I would like to begin by changing the form of this word. The reasons will become evident. I would like to summon up parallel terms, one for offense and one for defense. I am thinking of something like the pair of fouls that occurs so often in basketball when one player runs into another. Was it charging? Was it blocking? Was it a case of really good acting?
If I change the noun “microaggression” to “microaggressiveness”—one noun for another—I will not have changed the meaning at all and it will give me the chance to introduce a parallel form, “microdefensiveness.” So people who are watching the interplay of language could say, as basketball fans so often do, “That wasn’t microaggressiveness! (Charging) That was microdefensiveness! (Blocking)”
I had a friend once who persisted in attacking my motives, my behavior, and my honesty. I did not respond well to this, is you might imagine. “Why are you being so defensive?” my friend would ask, when this had gone on longer than I should have allowed it. “I can’t imagine” I would respond, “Why do you keep attacking me?”
It was not a response that did anything good for the relationship but it did introduce me to the symmetry of aggressive and defensive acts, and that has prepared me to consider microdefensiveness today. What does it mean?
Microaggressiveness means small acts of aggression. How are they small? It is aggressive in a small way to say something which another person might find offensive not because of who he is, but because of some category he belongs to. It is offensive—in a small way—because it crosses the line of what a person—more often a category of person— might find offensive. It is mico- because it might not be any part of the offenders intention to cross that line, or even any part of his consciousness.
A Precarious Example
Let’s try an example. I hope you will find this a silly example, but when you do, I would like you to try to say IN PRINCIPLE why it is silly.
So Jed says to Hiram, “Your son’s old enough to be going to school now. Maybe you ought to buy him an encyclopedia.” Hiram thinks about it for a minute and then says, “Absolutely not. He’ll have to walk, just like I did.”
Is that funny? Well I thought so when I first heard it….oh…70 years ago. It is a discrepancy taken playfully. The discrepancy is Hiram’s confusion of an encyclopedia as a mode of transportation, of course, but it isn’t just a random mistake. Hiram hears the cyclo- part of the word as “wheel” and very plausibly imagines that it is a way of getting around. The ped- part, if it means “foot” (it could mean “child”) might imply the same kind of thing either with or without the wheel.
So it is plausible but it is only plausible if you don’t know what an encyclopedia is, which Jed does and Hiram does not. So…why does Hiram not know what an encyclopedia is? Everybody knows what an encyclopedia is.
The names Jed and Hiram connote people who live in the country. They do not live in cities or suburbs. Further, Hiram walked to school—as one would where there was no transportation provided and where he did not have a bicycle—and he thinks what was good enough for him will be good enough for his son. There is no sense here that things ought to be better for the son than they were for the father. And that’s why Hiram is so stupid. He is a hick.
There are other ways of explaining Hiram’s response, of course, but jokes use stereotypes as a quick way to lay out a lot of background information so we can get on to the discrepancy. That is why I went so far, in the previous paragraph to use words like “stupid” and “hick,” even at the risk of offending someone.
Is the person who told this tired old joke, “microaggressive?” Does the routine disparagement of rural folks constitute a microaggression? Certainly the argument could be made. It would mean giving up on the idea that it is funny because the fact is that no discrepancies are funny if they are not taken playfully.
Now I get to the part of the essay when I can cash in on the change I proposed, turning “microaggression” into “microaggressivenss”—a change of form without a change of meaning. Now we can talk about “microdefensiveness.”
Microdefensiveness would mean the readiness to take offense at very small discrepancies, categorizing them as slights. These “slights” may be deliberate, in which case they are wrong, or they may be only “insensitive,” in which case they are still wrong, but not so serious. Think of the difference between felonies and misdemeanors.
These discrepancies may be left over from earlier patterns of use, as where occupational names ended in –man. They may be national stereotypes: Scotsmen (Scotswomen too, I suppose) are stingy, French are sexy, Irish are drunk and rowdy. If you take those not as statements of belief or fact, but as the presuppositions necessary for the “witty remark” to follow, there is no reason to take offense. If you are microdefensive, there is every reason to take offense.
I remember a story about a woman who was pretending to be microdefensive—just because she thought it was funny—and got a real and serious apology from the person who thought she had been accused of an insensitivity. The woman who turned out to be the patsy of this prank had put out two barrels for recycled paper, labelling one WHITE PAPER and the other COLORED PAPER. The jokester wrote a little note on the COLORED PAPER sign saying, “You mean PAPER OF COLOR.” I thought that was pretty funny until a tearful and overwrought apology came from the woman who thought she had been called “insensitive.”
Microdefensiveness takes “how I feel,” which is often distorted into “how that makes me feel,” as the gold standard for wrongdoing. Perhaps I am not the one to say this because my awareness of just how I am feeling is not very acute, but it is hard always to know how you feel. It isn’t like looking at some inner blackboard to see what is written there. One time you might feel one way about a remark and another time, another way.
It is especially difficult, I think, to know “how I really feel” when substantial advantages could flow from feeling one way or the other. If, as is often the case among the people I know best, being offended puts everyone else in the conversation at a disadvantage, it would be much harder to know just how you feel.
Upton Sinclair is associated with the saying, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” That is the kind of connection I have in mind. It is really hard to recognize that you are not offended when there are such advantages to discovering that you are offended. One simply cannot reward the feeling of offense and expect it not to show up more frequently.
Furthermore, it is not any longer necessary to be offended on your own behalf. You could very well take offense on someone else’s behalf. You could say that an ethnic group or a disabled person or someone who is unusually well educated or unusually poorly educated that they would surely be offended at an expression you had used. “Egghead” comes to mind, or “the Hottentots of Yugoslavia” made famous by George C. Wallace in his presidential bid.
You might have called a group “gypsies” when they would rather be called Roma or Lapps when they would rather be called Sami. You might refer to a person in a wheel chair as “wheelchair-bound” rather than as a “wheelchair user.” You might refer someone with a profound physical handicap as disabled, only to learn that he prefers to be called “differently abled.”
The microdefensive person you are talking to doesn’t really need to be any of those himself to imagine that the group he is thinking of would be offended by the words you used to describe them. “Speaking on their behalf,” your conversation partner might say, “I object to the way you are characterizing them.”
This interplay of microdefensiveness and microaggressiveness make social conversation a chancy affair. I think it is a self-inflicted wound upon the body politic and I wish we could find a way past it.
I remember with fondness an exchange in the movie, Millennium, with Kris Kristofferson and Cheryl Ladd. She has come back to his time from the distant future and what she knows about his time she learned from some kind of very fast brain learning device. He remarks that there have been tensions between men and women lately (1989) and she, trying to be part of the conversation, rips off a set of historical markers including bra burning, Rosie the Riveter, and “the War Between the Sexes.” So…she says, genuinely curious, how did that turn out?
Well, he says, I think it’s still going on but we could declare a truce just for tonight.