The Pseudo-Science of Micro-Aggression



No matter how much the concept of micro-aggression is dressed up in the solemn professional language of social psychology; no matter how much the grisly memory of slavery and Jim Crow is called upon to validate it; and no matter how much the pain of people who endure a micro-aggressive act is detailed in sentimental emotive words; it only takes a little common sense to answer, “This is a bit much much.”

For those of us who haven’t absorbed the vision of social interaction in America as a heated racial psychodrama such as the one Ta-Nehisi Coates presents in his overwrought Between the World and Me, it’s all a question of proportion.  Slights happen all the time, on the road and on the sidewalk.  Workplace politics can be treacherous.  Social media are a hive of insult and cattiness.  The First Amendment licenses obscenity and what goes by the name of “hate speech,” and Hollywood, pop music, and comedians have done their best to destroy the old restraints on language and deportment.  And in the midst of all this interpersonal chaos we’re supposed to identify a set of subtle, often unintentional microscopic words and deeds and stamp them out.

Only a zealous bureaucrat or angry utopian would be attracted to such a project, or believe that it is feasible.  In the absence of clear and distinct criteria for discriminating a micro-aggression from the ordinary slips and indecencies of modern life, not to mention the existence of a culture that so often allows celebrities and Youtube performers and politicians to show their bad manners to the world and profit by them (for instance), all we are left with to gauge the event of a micro-aggression is the psychic condition of the one who has been micro-aggressed.

But emotional reactions are an unreliable yardstick.  Even our laws require an objective standard of reasonable-ness in cases of harassment.  A claim of “You’ve offended and harassed me” isn’t enough.  We have to weigh that claim against whether a reasonable person would be able to make that claim.

The apostles of micro-aggression don’t like that standard.  They devote lots of time to explaining how something that seems more or less harmless or, at worst, thoughtless or irritating, does indeed constitute an act of aggression.  They compile lists of sample micro-aggressions such as this one at the University of Minnesota, which, to take one instance, claims that a TV show with “predominantly” white characters amounts to a form of “Environmental micro-aggression.”

The purpose of such lists, however, is not to demonstrate that these examples are, indeed, small but malicious gestures.  Most people wouldn’t be impressed by the damage they are supposed to inflict.  But the list has a machinery of complaint and investigation behind it, and nobody wants to be the object of it.  Reading such lists, students and staff and teachers learn what not to say—period.  The method is intimidation, not persuasion.

It has to be that way because the science behind micro-aggression theory is “incoherent” and “weak.”  Those words appear in the subtitle to a commentary in Aeon by my colleague Scott O. Lillienfeld, a professor of psychology at Emory University.  The full title is “Microaggressions? Prejudice remains a huge social evil but evidence for harm caused by microaggression is incoherent, unscientific and weak.”

Lillienfeld is a sharp critic of social psychology, especially as the findings of various experiments get translated into popular understanding.  As you can see from this book and this one, he specializes in examining the scientific basis of beliefs putatively supported by clinical research.  He’s not a conservative with the goal of exploding identity politics.  He’s a social scientist out to assess the validity of certain ideas and hypotheses.  In this article he takes on micro-aggression theory.

He states at the outset,

Yet despite the good intentions and passionate embrace of this idea, there is scant real-world evidence that microaggression is a legitimate psychological concept, that it represents unconscious (or implicit) prejudice, that intervention for it works, or even that alleged victims are seriously damaged by these under-the-radar acts.

Lillienfeld acknowledges the persistence of racism and the callousness of a white professor who, say, tells a black student, “Wow, you are so articulate!” (This is Lillienfeld’s example, though I think we should ask, first, whether that professor has previously expressed his dismay over the inarticulateness of ALL undergraduates).  He notes, too, how widespread the concept of micro-aggression has become in academia and in corporate America.  One would presume, then, that solid evidence backs up the initiatives.

The truth, however, is disappointing:

Microaggressions have not been defined with nearly enough clarity and consensus to allow rigorous scientific investigation. No one has shown that they are interpreted negatively by all or even most minority groups. No one has demonstrated that they reflect implicit prejudice or aggression. And no one has shown that microaggressions exert an adverse impact on mental health.

One can imagines diversity deans reading that statement and fuming, but Lillienfeld presses forward.  He encourages research into micro-aggression and welcomes any evidence of its frequency and impact.  But as he surveys the field, none of it is to be found.

The leading theorist of micro-aggression, Derald Wing Sue, hasn’t applied due scientific scrutiny to subjects and derived evidence to show genuine victimization at work.  Instead, Lillienfeld says, “Sue’s conclusions are really just theoretical conjectures based on information gleaned largely from focus groups, and are in no way backed up by rigorous data or experimental techniques.”  Indeed, the term is so fuzzy and ambiguous that it is hard to see how one could construct experiments to test it.

It’s subjective, too, a case of “in the eye of the beholder.”  It puts the measure of aggression entirely in the mind of the recipient, such that even a reasonable argument against affirmative action could be interpreted as micro-aggressive.  So could news coverage of high crime rates among minority populations, as well as data on racial differences in intelligence raised in a cognitive psychology course lecture.

Inadequacy of definition isn’t the only problem.  It has an effect, for the boundaries of concept of the concept are so “indistinct as to invite misuse or abuse.”  This is especially the case with micro-aggression theory, Lillienfeld says, because the field itself is so lacking in diversity of thought.  It calls for “mind-reading” on the part of recipients of micro-aggression and the researchers who study it, an act obviously prone to tendentiousness.

Even the term itself is problematic.  One contention of the theory is that many micro-aggressions are unintentional, but how can aggression of any kind be unintentional?  Insensitive, perhaps, but aggression implies conscious will.

All of this leads Lillienfeld to conclude that we end up with “an armchair taxonomy of microaggression.”  Campus officials enamored of micro-aggression theory speak about how damaging the “culture” is to minorities and women, that the micro-aggressions they suffer even shorten lifespans.  “But where is the solid proof?” Lillienfeld asks.

Until it arrives, he says, we should discontinue all programs, orientations, and conduct codes that rely on micro-aggression theory for their justification.  Final word: “A time-out on these ill-advised programmes is long overdue.”

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