Political correctness gets crazier and crazier, but it does so in a way that seems to represent the development of something that was there right at the beginning.
I’ve been trying to make sense of it, from a psychoanalytic point of view, and the theory has, gratifyingly, developed apace with what it is trying to explain.
The current edge of the theory is what I call the “pristine self,” which is a self touched by nothing but love, and I am pleased to suggest that it gives us some insight into the current edge of political correctness, which is built around the concept of “microaggression.’ In this post, I’d like to lay out that connection.
Microaggression is a key element of what has been called the “new pc,” whose newness Megan McArdle renders this way:
When I was in college, people who wanted to censor others were forthrightly moralistic, trying to silence “bad” speech. Today’s students don’t couch their demands in the language of morality, but in the jargon of safety. They don’t want you to stop teaching books on difficult themes because those books are wrong, but because they’re dangerous, and should not be approached without a trigger warning. They don’t want to silence speakers because their ideas are evil, but because they represent a clear and present danger to the university community. If the school goes ahead and has the talk anyway, they build safe spaces so that people can cower from the scary speech together.
Academia’s Invention of the Microaggression
Microaggression appears to be what these people are afraid of.
Columbia University Prof. Derald Wing Sue, godfather of the concept, defined it as “the brief and everyday slights, insults, indignities and denigrating messages sent to people of color by well-intentioned White people who are unaware of the hidden messages being communicated.”
Generally, the racial category has been expanded to include other designations of “marginalization.”
But there is an obvious problem here. Sue claims “microaggressions” are unintentional. But aggression begins internally. A microaggression must refer to something going on in the person who sends the communication, not just the one who receives it. The claim of being microaggressed against must rest on certain beliefs about the mind of the microaggressor. But what can they be, especially given the stipulation that microaggressions are not generally meant to hurt?
The premise here must be that the victim of the microaggression has unerring insight into the unconscious mind of the microaggressor, and can find aggression of which the microaggressor is unaware.
But on what can such a claim of insight be based? I personally know a number of people who do psychoanalysis for a living, and none think that the unconscious mind is openly visible.
One necessary feature of the claim of unerring insight is that you have to get it right. There’s no room for error here. You either know what’s going on in somebody else’s unconscious mind or you don’t. The problem is that such claims are often wild and even absurd. They thus call into question the claim of insight.
Sue, himself, provides numerous examples of such dubious claims. For example, he tells us:
A third generation Asian American is complimented by a taxi cab driver for speaking such good English. (Hidden Message: Asian Americans are perceived as perpetual aliens in their own country and not “real Americans.”) (Sue and Rivera, 2010)
The point here is that, in order to count as a microaggression, there must be an aggressive component.
This must be that the taxi cab driver is rejecting the Americanness of his passenger. But the premise here is that he must feel authorized to speak for America and rule on who is a “real American.” Equally interesting, the passenger, whom I take to be Sue, must be giving credence to that authority.
We have before us two possibilities. First is that Sue has accurately perceived the rejection in the cab driver’s mind. The second is that, while he feels the rejection as coming from the cab driver, it is actually self-rejection, perhaps related to his own alienation from American society, which he expresses with every word he writes, and which he has projected into the driver’s mind.
Of the two, I think the latter is much more likely. This is a profession that, at least in my own experience, is largely populated by immigrants. None of them descend from the Mayflower. There is scant likelihood that any of them would feel authorized to make that judgment. This suggests that Sue finds the rejection there because he has placed it there, along with the authority.
The broader implication we can draw from this case is that in understanding the charge of microaggression, we cannot stop with an exploration of the mind of the supposed microaggressor; we also must consider what is going on in the mind of the person who feels microaggressed against. For a full comprehension we must understand how they have construed their experience to the point of classifying it as microaggression.
Microaggression in Common Use
Whether what we have seen with Sue would be a typical pattern is not for us to say at this point; we must note that Sue has a specific career interest in his accusations. For the purpose of a more general understanding of what is going on in the mind of individuals who find themselves so victimized, we need to have a broader base.
For that purpose I turned to the Internet, where people regularly post stories of their experiences of microaggression, especially at a Tumblr blog named Microaggressions: Power, Privilege, and Everyday Life, but also at a page at Buzzfeed, which has the advantage of showing how the victims of microaggression wish to present themselves.
As I said, my frame for understanding these expressions is a concept that I call the “pristine self,” an idea I develop in my forthcoming book Political Correctness and the Destruction of Social Order: Chronicling the Rise of the Pristine Self (in press: Palgrave Macmillan). The “pristine self” is an idea of the self touched by nothing but love.
My claim is that when students demand “safe spaces,” trigger warnings, and protection from microaggressions, they work upon the assumption that they deserve to be treated by others in terms of their “pristine self;” that the only acceptable way that others may relate to them, whether through speech or gesture or even thought, is with love. Everything else is intolerable.
I want to illustrate this through some reported microaggressions. Consider this one:
Was biking through town when two women yelled “Konichiwa!” at me…
I’m Vietnamese. And I was born in California.
(Also, where’s the female solidarity?)
The term konichiwa is Japanese for “Good afternoon”—hardly a phrase of aggression. The microaggression, evidently, was that two women addressed another woman (a stranger to them) in Japanese, presuming that she understood Japanese, even though she was Vietnamese and born in the U.S.
That this was experienced as an aggression can only mean that the two accidental microaggressors were supposed to know that the woman was Vietnamese, and possibly even that she was born in America. And they were supposed to know this without asking, since, according to Sue, asking where a person is from is itself a paradigmatic microaggression, suggesting that the person being asked does not belong here (see Sue, 2001: p. 36). For example:The presumption that others should immediately know who one is runs through many of the entries in the annals of microaggression. This presumption is often accompanied by the belief that not knowing who one is sends a hostile message: Or as in this recorded microaggression:
Stranger: What do you do?
Me: I’m a professor.
Stranger: You’re way too young to be a professor. You look like a student.
I’m in my 30s and I dress more professionally than my colleagues. But I’m also petite and female. My male partner, who has the same age and occupation, is never told that he doesn’t look like a professor. It sends me the message that I’m an imposter, merely play-acting at being a serious scholar or authority figure. Made me feel like no one will take me seriously despite my accomplishments.
Others are supposed to know how one defines oneself, even when there are no outward signs. For example:
“What are you?”
Being bi-racial doesn’t make me a what.
My black friends: You aren’t really black though, you act like a white girl.
My white friends: You aren’t really white though, you’re like dark.
All of them telling me I have to be one, I can’t be both. I’m just me though. Makes me feel like I can only be a certain race if I look and act a certain way.
And they are supposed to behave toward you in a way that conforms to your self-definition.
and: The microaggressed also expect those around them to exhibit emotional responses that conform to their own self-definition. One woman complained about the insufficiently sympathetic rhetoric some used after her partner was ill:
While practicing my martial art (Aikido) my partner, a large and muscular middle-aged man, begins to instruct me as if he is doing me a favor—despite the fact that we aren’t too many ranks apart and he has no teaching certification. I felt worthless, as if his status as older, stronger, and a man gave him the right to break dojo etiquette (only instructors should instruct) simply because of my small, girl status. His intentions were good, but his actions so incredibly misguided, unhelpful, and condescending. I felt as though I couldn’t say anything without sounding like an overly sensitive little girl…
So my girlfriend had to go to the ER and I went to join her. I introduced myself to ER staff (when asked) as her girlfriend. Every staff ended up referring to me as her friend. Then I had to let my professors know I wouldn’t make it to classes that day and they could cancel my interpreters because I was supporting my girlfriend through an emergency situation. Every single one of them replied “I hope your friend is okay.” Thanks for the well-wishes, maybe you could do it next time without de-legitimizing same-sex relationships.
This is so even when others do not have the same attitudes toward one’s chosen identity as one’s own.
Starbucks employee (male):: What can I get you Sir?
Me (transitioning female to male):: [order]
SE:: Oh I’m sorry Miss.
Me:: Uh…it’s sir.
SE:: Here’s your coffee MISS sorry again MISS.
My friend thinks I “confused” him. I’m also a college student so if I wasn’t sir, I should have at least have been ma’am.
This sensitivity is demanded even from people who are not aware that the potentially-microaggressed person is there and listening. Evidently, we are all supposed to have every potential microaggression in mind:
While whale watching on a touristy boat in Maine, we were having trouble getting close to a whale who kept diving farther away from us. I was standing at the very front of the boat and overheard this exchange between two strangers:
Man #1: The whale keeps diving away from us and getting farther out. (laughs) It probably thinks we want to mate with it.
Man #2: It’s definitely a female whale, then. It’s like, “Get away from me, please, get away from me!”
(They both laugh and Man #2 continues to say things such as, “Get away from me! Stop coming close!” in a high pitched, feminine voice)
I am a 20-year-old sexual assault survivor. I felt shocked, worthless, depressed.
What we see in all this is consistent with our critique of Sue. If a microaggression must first of all be an aggression, there is blessed little of it on display. Where there is aggression, as in the Starbuck’s case, there is no need to probe the unconscious in order to find it. The counterman is simply conveying to the customer that he disapproves of this transgender stuff. There is nothing further to be revealed.
Rather than aggression, almost every case simply involves people addressing others, or even speaking in a way that others find out about, in a way that does not comport with the way that they think of themselves. The speakers may, or may not, be clumsy about this, but clumsiness is far from aggression. And yet there is no reason to deny that the recipients feel attacked; they feel threatened. How did that happen? How did they make that construal? Here is where the theory of the pristine self may be of use.
Microaggression and the Pristine Self
My hypothesis is that the individuals who present these incidents as aggressions define themselves in ways that, beginning with their unique, ineffable selves, exemplify their claims to being worthy of love. The demands made though these self-definitions are never defended or even openly stated–but it is assumed they are understood and that their validity is self-evident. This is where we see the pristine self.
They see themselves as being microaggressed against when an interaction does not validate the ways they prefer to define themselves, and hence violates their feelings of being entitled to love.
This is the basis upon which people claim to feel endangered and unsafe when they encounter ideas that they disagree with. They are quite serious about this. The ideas that lead them to feel unsafe and endangered are ideas that threaten to undermine their pristine self. It is their pristine selves that they feel to be in danger, and they are right.
We began our inquiry with the presumption that the cause of one’s feeling of being microaggressed against was something that was in the mind of another. That turns out to be not quite right. The cause of microaggression is not so much something in the mind of another, but in the fact that the other has a mind at all.
One needs to see the radically narcissistic element in all this. We are all the center of our own lives, and we all seek to have ourselves loved and validated. That is what our minds are doing, much of the time, and is what makes our minds our own. What the microaggressed person is demanding is that they should be the center of our lives, and for us to seek validation for them.
The problem is that, in our time, all too often, the ideas that support our sense of being worthy of love are not antecedent ideas that we have lived up to, but rather ideas that support who we think we are, without regard to what we have done. The narcissistic premise of the pristine self comes first, and validates whatever ideas it appropriates to support itself.
After early childhood, there are no pristine selves, but in our time the expectation has developed that we should be treated that way; the pristine self has become normalized. That is why accusations of microaggression have arisen in our time, and not before. It is a dangerous trend: the normalization of the pristine self poses a serious threat to the basic structure of society.
I say this as a student of organizations. Organizations must be structured based on ideas that can apply to everyone, which is in direct contradiction to the normalization of the pristine self. Some of our most prescient writers have offered the observation that society is coming apart. This analysis suggests that they are correct.
Why the idea of the pristine self has become normal in our time, and how race and the various other marginalia fit into this, are matters I explore in Political Correctness and the Destruction of Social Order to be published this summer by Palgrave Macmillan. Watch for it.
Sue, Derald Wing (2010) Microaggression in Everyday Life: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation. New York: Wiley
Howard S. Schwartz is a professor emeritus of organizational behavior at Oakland University. His previous works on the psychodynamics of political correctness includeRevolt of the Primitive: An Inquiry into the Roots of Political Correctness (2003, Transaction publishers) and Society Against Itself: Political Correctness and Organizational Self-Destruction (2010, Karnac). He lives now in Jackson Heights, NY.Legal Insurrection previously posted his work Psychoanalyzing The Great Oberlin College Racism Hoax of 2013.
[An earlier version of this article ran at the National Association of Scholars]
[Featured Image credit: Kiyun Kim]