The Problem with MicroAggression, with Regina Rini


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“Microaggressions are so hard because they typically don’t meet traditional philosophical conceptions of blameworthiness…”

Microaggressions are the latest front in the culture wars - seemingly harmless comments such as “yes, but where are you really from…” or misused pronouns, over time, can cause profound damage to the receiver. But the idea of cautioning an act so seemingly harmless feels like thought-policing.

In her book The Ethics of Microaggression, Regina Rini defines a MicroAggression as “an act or event that is perceived by a member of an oppressed group as possibly but not certainly instantiating oppression.”

There’s a lot to unpack here, and a lot to trigger both Right and Centre, since it tells us the aggression is in the eye of the beholder. Microaggressions can’t be ‘judged’ from the outside, they can only be heard.

To many, that feels intuitively dangerous: old school totalitarianism could see you hauled off for ideas other might suspect you of having; with MicroAggressions, one might be hauled off for ideas someone else could have based on your suspected intent.

Rini explains the philosophical misunderstanding at the heart of the war around microaggression: the huge mismatch between the Harm Felt and the Blame Attributable.

Minute acts of indignity can add up to systemic violence and have profound real-world consequences for their victims, but how do you blame the often unconscious perpetrator for an act so ‘micro’?

Listen to Regina and Turi discuss:

  • Why MicroAggressions have become such a cause celebre in the Culture Wars
  • MicroAggression and the threat to freedom of speech
  • The history of the idea to Chester Pierce in the 1970s.
  • The problem of Collective Harm vs Individual Blame
  • How the idea of MicroAggression is woven into thinking about systemic inequality.
“We’re suffering from an inability to hold two thoughts in our heads the the same time… First, MicroAggressions add up to real and serious harm in the lives of marginalised people. Second, most MicroAggressions are NOT the sort of the thing we can easily blame people for”

Works Cited include:

Regina Rini

Regina Rini holds the Canada Research Chair in Philosophy of Moral and Social Cognition at York University in Toronto. Prior to that, she taught at NYU’s centre of bioethics. She writes a regular philosophy column for the TLS.

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