Wednesday, February 19, 2014

On Why Many So-Called "Microaggressions" Are Politically Correct Bullshit (And We Should Stop Believing They Are Offensive)

Dangerous Idea #3: The rising attention given to so-called "microaggressions," usually directed toward racial or sexual minorities, is misguided and wrong-headed; many microaggressions are nothing more than over-the-top political correctness that are made out to be subtle forms of discriminatory or prejudiced behavior.

I recently saw this Buzzfeed article posted on Facebook, titled "19 LGBT Microaggressions You Hear On A Daily Basis." I opened the article fully expecting to find some pretty hurtful things being said about LGBT people and then liking the post on Facebook. However, I was surprised to discover how truly ridiculous some of these so-called "microaggressions" were. I had always scoffed at the mention of microaggressions, which only seemed to buzz among the extremely liberal and gender studies folk, both of whom are generally up in arms about nothing, really, or about good science that they perceive as antithetical to their goals (maybe I just committed a microaggression against them by saying that). But I never really knew what was meant by microaggressions, so I thought I would give the benefit of the doubt. Surely, subtle discrimination must exist, and I would believe it to be important that people are aware. Indeed, the definition of microaggressions as given in the Buzzfeed article is "[t]he everyday encounters of subtle discrimination that people of various marginalized groups experience throughout their lives." Then I read the article, and what I found pissed me off in a way I was not expecting: in many cases, I was offended by the fact that these people were claiming a microaggression, not by the supposedly discriminatory things said to them. the following examples, which I've also scattered throughout this article as images. First, #3: "Are you a man or a woman?" In principle, I think that it is ridiculous to be offended by that question; if you genuinely don't know the gender of the person or even the preferred gender identity, then how will you address that person or talk about him/her? That being said, I do think it's an awkward question to ask and can definitely be asked in a way that is rude or even discriminatory. However, innocuously asking someone who is extremely androgynous-looking (this would have to be by choice, as people who look naturally androgynous can wear gender-typed clothing, hair, or makeup that signal their gender, and so can trans people) to clarify that person's gender is by no means a microaggression or even remotely prejudiced. It's a completely legitimate question to ask when it is necessary to know the person's gender. Generally, you would be better off not asking it and remaining confused about the person's gender if you don't need to know it, as asking the question could be awkward or considered insulting, as I said before. However, at face value, it shouldn't be taken as such, and it is by no means discriminatory or coming from a bad place unless people are asking in such a way. At that point, they probably aren't really asking that question more than they are being prejudiced assholes, and I don't think that's a microaggression.

But wait, you might be thinking that I missed what the microaggression really is in that last example. However, I've read enough gender studies (for better or worse, but probably better just to know what some people out there really believe) to know that you might think that the microaggression in asking "Are you a man or a woman?" is really about the idea that there are only two categories of gender, male and female, or man and woman. In fact, Facebook has recently added around 50 other options in choosing your gender besides "male" and "female," which include "transgender," "cisgender," and "gender fluid." While I think that's too far in the right direction, that's beside the point; people should be able to choose their gender identity, that's for sure. However, we shouldn't be punished or seen as committing a microaggression for asking "Are you a man or a woman?" to someone when you need to know that person's gender in a world where the overwhelming majority of people are male or female and identify as one of those two. At the same time, it is true that when you are dealing with someone who is purposefully androgynous-looking, that person might identify with much less common labels such as gender fluid, etc. Perhaps it would be safer and more polite to ask "What is your gender?" rather than "Are you a man or a woman?", as you might assume it is less likely that they will identify strictly as male or female. Again, though, there is no microaggression here; human nature is such that there are two genders, male or female, and even if you believe that gender is not binary, the fact remains that the majority of people are male or female and identify as such. Thus, asking "Are you a man or a woman?" is more than reasonable, although again, it can be awkward and taken poorly. A more astute and less naive person might ask "What is your gender?", but that has less to do with avoiding a "microaggression" than it is being especially nice in assuming the person you're asking is not as likely to say they are a man or a woman as a person who presents unambiguously as a man or a woman.
Facebook adds new gender options

Similarly, I don't get offended when people ask me "Are you Chinese, Japanese, or Korean?", as I look like any of these three ethnicities, and they are far more represented in the U.S. than other East Asian ethnicities like Mongolian (but then I tell them I'm Taiwanese, which is not really ethnically distinct from Chinese). However, "What ethnicity are you?" or a variation on that is more polite and  appreciated. theme of things being passed off ridiculously as microaggressions comes up in 11, 12, and 14. #11: "Where are your wife and kids?" #12: "Why are you not married yet? Where is your boyfriend?" and #14: "Dear Dr. and Mrs. Rivera..." Again, we live in a world in which most people are not LGBT but heterosexual and cisgender. Depending on your age, you are likely to be married and have kids, although perhaps this trend is on the decline and will not be so likely in the future. Nonetheless, I think it is ridiculous that we can't make assumptions about people that are more than reasonable and ask them questions based on these assumptions. I find it overly politically correct and unnecessary that we should modify commonplace language and phrases that work for well over 90% of the English-speaking world. In other words, without some evidence or signs to the contrary, why can't we assume a person is straight and if older, married and with kids? If it's true for most people and is the norm, I don't see how it is a microaggression to ask questions such as 11, 12, and 14 unless there is reason to believe the people being asked are not part of the norm (for instance, you're talking to a very flamboyant gay man or someone who has already made it clear in one way or another that they don't fit your assumption). I seriously doubt there will ever be a time when LGBT people will not be vastly outnumbered by straight, cisgender people, and if so, that is probably the result of extreme liberalism and political correctness. Pending such a disaster, I don't see the need for changing our assumptions about people being straight and cisgender and asking questions that reflect these assumptions, as long as we also have analogous and respectful language to talk about LGBT people when those assumptions are challenged. I think it is most important that we are aware of the deviations from the norm (e.g., LGBT people) and be respectful and mindful of them, but I think it's going way overboard in PC nonsense and confusion to always ask questions that will be sensitive to LGBT people when they are a small minority of the population. When you are talking to someone clearly LGBT, that is the time to adjust your language and the way you ask your questions; otherwise, I don't see any microaggressions in assuming the norm.

The increased public discourse surrounding "microaggressions" has been spurred primarily by ideas from the radical left and feminism. However, these so-called microaggressions are little more than political correctness and being oversensitive, to put it bluntly. We live in a world that is overwhelmingly not LGBT, and to assume people are straight and cisgender in the way we ask questions should be perfectly acceptable and reasonable except in cases when we have the evidence that they aren't. That being said, a few of the examples in the Buzzfeed article do seem like microaggressions according to the definition given; for instance, #6: "That's totally cool with me as long as I can watch." The others just seem to reflect ignorance and naivety more than hurtfulness and subtle discrimination (e.g., #18: "You're bisexual? Doesn't that make your partner feel insecure?"). Instead of rallying public outrage and calling out these so-called microaggressions on the part of the ignorant person, I think a better use of everyone's time is to correct the person. More than likely, if these people are decent (and I think the point of the whole microaggressions movement is that they are committed by otherwise decent people), they will apologize for their misconception and gain a better understanding. If not, then they're probably just an asshole and a bigot to begin with, and the focus shouldn't be on changing their "microaggressions" more than their core beliefs. As a final note, I didn't really talk about racial microaggressions, but I did look through the other Buzzfeed article pertaining to them. In it, I see similar themes of being too politically correct, but there were more of them being on the ignorant or naive side and even just outright racist (e.g., #21: "Can you see as much as white people? You know, because of your EYES...?" If these are considered microaggressions rather than outright racism because they're supposed to be said in a joking manner, then they're jokes, not microaggressions, unless they really are coming from a place of prejudice. To assess that can sometimes be a judgment call depending on how well you know the person, and from my experience, it makes a difference in whether I should be offended. For instance, my very pro-LGBT friend sometimes says "EW, THAT'S LIKE GAY!" in an obviously joking manner to mock bigots who say that and mean it in a prejudiced way. When I hear him say it, I find it funny, but when I hear it from another of my friends who is very Christian, conservative, and not clearly pro-LGBT, I feel uncomfortable.

Going back to race, my friends and I use racial humor a lot, especially about ourselves, not because we are being discriminatory or prejudiced or self-deprecatory, but because making humor out of our differences is a good way to counteract and even put a positive twist on the way people use our differences to be hateful and discriminatory. It's almost like the idea that taking something originally meant to be used in a hateful or discriminatory way (e.g., the "N" word) and owning it and using it ourselves will lead to positive change and agency in the matter. Either way, I'd much rather turn racism and discrimination around on their heads into humor than bitch about them, but to each their own. I see a lot of what we call microaggressions, however, as a slippery slope that will ultimately lead to confusing, unnecessary PC language and sensitivity in a world that shouldn't have to operate that way.