The term “microaggression” has come into common use of late to describe any personal interaction that has the effect of suppressing the full and equal participation in civil society of a member of an oppressed group. The mechanism of the suppression varies widely, but the usage of the term is generally meant to cover any such suppressive incident no matter what the mechanism of its action.
Some suppressive mechanisms involve suppressive intent on the part of the suppressive actor. Some do not. Some of those that involve intent also require intent. Some do not.
Common accepted usage of the term “aggression,” when applied to the act of an individual person, imputes intent to dominate. To stretch that usage to cover actions not intended to dominate, but which result nonetheless in domination, is to strain the term beyond intelligibility.
When used on an institutional macro-level, however, the common usage of the term “aggression” already covers cases where there is no clear intent on the part of the aggressive institutional actor. This is because imputing intent to a social aggregate requires anthropomorphizing the aggregate. To say, for example, that an angry mob had a mind of its own is not really to say that the brains of the individuals in the mob became biologically connected into a single sentient organism, but rather, to say that the individuals in the mob acted in concert temporarily as if they were a single body acting with singular intent, even though they were never actually that at all. The so-called intent of the mob is a fiction. Yet no one would disagree that the mob acted aggressively.
So actual intent is not required for all acts of aggression, but the exception is only in aggregate action. There is no such thing as unintentional aggression by an individual person. There is, however, unintended harm caused by individual acts, be they aggressive or non-aggressive, and some of that harm may be deemed negligent irregardless of the presence of either individual intent or aggression in the action.
In the case of mob violence, of course, the fictive intent of the mob as an aggregate actor generally coincides to a large degree with the actual intent of each individual member who participates in the violence. But to say that each individual in the mob acted with one and the same intent is to generalize rather grossly over the particular motivations of each individual, which can be quite strikingly different for each person in the mob, despite the appearance of single-mindedness to an observer of the mob action. In fact, the scariest thing about mob action is precisely that its apparent aims, and its destructive accomplishments, can diverge quite markedly, particularly in terms of the extent of its destruction or harm, from the actual intent of any of its participants.
The express intent of mob action can be quite terrifying in and of itself, of course, but what particularly distinguishes mob violence from individual violence is the extent and nature of its unintended consequences, unintended by the individual participants in the mob, that is to say. The full destructive consequences of mob action, of course, may well be fully intended by an individual who incites it. But the harmful consequences often exceed and diverge from what even those who have incited it ever intended.
The macrodynamics of oppression are often far more subtle than mob violence, but I focus on physical mob violence precisely because it is the most bluntly similar to individual violence of any kind of institutional oppressive aggression. I mean to show that the term “microaggression” greatly mischaracterizes the nature of even an individual’s participation in physical mob violence, and in so doing also to show that it even more greatly mischaracterizes an inividual’s participation in all the more subtle forms of collective policing of implicit and persistent social hierarchy.
So even if all the dominating actions we are calling “microaggressions” are intentional in the way mob violence is intentional, it is still inaccurate to identify each individual actor’s action in that mob as simply being a micro-instance of the same aggression that the mob violence constitutes as a whole. Mob violence is more than the sum of its parts, both in its intent and in its impact. Usually it is far more sinister and malicious in its intent, and far more destructive and harmful in its impact, than the sum of its parts.
So to label the constituent actions of mob violence as “microaggression” is actually to underestimate both the dominating intent and the dominating impact of each constituent action’s ultimate contribution to the mob violence as a whole. There is an exponential effect that the term “microaggression” does not sufficiently implicate. The term suggests an additive mechanism, and it thus invites misunderstanding of our intent in describing the actions we speak of as “aggressive” acts.
When we call the individual constitutive acts of collective dominance “microaggressions” we are pretty much guaranteed by the common understanding and generally accepted meaning of the prefix “micro-” to be taken to mean that those acts are mini versions of the whole fabric they constitute. They are these little aggressions that add up to the overwhelming aggressive dominant phenomenon we are complaining about.
This miscommunication generally results in one of two reactions by the alleged “microaggressors.” One reaction is to estimate the harm done by the single instance of “microaggression” and multiply it by some estimate of how often it is likely to occur. We’ve all had this discussion, haven’t we? The alleged microaggressor pretty quickly calculates that such minor slights can never add up to the sort of overwhelming barrier to the exercise of civil rights that we claim it amounts to. An argument then ensues over the incidence, prevalence and average severity of these “microaggressions.” Sometimes, really far too often for our own good, we actually manage to muster enough impassioned hand-waving references to anectdotal and statistical evidence to convince our conversants that these “microaggressions” really do add up to almost a single-cause explanation of the stubbornly persistent differential in various measures of well-being and self-determination across lines of oppressed-group membership that we dutifully cite references to.
The problem is that the aggregate intent and impact of all these “microaggressions” truly does not add up to anything near the kind of overall institutional obstruction that it would take to block the majority of the population who belongs to oppressed groups from taking quick and decisive concerted action to end our oppression, if that were all that actually stood in our way.
Most members of the dominant WASP category in the U.S. know that their ancestors fled religious persecution in their mother countries in Europe. Those of us not in those groups certainly know. We learned about their ancestors ad nauseum throughout our schooling. But for them it is personal. It’s about mom and dad and grandma and grandpa. They know how indefatigable human beings will be in striving for freedom, justice and non-subordination. This is even more true of non-Protestant whites whose ancestors, and in many cases even today they themselves, much more recently fled persecution in other countries and struggled against fierce discrimination here in the U.S. to achieve the relative condition of social equality we refer to as their “white privilege.”
It is no insult to us or diminution of us at all — in fact it is high praise and recognition of our full personal equality to them — when these alleged microaggressors laugh and tell us it’s absurd for us to think that the sum total of these so-called microaggressions could possibly be preventing us from taking advantage of the equal seat at the table they see lying there unoccupied right before us, waiting for us to sit down in it.
If understanding and alliance to end oppression are truly our aim, and not self-congratulatory confirmation of our victimhood, then we ought to name our oppression more accurately. We need to call each constitutive act within the on-going deployment, maintenance and upgrade of the complex machinery of self-perpetuating institutionalized social hierarchy what it is, not microaggression, but macroaggression, intentional and malicious macroaggression, directed not by individuals against individuals, but by dominant social groups against dominated social groups. Each act constitutive of maintaining, repairing, fine-tuning, feeding and caring for the persistence and exacerbation of longstanding social hierarchies is an intentional act of macroaggression. The intent does not exist at the individual level for the vast majority of these acts, and where the individual intent does exist it is never identical to the group intent, but the group intent is always there in each and every one of those acts nonetheless. The group intent is simply to maintain its elbow room at the crowded table of our democracy.
I have called this group intent sinister and malicious. Yet by characterizing it as merely wanting to maintain a hard-won seat at the table, am I not contradicting myself? Isn’t that intent almost beatifically benign? My answer is, that depends entirely on what the group has done and is doing, and is planning to do, to act upon that intent.
By correctly naming the constituent acts of self-sustaining social stratification “macroaggression” instead of misnaming them “microaggression” we can direct conversations about those acts towards complex systemic analysis and strategic action against the machinery of oppression, instead of towards simplistic imperatives to engage in mutual policing of insensitive thought, speech and social engagement. Macroaggressive maintenance of social hierarchy will simply morph into more and more individually indetectable forms if we train its minions to refrain from acting on its underlying group intent in ways that make members of subordinated groups feel discouraged from participation.
There are many many ways to exclude groups of people that do not require causing those people to feel discouraged from participating. The most effective exclusions, in fact, greatly encourage them to participate and contribute all they are able, accept their contributions heartily, then leave them out in the cold when it comes time to reap the full benefit of their work. Discouraging individual participation by inducing anxiety is just one way, and really one of the weakest and least profitably and efficiently labor-extracting ways, that in-groups maintain their parasitic dominance over the groups they marginalize and control. Eliminating that technique from the repertoire of the oppressor’s toolkit will not lessen the oppression in the least. In fact, it will only make it more difficult to raise consciousness among the oppressed to recognize the existence, nature, extent and actual wrongness of their subordinated condition during its extraction phase, prior to its disposal phase.
So let’s stop complaining about the oppressor groups’ elbows as if the boniness of their elbowing of us is the cause of our difficulty getting a seat at the table. Let’s stop seeking for some overarching authority to arrive and teach them proper manners, and to punish them for not acting gentile. Let’s just elbow them back and force them to make room for us, but let’s not mistake them for our enemies.
Our enemies are not the privileged groups sitting in the chairs. It’s their chairs. Let’s kick ferociously at the legs of their chairs until we’re firmly crowded into the ever-tightening circle of the table of our republic. Every group should be standing or in its wheelchair at that table, ready to shift and move as a truly socially fluid society requires.