[A meta-comment first: I’m going to be transitioning a lot of the Lagrange Books stuff over to LB’s dedicated page, and refocusing this site on my own personal work and thoughts. It’s been a while since I’ve felt free to write my own stuff just because!]
I’d always been leery of the term “microaggression.” Not because I think the meaning of the term was silly; I’ve experienced it often enough in my own life to know otherwise. But the term itself, semantically, seemed to argue for too much. “Aggression” involves deliberate harm, whereas microaggressions are often unintentional, and sometimes even unnoticed by the recipient until much later in the day. Worse, “aggression” is something that justifies a violent response (something I’ve spent much of my scholarly life studying). Does a microaggression justify a micro-violent response? What does that even mean?
And what does “microaggression” add to perfectly good existing concepts like thoughtlessness, rudeness, misspeaking, or the like?
Recently, however, I had a personal experience that gave me more insight into what “microaggression” could mean, and what it could justify. Typically when I experience one of these, I tend to shrug it off; the speaker is not meaning to offend, and getting into a whole discussion would derail the conversation. However, the most recent event was actually in the middle of a professional class on microaggressions! I thought the context justified correcting the misspeaking.
The experience of doing so was illuminating. Speaking up felt like it violated strong social norms against putting people on the spot and creating conflict where no apparent conflict existed. And yet I felt I was justified in speaking up. This, it seemed to me, helped explain what calling something a “microaggression” accomplishes.
Putting it into just-war terms, correcting a microaggression is a justified response to the microaggression, even though it tends to overstep our usual social boundaries—but as with war, a proper response needs to be proportional. The offense was unintentional and almost harmless; the mere fact of a microaggression did not permit me to be actually rude in my response, or hurtful, or to do harm. The response had to be tactful, to acknowledge the lack of malice in the microaggression.
I still do not like the term “microaggression” because of the semantics around its use. In particular, I find abhorrent the way in which a motivated few have used the act of pointing out microaggressions as a social weapon, calling for shame and ostracism of the offender. But I can at least justify the term, and use it carefully until I find a better one.
In a nutshell, receiving a microaggression entitles you to respond with a single “well ackshually“!