I have a son who attends a very well-known liberal arts college here in the South. (Spoiler alert: They aren’t all in New England) and every time I see him he regales me with stories of how the institution “protects” the student body from the unpleasantness of the world, as though it isn’t lurking just outside the college gates. This time we got into a discussion of one of my pet peeves—microaggressions. I know, I am a life coach and most of us are very liberal and accepting of almost all of the social science dogma we can get our hands on. In my case though, I come from a more practical background of horticulture. It is an industry of hardworking people who are very familiar with the business end of a shovel, or as they are called in the catalogs, spades. You know, those short shovels with a square blade and a handle on the end? There is a lot of humor in the life, but not much tolerance for bullshit.
Microaggressions: Offending Without Offending
So now I am going to take a moment, and in a fashion so familiar to what my horticulture friends call “bullshit” on this whole movement of microaggressions. Whether or not you keep up with this stuff, know that almost monthly you can find new cracks appearing in the almost impassable wall of social science doctrine. The latest showed up about a month ago when the acclaimed research psychologist Scott Lilienfeld, a professor at Emory University and co-author of the contrarian primer, 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology, trained his skeptical and debunking eye on “microaggressions.”
Sophisticated, affluent, people (SAPs) in America have long been trained by their colleges to venerate whatever is offered to them as “science.” Be it good science, not very good science, or even if it’s not science at all, they are trained from elementary school to accept it. Their years of expensive education didn’t train them to tell the difference between good science and no science. Sophisticated and affluent Americans, as a group, are pretty damn naive. It’s a shame that it takes a guy who recently stepped from behind a shovel to point out good ol’ common sense.
Sophisticated, affluent, people
(SAPs) in America have long
been trained by their
colleges to venerate
whatever is offered to
them as “science.”
The “leaders” in social science, academia, and business proclaim a new truth of the human condition, or human nature, and the SAPs around the country gleefully embrace it as doctrine, without even so much as a question. I wonder if that is what they mean by 21st century thinking skills. The concept of microaggressions, too, is one of these things. Microaggressions as a behavioral concept was only introduced to us and made popular about 10 years ago. By now, the universality and human danger of microaggressions in American life as just another fact.
The Myth of Prejudice
You would have thought that with a little common sense the slowest of us could have seen the avalanche of crap coming behind or with it. But by the time microaggressions became popular, social scientists had already invented the Implicit Association Test (IAT). This fabulous test, administered online and to college students across the country, was imagined to establish that anti-black and anti-Latino prejudice among white Americans was forever present and yet, illogically, nearly invisible. The claim was that being habitually unrecognized by culprit and victim alike meant they posed a real danger to our culture and the people involved. Even honest folk who had never uttered a reproachful word or observation about someone of another color were shown by the IAT to be boiling stews of racial animosity; …you know who the fuck you are!
The IAT in turn laid the groundwork for microaggressions. They were the outward, unconscious expressions of imbedded racism. Not only was there evidence of it, the offenders were offered up as proof of it. (Circularity is a usual instrument in radical social science, don’t you know.) Microaggressions were typically verbal but they don’t always need to be. In their “ground breaking” paper Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life, the author Derald Wing Sue, a psychologist and his team of researchers from Columbia University, accommodatingly listed many of the common microaggressions. For example, the phrase:
- “America is a melting pot” = “assimilate to the dominant culture.”
- “Having pictures of American presidents” = “only white people can succeed.”
Also—and you will like the innate prejudice of this one—an “overabundance of liquor stores in communities of color” carries the micro-aggressive meaning that “people of color are deviant.” …Fuck me.
By now, the universality
and human danger of
American life as just another fact.
Please keep in mind that Dr. Sue’s paper came at a critical time. It was published just as it was becoming obvious that public, systematic, and institutionally enforced racism was declining towards zero, and we certainly can’t let that go unanswered, now can we? The paper perfectly matched the prejudices of the day. If you’ll forgive the expression, “shared by nearly every credentialed social psychologist and cognitive researcher today,” Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life has been cited in more than a thousand published papers over the last decade. That’s greater than three times a week on average. You can fill in the blank: Racial Microaggressions, The Power to Define Reality, Daily Well-Being Among Asian Americans, Difficult Dialogues on Race, Psychological Functioning, and on it goes. The hunt for, and clarification of, microaggressions has become a cottage industry in the larger industry of social science research, and it’s guaranteed as the current grant-bait.
The Advent of Political Correctness
Not amazingly, SAPs of higher learning fell first for the idea. As Lilienfeld points out, microaggressions now have come to include the phrase “politically correct” at the University of Wisconsin, or in the University of California system, describing America as “the land of opportunity.” From higher ed the idea quickly migrated to the world of commerce, where even more SAPs were lurking in the corners with the dust bunnies. Lawsuit-averse executives, business owners, and overwrought HR directors inaugurated intricate and pricey programs designed to convince employees that their office was stinking rotten with microaggressions, and that they were about to be fumigated, ready or not.
As usual in corporate America, political correctness is promoted as good business sense. One commonly cited figure from the Weekly Standard indicated that microaggressions cost U.S. businesses $450 billion to $550 billion in lost productivity, although this is unsurprisingly debatable. The number came from the Gallup finding that “actively disengaged employees” diminish U.S. productivity by that amount. A former Harvard dean, quoting Gallop [sic], then told readers of the left-wing website Huffington Post that microaggressions contributed to the $450 to $550 billion loss in productivity. Interesting to note that the Harvard dean translated disengagement into microaggression. Then, if you can imagine, from a legal website: “The ‘soft bigotry’ of microaggressions has real costs—$450 to $550 billion in U.S. workforce productivity according to Gallup.” At least they’ve fixed the spelling. Still, they managed to magically suggest that it was microaggressions that caused the disengagement. Sound solid to you?
As usual in corporate America,
political correctness is
promoted as good business sense.
Recently, in a near religiously solemn act of validation, the word “microaggressions” has been added to Merriam-Webster’s website.
You’d think that something as revolutionary as this, passing from social science into the larger culture with bewildering speed, would have garnered a great deal of scientific scrutiny along the way.
- How microaggressions work, socially and psychologically.
- How frequently and under what conditions they occur; in effect, how they can be avoided or reduced.
Those are only two questions to consider, but you would be wrong if you thought any consideration was given. This is where, thankfully, Lilienfield and his paper come in. What he calls the “microaggression research program” has been a daisy chain of confirmation bias instead of a rigorous pursuit of scientific truth. Lilienfield says the very concept of microaggressions is too hazy and ill-defined to be studied scientifically and systematically, even by social scientists.
His “Microaggressions: Strong Claims, Inadequate Evidence,” published in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science, is a masterpiece. Lilienfeld undertakes an analytical review of the works that social scientists have thus far fashioned on microaggressions.
Are All White People Inherently Racist?
He begins with good old common sense by conceding the fact of ongoing racism in the United States. He acknowledges that words can be both intentionally and unintentionally wounding. He points to an incident of an engineering professor expressing surprise in front of his class that an African-American student got a 100% on a test, ostensibly on the conjecture that black students can’t do his work. All of us have seen similar occurrences of callousness and inelegance. I once heard a politician refer to a rival politician as “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean.” Racial prejudice can indeed be insidious, even in the ruling classes.
But here is where common sense raises its ugly head; is it omnipresent? Does it stain every innocent encounter between persons of different races, or rather, between a white person and a person of another race? Note that in the system of microaggressions, a white person is always the sinner. The answer is, and Lilienfeld’s point is, we just don’t know and no one has bothered to look into it. Anecdotally, it’s obvious that words taken as a microaggression by one Latino or African-American may go disregarded by another. Despite common experiences, seemingly undermining the many definitions of the word, no scientist has “challenged the central assumptions that microaggressions, as currently conceptualized… comprise a psychologically meaningful construct.”
Racial prejudice can
indeed be insidious,
even in the ruling classes.
The most significant, and indeed troublesome, claim of microaggression researchers is that microaggressions cause consistent and measurable harm to the mental health of their recipients, and yet none has done any scientifically supportable reviews of the empirical evidence that allegedly identifies a causal link. Lilienfeld says that the inarticulateness of the notion begins with the word invented to express it. According to Lilienfeld, “It is doubtful whether an action that lies largely or exclusively in the eye of a beholder can legitimately be deemed ‘aggressive.’” Here comes that old bore, common sense again; to be deemed aggressive, an act must be intentional. Yet microaggression proponents contend that most microaggressions are completely involuntary. They see them as an unwitting swell from the rising tide of racism in which we have languished all our lives. But there are self-contradictory problems with that. An actual aggressive act is not going to be best described as “micro.” Aggressions tend to be big—macro.
And big is how you could describe the holes in microaggression research. It glides quietly past even the most basic questions of how the notion should even be applied. Researchers have not yet bothered to use Sue’s list of microaggressions, testing honestly and precisely what proportion of minority students they actually affront. Heck, there is not yet any clear answer as to whether they see in the microaggressions the same offensive message that Sue’s researchers did. Lilienfeld wrote, “The association between microaggressions and specific implicit messages remains conjectural.”
He finds all the methodological faults that we have come to expect from doctrinally or politically driven social science:
- small sample sizes
- self-selected non-random samples
- self-reporting of results
- the embedded bias of researchers
- a lack of an agreed-upon terminology and system of measurement
- inadequate or no use of control groups
Most noticeably, the supremely important matter of personality traits has not yet been factored into the research. If a microaggression is “in the eye of the beholder,” then doesn’t common sense say that we should know something about the beholder? What are the traits shared by people who are most likely to notice and be transgressed by microaggressions?
The research, says Lilienfeld, “has all but ignored the potentially crucial role of Negative Emotionality [NE] in determining recipients’ judgments of microaggressions.” NE is one of those complicated “social science-y” terms that describe something downright conventional. It discusses to the gloomy disposition of someone who is given to:
- feelings of victimization
Researchers investigating psychological reactions to others will usually try to control for NE. This way they can be sure they are measuring an objective response and not just some person’s normal way of being in the world. The one microaggression researcher who did consider NE found that it could not entirely account for the mental harm attributed to microaggressions. Otherwise, however, “in light of the virtually wholesale neglect of NE in [microaggression research] it seems especially premature to advance strong causal assertions regarding the ties between microaggressions and mental health outcomes.”
Ok folks, if NE and not microaggressions explains some of the mental harm experienced by people who claim to perceive them, would you really be surprised? None of what Lilienfeld suggests is innovative, after all. Little of it would have come as a surprise to anyone fortunate enough to have lived years before any social scientist created the descriptive term “Negative Emotionality.” Who doesn’t understand that some people are cranky, and crankiness, by my own unscientific estimate, seems fairly consistently spread across the human race. After thousands of years of human conduct, you would think that men and women in authority might know that priming people when they are young and impressionable to detect insults and slights, even where they don’t exist, will result in a great deal of general dissatisfaction and estrangement.
Taking into account our disaffection from such home truths, and our mesmerizing dedication to whatever we are told is “science,” Lilienfeld’s tactic may be taking all that remains and turn the discussion back to life as it is actually lived. He categorically wants investigation into microaggressions to proceed, assuming the term can be meaningfully defined. Yet at the same time, he’s using the most modest and plausible social science axioms to mitigate the damage that phony and profligate social science has done to damage life on campus and elsewhere in our communities. He is translating basic human understanding, i.e., common sense, into the only language many of our SAPs understand and accept. Scary, huh.
And don’t think he is a lone voice in the woods among contemporary social scientists. Just within the field of race relations, a handful of scholars are throwing doubt on once-unquestioned findings. New research, for instance, threatens the conceptual underpinnings of the IAT, the test that is used everywhere to demonstrate fake racism. “Stereotype Threat,” a foggy occurrence uncritically accepted by students of racial inequality, has already failed multiple attempts at scientific replication. Even many diversity training programs—which now include initiation into the ideology of microaggression—are progressively being not only understood to be worthless, but to be a divisive introduction into the workplace. “The positive effects of diversity training rarely last beyond a day or two,” wrote researchers in the Harvard Business Review last summer, “and quite a few studies suggest it can activate bias or spark a backlash.” “Nonetheless,” they add mischievously, “nearly half of midsize companies use it, as do nearly all the Fortune 500.”
Many diversity training programs—which
now include initiation into the ideology of microaggression—are progressively being not only understood to be worthless,
but to be a divisive introduction
into the workplace.
Leading thinkers with pretensions of devotion to science may quite soon have to acknowledge that many fashionable assumptions about how human beings behave are as unscientific as racism itself, and so is the enormous belief systems based on them.
If this process of self-correction continues, with courageous researchers questioning the assumptions at the foundation of their disciplines, those skeptics of the whole enterprise among us, may have to concede that some social sciences do, after all, qualify as real science. But it has been a long time coming and still the train hasn’t yet reached the station. Still, I hope nobody takes that the wrong way. I would hate for this article to be considered to be a microaggression.
I have to go now, I’m getting some take out fried chicken for supper.
SPEAK WITH A LIFE COACH IN BATON ROUGE
Frank Hopkins is a life coach in Baton Rouge who is certified as a Professional Coach (CPC) by the Institute for Professional Excellence in Coaching (iPEC). Frank has helped numerous people to go through emotional change in a way that is positively transformative.