Saturday, September 19, 2015


Only the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner fostered by the dictates of conforming to a belief that language and practices which could offend political sensibilities (as in matters of sex or race) should be eliminated can help us productively encounter difference.
Simba Runyowa "Microaggressions Matter"
No... not really. What Mr. Runyowa actually said was: "Only the empathy fostered by the dictates of political correctness can help us productively encounter difference." But it struck me as odd to say that political correctness fosters empathy so I wanted to unpack it a bit and replaced the words with their dictionary definitions. As I expected, when unrolled, it still seemed off.

Consider the following - for much of American history, for a Black person to say or do anything that offended the political sensibilities of Whites was punishable, even considered worthy of public torture and execution. It doesn't strike me as too much of a stretch to presume that many Whites were keen to eliminate language and practices that offended their sensibilities. I don't think that this promoted the growth and development Black Americans understanding and vicariously experiencing the feelings thoughts and experiences of White Americans without those things being explicitly communicated. It did, however, foster a profound sensitivity to the way White people thought of Blacks. But not in a way that we consider positive today.

And, as I see it, this is part of the problem with the modern focus on the idea of microaggressions, in that it presumes that things are different enough that something that was a dismal failure in the past will work in the present, simply because the people driving it are of good intent. Now, this isn't to say that nothing has changed. It's entirely possible that we can Newspeak our way into removing the concept that "You're Different, and That's Bad" from public discourse, despite the fates of other attempts to control thought by controlling speech. Just that it takes more than the understanding that this time, it's being done for the right reasons.

When I was growing up, my parents and grandparents generations instilled in me that I needed to be careful in dealing with White people. Not because they were people just like myself who had a right to understand themselves as being just as human as I, but because they could be capricious, arbitrary and, worst of all, brittle, and you couldn't be sure what you might say that would be taken as an insult - with nasty consequences (although nowhere nearly as nasty as they had once been - my father could tell lynching stories that would keep you up at night). Today, the power to enact extrajudicial execution as recompense for a perceived slight is considered a relic of the bad old days. But because a microaggression is in the eye (or ear) of the beholder, people who genuinely wish to be inoffensive are in a quandary - and they're coming to see many non-Whites as capricious, arbitrary and, worst of all, brittle, because they couldn't be sure what they might say that would be taken as an insult - and punishable by a public shaming.* And that sensitivity leads them to withdraw from conversations touching on political sensibilities (as in matters of sex or race) because they can't consistently gauge what the response might be, and they are emphatically told that their own experiences are of no help.

In the end, the current experiment with creating a more equal society by encouraging those who are perceived as "privileged" to be more vigilant about "in interacting with those whose lived experiences are different than [their] own" is likely to fail, if only because the inherently subjective nature of microaggressions makes it difficult to impossible to know what to look out for.

Intent is often difficult to suss out - it's difficult to impossible to understand what other person is thinking or feeling. But defining words and actions as fundamentally inappropriate and offensive due the impact on the audience (and the perception by that audience of the power of the speaker) simply shifts the burden of understanding another person's feelings, thoughts, and experiences from the audience to the speaker. It doesn't help the speaker understand the feelings of alienation, exclusion or unwelcomeness that might be generated. (Especially when the audience categorically maintains that such understanding is simply impossible for the speaker to ever reach.) And so if that's the goal, I suspect that we have yet to find our path there.

* As an aside, I've encountered more often than seems to make any sense, the idea that today's public shamings are the equivalent of yesterday's lynchings. While public shaming can have serious consequences, the human capacity for re-invention offers mitigation, at least some of the time. I have yet to meet anyone who has re-invented themselves back from the dead.

P.S.: There is also a reading of Mr. Runyowa's statement that says that only political correctness produces the particular sort of empathy needed to "productively encounter difference." That seems to be a stretch, so I left it alone.

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