Micro Aggression and Victimhood

It seems that no matter what opinion we express, someone will become exceedingly fierce and take it as a personal attack.  The term micro aggression is becoming commonplace and is devaluing true aggressive behavior and speech.  When did we, as a society, lose our ability to value other thoughts, perceptions, viewpoints, and opinions?  When did we lose the ability and desire to value the refining of truth through the debate of other ideas and perceptions?  When did it become traumatizing for people to have opinions that differ from ours?

Micro aggression is a term created by a psychiatrist at Harvard University in 1970 to describe insults and dismissals he witnessed non-black Americans inflict on Black Americans.  In 1973, an MIT economist, Mary Rowe, used the term to describe similar aggressions directed at women and other minorities.  (Yes, I’m a nerd and my minor was sociology. J)  It’s been used to help better understand the reality of many marginalized peoples such as those suffering from severe mental illness.  There is a legitimate time and place for this term; however, simply seeing a name of a political candidate or hearing a person espouse a different point of view is not one of those and dilutes the value of the term and devalues the claims of those who are true victims.

Victimhood culture has now been identified as a widening phenomenon by mainstream sociologists.  It’s becoming more and more difficult to ignore the obvious examples all around us.  We can laugh some off such as the argument that the design of a Starbucks cup is evidence of a secular war against Christmas.  Others, however, appear much more portentous.  On college campuses, activists are interpreting ordinary interactions as micro aggressions and have set up safe spaces to protect students from certain forms of speech.  And presidential candidates of both major parties are motivating supporters by declaring that they are under attack by immigrants or wealthy people.  Such a wide and diluted use of victimhood makes it so much more difficult for us to resolve political and social conflicts.  It feeds a mentality that rids us of a necessary give and take – the very concept of a good faith disagreement – turning every disagreement into a battle between good and evil.

There was a study in 2014 by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences which examined why opposing groups, such as Democrats and Republicans, found compromise so difficult.  The researchers concluded that there was a widespread political “motive attribution asymmetry,” in which both sides attributed their own group’s aggressive behavior to love, but the opposite sides’ to hatred.   Millions of Americans believe that their political side is basically benevolent while the other side is out to get them.

Victimhood makes for bad citizens of a society – people who are less helpful, more entitled, and more selfish.  In 2010, the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology published an article entitled “Victim Entitlement to Behave Selfishly.”   Four sociologists randomly assigned 104 people to  two different groups.  Members of one group were asked to write a short essay about a time when they were very bored.  The other group was asked to write about a time in their life that seemed unfair  – perhaps they were wronged or slighted by someone.  After writing the essays, each person was interviewed and asked if they wanted to help the sociologists in a simple task.  Those who wrote the essays about being wrong were 26% less likely to help the researchers and we rated by the researchers as feeling 13% more entitled.  In a separate experiment, the researchers found that members of the unfairness group were 11% more likely to express selfish attitudes – even to being more likely than the non-victims to leave trash behind and to steal the researchers’ pens.  Is this what we desire for our children and grandchildren?  Is this the character we wish to develop in our society?

I’m certainly not advocating for rejecting all claims that people are victims.  As a therapist with a lot of training and experience working with true victims, I can attest that there are people who are indeed victims and who have been traumatized.  We should extend all the empathy we can muster and demand justice.  We should also be careful to not water down our definition of what defines trauma and victimhood.  We should also be careful not to dilute the meaning of a term like micro aggression.  There is a line between advocating for true victims of aggressions and micro aggressions and promoting a culture of victimhood.  But how do we know where that line is?

I would suggest that first we look at free speech.  Victims and their advocates always rely on free speech to articulate unpopular truths.  They rely on free speech to assert their right to speak.  Victimhood culture, on the other hand, generally seeks to restrict free expression of speech in order to protect the sensibilities of its advocates.  Victimhood culture claims the right to say who is and who is not allowed to speak.

Then look at a movement’s leadership.  The fight for true victims is led by aspirational leaders who challenge us to cultivate higher values.  They insist that everyone is capable of earned success.  They speak of visions of human dignity.  But the organizations and people who move to positions of leadership in a victimhood culture are very different.  Some set themselves up as saviors; others focus on a common enemy.  In every case though, they treat people less as individuals and more as aggrieved masses.

In making everyone a victim, no one can truly be a victim.  In defining all things we find unpleasant as aggressive behavior, truly aggressive behavior can no longer be acknowledged.   In redefining and expanding the definition of a phrase designed to aid people who are marginalized, we can no longer speak of true marginalization.  Let’s agree to disagree.  Let’s agree to recognize that we have a right to our own opinions, views, and thoughts.  Let’s agree that the first amendment to our constitution affords us the right to free speech and also for our neighbors who hold a different point of view.  Let’s consider debate and articulate disagreements can refine truth and might help us grow as individuals.  Being a little less egocentric and a little less thin skinned would not hurt our society.  Who knows?  You might learn something.


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