minds — it is our love and compassion. There is no other way.

Written by

Following my curiosity and hoping it will lead me to wisdom. I write about science, meditation, and spirituality.

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