Posts tagged ‘Microaggressions’

Mizzou, Truth, and What Pleases Us

Credit: David Eulitt/Kansas City Star/TNS via Getty Images

Credit: David Eulitt/Kansas City Star/TNS via Getty Images

Last month’s heavily publicized protests at the University of Missouri are tragic for several reasons. The racist slur that ignited them is tragic. The fumbled response of the University President is tragic. The threats from a member of Mizzou’s Department of Communication toward the media, calling for “some muscle” when an ESPN reporter was trying to cover the student protests, is tragic. But so is the response of the students. Their protests quickly spun out of control – moving from a specific instance of racism to outrage over everything from systemic racism to sexism to patriarchy. When others with differing viewpoints tried to engage Mizzou’s students on these important issues, the students blew up.

What happened at Mizzou has revealed just how incapable some college students are of having a conversation with someone with whom they disagree. Or, to put it a little less charitably, perhaps these students aren’t so much incapable as they are intransigent. It could be, I suppose, that they simply refuse to listen to viewpoints that differ from theirs. Indeed, the now famous student “safe spaces” are unapologetically touted as places of refuge where students can flee from any idea that triggers in them any sort of emotional distress. In fairness, it should be noted, as The Wall Street Journal rightly points out, that safe spaces are not just cloisters for the thin-skinned:

All of us seek “safety” from genuinely rancid views – how many of us would stay at a party where someone dominated the conversation with overtly racist bloviations? These students have merely overextended the bounds of the conclusively intolerable.[1]

It is true that there are some fools whose foolish viewpoints do not need to be answered according to their folly. The problem is not that students refuse to engage with a particularly rancid viewpoint. The problem is that some students refuse to engage with almost any viewpoint that does not mirror and mimic their own. Even a mildly disagreeable viewpoint, to some students, is an aggressively hostile and morally repugnant viewpoint.

Mizzou’s riots have brought to the forefront a hard reality.  For many people, it no longer matters in any significant degree whether someone who has a viewpoint that opposes their viewpoint has a point. Categories like logic, truth, and prudence – particularly on moral and ethical issues – have been shuffled into the sunset as quaintly archaic interests. What matters most now is how someone’s viewpoint makes someone else feel. And if someone’s viewpoint makes someone else feel threatened, even if, according to the aforementioned categories, the point should be well taken, it is rejected out of hand. Philip Rieff proved to be quite prophetic when he wrote in 1966, “Religious man was born to be saved; psychological man is born to be pleased.”[2] What matters is not whether something is true. What matters is whether people are pleased by it.

It’s not just college students who have fallen prey to this therapeutic bias.  In 2011, Susanna Dilliplane published an article in the Public Opinion Quarterly titled, “All the News You Want to Hear: The Impact of Partisan News Exposure on Political Participation,” where she laments how more and more Americans get their news only from outlets that share their own political views. It turns out that adults have their own “safe spaces” in the forms of cable news channels, Internet sites, and newspapers.

Even the media itself can fail to listen to viewpoints that differ from its editors. A recent article in The Economist asked, “Can porn be good for us?” Several contributors debated the question, almost all of whom accepted the premise that porn can indeed be good for us, a position which The Economist, if its own editorials are to be believed, seems to share. The debate was presented, at least implicitly, as closed. “Porn can be good for us.” But then The Economist posed the question to its readers. 80% disagreed with the newspaper. In one particularly tragic comment, a reader wrote:

Dear Madam,

Can porn be good for us? NO!! My husband has been trapped for forty years now. He stole “our” sex life used it all up for himself.[3]

The Economist thought the answer to its question was obvious. As it turned out, the editors spent too much time listening to themselves and not enough time listening to their readers. They got duped by their own sexually licentious safe space.

It’s time we begin to ask ourselves some hard questions. Have we become a people completely unwilling and unable to listen to those with whom we disagree? Have we become so impervious to arguments that threaten our worldviews that, even if they contain truth, we cannot concede that someone else who does not agree with us on many things may, in fact, have a point on at least one thing?  Have we blithely rejected Patrick Henry’s famed statement – “For my part, whatever anguish of spirit it may cost, I am willing to know the whole truth; to know the worst, and to provide for it”[4] – preferring to believe lies that make us feel good instead of confronting truths that unsettle us?  Have we become so proud that we can no longer consider and humbly admit that some of what we say and think may, in fact, be just plain wrong, or at least incomplete?

Whether we are students on a college campus or adults with a daily dose of news or a news outlet with a suspiciously stilted question for debate, we seem to have become much less interested in informing ourselves with rigorous analysis and much more prone to amusing ourselves with tendentious pontificating. I fear, however, that we may be doing a little more than, to borrow a book title from Neil Postman, “amusing ourselves to death.”[5]

___________________________

[1] John H. McWhorter, “Closed Minds on Campus,” The Wall Street Journal (11.27.2015).

[2] Philip Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith After Freud (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1987), 24-25.

[3]Online Pornography: Can porn be good for us?The Economist (11.17.2015-11.27.2015).

[4] Patrick Henry, “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death!” (Richmond, VA: St. John’s Church, 3.23.1775).

[5] Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York: Penguin Books, 1985).

December 14, 2015 at 5:15 am 2 comments

Honor, Dignity, Victimization, and Power

Credit: Franck Prevel/Getty Images

Credit: Franck Prevel/Getty Images

It doesn’t take much to offend people these days. Sometimes, it doesn’t take anything at all. This is what Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning argue in their paper, “Microaggression and Moral Cultures.”

Campbell and Manning cull their definition of what constitutes a microaggression from Derald Wing Sue, professor of counseling psychology at Columbia University. Microaggressions are:

The brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial, gender, and sexual orientation, and religious slights and insults to the target person or group.[1]

Two things are especially notable in Wing Sue’s definition. First, microaggressions can be either “intentional or unintentional.” What counts is not what a sender intends, but what a receiver perceives.  Second, words like “indignities,” “hostile,” and “derogatory” in Wing Sue’s definition cast microaggressions in a vocabulary of victimization.  Microaggressions, no matter how pint-sized they may seem, are really part of a broader caste system that relentlessly oppresses certain groups of people.  The cry of those who perceive themselves as having been microaggressed, then, is really the cry of those who have been systemically victimized by this system and its cultural and socioeconomic assumptions.

Interestingly, Campbell and Manning argue that, for all the complaining that the microaggressed may do about being victimized, our newfound concern with microaggressions actually encourages a culture of victimization rather than discouraging it:

Victimization [is] a way of attracting sympathy, so rather than emphasize their strength or inner worth, the aggrieved emphasize their oppression and social marginalization … We might call this moral culture a culture of victimhood because the moral status of the victim … has risen to new heights.

In an article for the Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf cites one example of a blossoming culture of victimization in an exchange between two students at Oberlin College. In the exchange, a white student invites a Hispanic student to a game of fútbol who takes offense at the invitation, writing on an Oberlin blog devoted to calling out microaggressions:

Who said it was ok for you to say futbol? … White students appropriating the Spanish language, dropping it in when convenient, never ok. Keep my heritage language out your mouth![2]

A big blow up and a public shaming over a single word. Welcome to the world of microaggressions.

Of course, things were not always this way. Before there was a culture of victimization, Campbell and Manning point out that there was a culture or honor.  In this culture:

One must respond aggressively to insults, aggressions, and challenges or lose honor. Not to fight back is itself a kind of moral failing … Because insulting others helps establish one’s reputation for bravery, honorable people are verbally aggressive and quick to insult others.

After a culture of honor came a culture of dignity, where:

People are said to have dignity, a kind of inherent worth that cannot be alienated by others … Insults might provoke offense, but they no longer have the same importance as a way of establishing or destroying a reputation for bravery. It is commendable to have a “thick skin” that allows one to shrug off slights and even serious insults.

Though vestiges of these cultures of honor and dignity remain (compare Campbell and Manning’s definition of a culture of honor with some of the things Donald Trump has said in his presidential campaign and you’ll quickly realize that even though honor culture is on the decline, it is certainly not dead), they are quickly losing ground to a culture of victimization.

But why?

The answer seems to be “power.” Victimization, in our culture, can often be the fastest track to status and power, just as, in previous ages, honor and dignity were inroads to influence. For instance, in recent clashes over same-sex marriage, many in favor of the institution claim discrimination and victimization while many against same-sex marriage claim discrimination and victimization as well. Both groups hope that, by portraying themselves as aggrieved, oppressed, and victimized, they can engender sympathy and, ultimately, the upper hand in this debate. In other words, both sides are hoping to gain cultural capital, or power, by means of their own victimization.

Certainly, not all instances – indeed, not even most instances – of victimization represent grabs for power.  One thinks of those who are sexually assaulted or emotionally abused.  Such tragic examples of victimization have nothing to do with power.  Rather, they represent grave injustices and deserve our prayers, our sympathy, and our action.  But in cases of microaggressions and similar self-declared cries of victimization, for all their claims of powerlessness, they often turn out to be nothing more than cynical means of leveraging power.

It is here that we find that, for all of their differences, the cultural systems of honor, dignity, and victimization hold something in common: they are all means to an end of power. And this is where all of these systems run into trouble.

In His ministry, Jesus sometimes fought for honor, sometimes upheld human dignity, and sometimes embraced victimization. But His goal was not that of gaining power. When Jesus fought for honor, it was the honor of God Himself for which Jesus fought, refusing to allow the religious elites of His day to honor God with their lips while blaspheming Him in their hearts (cf. Matthew 15:8). When Jesus upheld dignity, it was the dignity of the ridiculed and marginalized He championed, like the time He rescued a woman caught in adultery from being stoned (cf. John 8:2-11). And when Jesus allowed Himself to be victimized on a cross, He did so not as a backdoor to power, but in order to ransom us from our sin (cf. Mark 10:45). Jesus, it turns out, picked up on elements from each of these cultures without endorsing the shared goal of all of these cultures. He used honor, dignity, and victimization as ways to love people rather than dominate them.

Like Jesus, His followers should feel free to fight for honor, uphold human dignity, and even see themselves, in some instances, as victimized. But none of these cultural constructs, in the economy of Christ, should be methodically used as mere means to power. Rather, they are to be used to love others.

So for whose honor will you fight? And whose dignity will you champion? And how can your victimization lead to someone else’s restoration? Rather than eschewing these cultural constructs altogether, let’s use them differently. Let’s use them for love.  For when we use these things for love, even if we do not gain power culturally, we exercise power spiritually.  And that’s a better kind of power anyway.

__________________________________________

[1] Bradley Campbell & Jason Manning, “Microaggression and Moral Cultures,” Comparative Psychology 13 (2014): 692-726.

[2] Conor Friedersdorf, “The Rise of Victimhood Culture,” The Atlantic (9.11.2015).

October 5, 2015 at 5:15 am 1 comment


Follow Zach

Enter your email address to subscribe to Pastor Zach's blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 2,137 other followers

%d bloggers like this: