The Moral Psychology of Microaggressions

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has an engrossing outline of a fairly new study on what are known as microaggressions. The study examines our transition into a moral culture of victimhood. The 18th and 19th centuries saw a shift from cultures of honor to cultures of dignity. Honor-based cultures tend to lack strong legal authority and institutions, thus socializing individuals to rely on their own bravery and capabilities to avenge insults and consequently earn honorable reputations. Dignity-based cultures see the worth of individuals as inherent rather than bestowed by public opinion. This moral paradigm is reinforced by the reliance on third parties (i.e., police or courts) for egregious offenses, though frivolous use of authority is often condemned and a general “thick-skinned” approach to insult is the standard. This emerging culture of victimhood combines the sensitivity to insult of honor-based cultures with the reliance on third parties from dignity-based cultures. Sympathy is preferred to honor and victimization is emphasized rather than inner strength and worth. The status of the “virtuous victim” has risen to the point of creating competition for the coveted title of most oppressed. This leads to the reporting (and fabrication) of slight offenses toward marginalized groups (i.e., microaggressions). Yet, this publicizing of microaggressions often takes place in already highly egalitarian, diverse, and affluent pockets of society with strong administrative bodies (such as university campuses). As progress is made toward increased equality and diversity, the standard for offense paradoxically drops. In other words, the richest, most equal, most diverse societies in the world will make the loudest denunciations for the smallest possible offense (whether actual or not).

It’s an absolutely fascinating read and an incredible insight into our current culture.

2 thoughts on “The Moral Psychology of Microaggressions”

  1. Stumbled upon this today, and it couldn’t be more relevant: The struggle to be taken seriously in the age of subtle sexism. Reading the article, it sounds like the real problem is not a struggle to be taken seriously, but a struggle to wring every lost possible drop of victim status out of events that range from very minor sexism to non-existent sexism.

    Case of the non-existent sexism in point :

    I call home. I tell my dad I’m starting a nonprofit that redistributes collegiate athletic shoes. “Is that so?” he asks with a confused inflection. “Isn’t that a bit much?”

    He means well.

    That’s it. That’s the entire incident. There is absolutely nothing whatsoever related to her gender or anyone else’s gender in that exchange. We are giving to believe, I presume, that she knows her dad well enough to know that what her dad meant was, “Isn’t that a bit much for a girl?”

    I don’t know her relationship with her dad. Maybe he is a raving chauvinist. But the fact that she thinks such an utterly, completely, totally inoffensive exchange (as least as far as the actual words go) is somehow evidence of dire sexism is some weird mixture of humorous and tragic.

    Somehow, this sexist treatment from her own dad blends in with her insecurity:

    I fight others every single day to be taken seriously. But at night, I fight off my own insecurity that I cannot make a difference because of how others perceive me. Sometimes, I do this in vain.

    I’m sorry she struggles against her own insecurity in vain (is that internalized sexism?), but I can’t but think that with her sensitivity meter turned to 11, she is basically giving herself zero chance to move beyond what–by all appearances–appear to be obstacles of an utterly mundane and every-day nature.

  2. “Blake Dodge of Beaufort is a sociology and economics major at UNC-Chapel Hill.”

    Shouldn’t that lead to, like, self-implosion? Isn’t sociology and economics coming together like matter and anti-matter meeting?

    I have nothing actually useful to contribute here :D

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