Transcript: The Problem with MicroAggression with Regina Rini

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Turi: Today, we’re thrilled to be talking to Regina Rini. Regina holds the Canada research chair in philosophy of moral and social cognition at York university in Toronto. Prior to that, she taught at NYU center of bioethics. She writes a regular philosophy column for the times literary supplement. And she’s the author of the ethics of microaggression, which we’ll be discussing today. Regina, thank you so much for joining us

Regina Rini: all. Thank you so much for having me here. It’s great to do this.

Turi: So let’s kick off at the beginning. Um, I feel that micro-aggression suffers a little bit from the fact that lots of people don’t really believe in microaggressions. Can you, can you help us understand what they are as a starting point?

Regina Rini: Sure. So the idea of a microaggression is that it’s a small act of insult or indignity. That by itself, wouldn’t be a big deal. Might not even be noticeable, except that it’s part of a pattern. It’s part of a systemic pattern of similar insults or indignities that target certain sorts of people. So it’s easiest to get this.

If you have an example in mind, one of the classic standard examples is the following I’m here in Toronto. Suppose that a person of East Asian background here in Toronto is asked by somebody else, where are you from? And they reply I’m from Calgary. And the person’s asking the question says, no, no. Where are you really from? Right. The implication of the question is you can’t really be from Calgary because you’re not white. You need to be from somewhere else, East Asia, presumably. And the question, the point of the question was finding out where are you at? Where’s your family from? And again, by itself, this one instance, isn’t that big a deal.

In fact, I’ve, I’ve, I’ve heard from some people of color, uh, who enjoy getting this question. They say, I, I. I like getting a chance to talk about my family. So by itself, one instance might not be that big a deal, but for some people, the repeated pattern, the selectivity of this kind of question that people, the white people don’t get asked, where are you really? From when they say Calgary, whereas people of color, get that question. That’s a systemic pattern. Let me give you one more example. And that has to do with this suppose you’re driving in a large city and you’re, you’re at a stoplight and a couple of young black men walk by on the passenger side. And without even thinking about it, you hit the lock button on the car door.

You don’t even plan it. You don’t evaluate it. You just do it by instinct. And the young black men is here, the click of the locks, and they look at you and it’s clear. They. Here that you were thinking about them at least implicitly as a threat, even though they did nothing to you. And they were just walking by again by itself, one time that doesn’t sound like that big a deal.

But if you’re a member of a marginalized community, who’s regularly targeted with lots and lots of similar small incidents, it starts to add up over time. So the basic idea of a microaggression is it’s an act like that that’s small on its own, but in a systemic pattern, it starts to cause long-term harm and disrespect.

Turi: That makes lots of sense. Thanks. There’s it does it. There’s a couple of key pieces, but that’s perhaps focused on two. One is the fact that, um, I think I’ve heard people use the term microaggression to describe sort of simple sort of minor acts of nastiness, sort of like passive aggression or, you know, being slightly snarky.

Um, I think your point is that, um, it’s, it’s absolutely not that these are, these are acts of, of. Of aggression of one form or another that, um, verbal non-verbal environmental, um, that a, they form part of a pattern and B they can, in a sense only be targeted. They can only be experienced by minorities or people or the oppressed. Is that, is that right?

Regina Rini: Yeah. That’s right. So the idea is that, um, that of course anybody can experience small acts of rudeness. Um, th no one’s denying that it’s possible, but the idea is to reserve the term microaggression for the particular type of small acts of rudeness that are experienced by members of marginalized groups.

And so let me give a couple of reasons for doing that. One is just historical. That is how the term is defined. So people tend to think this term is kind of new. You might’ve only heard it in the last five, seven years. That’s true of me. I didn’t, I don’t think I’d ever heard the term until about five or seven years ago, but actually the term is 50 years old. The term was coined in 1970 by the Harvard psychiatrist, Chester Pierce. And he defined it at that time in 1970, in terms very close to what I just gave you. It is essential to the concept that it has to do with acts of indignity or disrespect that are targeted at marginalized people. He was particularly thinking about black people in the United States in the mid 20th century.

Uh, but generally the idea is. It has to be targeted at marginalized groups of people. So that’s historical reason. Now, of course we can change terms. It might be that we just, we decide that term was originally defined to be about marginalized people, but we could generalize it all acts of rudeness, but there’s a reason not to do that.

One is that. We lose track of something morally important. Right? So I, I, the reason why I stressed so much that this isn’t just single in random instances of rudeness, is that what makes these morally significant is that pattern that’s systemic pattern of the same people, the same types of people being repeatedly targeted with similar sorts of disrespect.

And if we redefine the term, if we cancel out its original definition and now just make it about any random act of rudeness, we use a word that tracks that morally significant category. And I think that would be a conceptual mistake. So I’m not going to get like mad at people who use it in this generic, any act of rudeness sense, but I think they are implicitly revising a term that was defined for particular reason.

And the revising it, I think more by accident than by intention. If we, if we’re thoughtful about it, I think we can see that there’s pretty good reason not to revise it.

Turi: Okay, so this is dynamics. I think here are the, a big pot, just for the sake of argument. I, the most, I think, I think white, straight. CIS men, as opposed to what I think you described in the book and sort of playing the easiest level of the game of flying, but can we get all the, we get all the advantages and that’s who I am.

Regina Rini: That’s John Scalzi, his term, not mine. He says, it’s the easiest difficulty setting on the game of life. Right.

Turi: Um, which is which, which is my, which is my setting. Um, If I’m thinking of it purely in systemic terms, one might say for example, that, um, uh, I, and people like me were brought up, for example, not to cry or to be strong, or to believe that, you know, Manliness was expressed in a particular kind of way, could one, what would be the value in excluding that notion of sort of systemic, uh, performance on, on, you know, the most privileged of all types? Namely me.

Regina Rini: Yeah, I that’s, I think that’s a fair question to ask. So, uh, this is, uh, uh, a topic that is. Somewhat unsettled in the philosophical literature on oppression, because it is true that some systems of oppression are also not so good for the apparent, uh, I don’t know, winners in the system. So like, like you mentioned, there are some forms of socialization that target straight white men that are constricting. A good example of that is to think about, um, in North American culture. Men who work as nurses, uh, increasingly common phenomenon, but sometimes report that they feel that they are regarded both in the nursing profession and also in the community. More generally as in some way, did not define norms or somehow, you know, they’re, there’s.

There’s a sense that that is not approved of by everybody. Um, and then less, less dramatically, like you said, just the general idea that men don’t cry, that sort of thing. Um, and so there are ways in which we apparent victors are winners in an oppressive system can also be constrained in other ways. Um, the reason though, to separate that out, I think is important, which is that the kinds of marginalization or oppression that we’re thinking about are pervasive.

They aren’t just in certain areas of life. It’s not just like if a man wants to be a nurse, he’s going to face this kind of targeting or if a man is caught crying in some circumstances, these are much more general in the sense that if you’re a person of color, if you’re queer, if you’re a woman, if you’re a Muslim, if you’re in true disabled, You’re likely to face much more pervasive discrimination in housing, in employment and educational opportunities and advancement of your career and your projects.

Um, and if for any people in their personal relationships with a love life, basically the thought is there. These well, the categories of marginalization that extend throughout your life across all different ways, you go out, interact with people, and that does seem more systemic and, and life constraining. And the particular forms of oppression, you’re talking about that target men. So that the key thing here is to, is to not deny that there can be harms with depression, everybody, including the seeming winners, but to also recognize, I think it’s important. There’s a categorical difference between that and the kind of thing that can result in the ability to find work or housing.

Turi: Fantastic. Yes. Um, so this is the core point that one cannot acknowledge or deal with the notion of a microaggression without also acknowledging and dealing with the idea of systemic or structural inequality. Is that right?

Regina Rini: That’s exactly right. Yes.

Turi: Gotcha. Um, there is a wonderful story, uh, that you described. It’s a difficult story, but, um, but it’s wonderful because it surfaces so many of the various different issues that I’d like us to talk about, which happens to the professor Derald wing. Sue. I just wondered whether you might be able to share that story with us because it’ll help us, um, sort of unwrap so many of the key, the key issues around microaggressions.

Regina Rini: Yeah, it’s a, it’s a very, um, clear story to you get at some of the core issues. So Derald wing. Sue is probably the foremost theorist of microaggression alive. Today. I mentioned before Chester Pierce created the concept Pierce passed away a few years ago. So Sue is probably the most prominent person today working on it.

He’s a psychologist at Columbia university in New York, and he writes in a research article to the story’s real true story. What happened to him? He was done in a small airplane flying between New York and Boston and he and a colleague, a colleague who is an African-American boarded, the plane together.

They sat down in the second row of seats and the smaller airplane. And then the flight attendant came through and said, we need to rebalance the weight on the plane. We need to spread out passengers and. And th and she asked him Daryl wingsuit and his colleague to move to the back row of the plane. And he said to her, you realize you’ve asked the only people of color on this plane to move to the back of the bus.

And she reacted very defensively. She said, I don’t know the exact quote, but she said something like, well, I’ve never been accused of that before. That’s certainly not what I was doing. Uh, and, and C points out that sitting right in front of him where some white men who could just as easily have moved, but she didn’t ask them instead.

And so he hears us this case. He talks about this case to get the idea of different perceptions in thinking about microaggression. The question here is, is what he perceived. The correct reality of what happened? Is it really the case as he described it as a theorist, he thinks that she was motivated by a kind of not implicit or non-conscious cognition.

She doesn’t know it, but she was motivated by some sense that people of color are. The comfort of people of color is less important than that of white people. And so if somebody got a move, let’s make the people of color, do it, not that she’s an overt racist, he doesn’t think that, but that she doesn’t realize that she’s implicitly prioritizing white people’s comfort over that of people of color. That of course is not her perception. Her perception is that she was just, she’d picked some people perhaps at random, um, It might’ve been for plausible reasons. Like the people in the second row were closer to the back of this small plane than the white people in the first round. And maybe that was the entire reason.

I don’t know. I wasn’t there and see it. Doesn’t tell us all the logistics, but the point is she perceives it as having some other explanation than implicit racial biases. Whereas he perceives it that way. And so this case is really hard. It shows us the difficulty of microaggression because multiple people involved in the same case can see it different ways.

Turi: It’s such an, it’s an, it’s an amazing story PR precisely for that point that obviously microaggression as you put it in your book is in a sense always in the eye of the beholder. And we’ll come to that in a second, but also because it also highlights. The, the importance of interpretation here. Um, you described a couple of other interpretations. So the first is that she’s, you know, explicitly racist and therefore assumes that it’s okay for people of color to sit at the back of the, of the, of the bosses. You say the second is that she’s implicitly and unconsciously racist and doing the same thing. The third is her argument, which is that. She just didn’t see what was going on.

I really loved your fourth, which was that there may have been another kind of bias at work, which is a woman nervous of the, sort of. Of the sexism of three powerful white besuited maybe slightly inebriated white men at the front of the plane, worried about the sexist response she might receive preferred to, um, prefer to ask too kindly looking academics to move to the back, uh, rather than, um, rather than be threatened by these other men. So you see all these various different sort of systemic layers of power at play here too.

Regina Rini: Yeah, that’s right. And I thought it was interesting that, you know what I was reading this, um, that was the explanation that occurred to me. So you didn’t fair enough. Didn’t didn’t occur to him, but that was what I thought.

If I imagined this flight attendant in her line of work, she’s probably used to dealing with men who don’t like being asked to do things being okay. Quote unquote, ordered by a woman to do things. Um, and that the picture we’ve been given is as these three white men wearing business suits in the front row who got on the plans the last minute, we’re not told this, but I can imagine they came from the airport bar.

And then here in the second row are these two academics. And I can just imagine her quickly doing the processing and thinking who is the least likely to give me trouble about being asked to move to the back of the plane. And she decided that the academic looking men in the second row were. Better to talk to you than the, uh, possibly inebriated suit where, and guys in the front row.

Um, and if that’s what’s going on, then the explanation, it does implicate some, a complicated pattern of structural injustice of oppression or marginalization targeted that hurt. But again, the tricky thing about this case is. Presumably, she wouldn’t be able to identify that consciously in the moment as the explanation of what’s happening. She may never recognize that’s what’s happening. And because, you know, she’s busy, she’s doing a job. She just have time to reflect on exactly why she’s doing what she’s doing. It might just be a protective instinct. She’s learned over years on the job to talk to that, to make this request and the people who look less likely to give her a trouble.

And so given all these explanations, given that we can’t really know which one is the correct description of reality, because we don’t have like some machine that lets us read the subconscious thoughts of this woman while she’s busy doing her job, that causes a real problem for ethical analysis.

Turi: So let’s jump straight into this because the story also allows us to unpack that piece, to hear what you have is somebody with two people who perceive a really quite brutal harm to them.

They’ve been asked as people of color to sit at the back of the bus with all the connotations implications echoes of that move. Um, so, uh, a real harm has been caused from the flight attendants perspective. She’s asked. Two people to move to the back, to rebalance the plane. And, um, because of their interpretation of that very, very simple request, she’s potentially in a position to be blamed for perhaps the worst social crime, um, that one can be accused of today, which is. Race racism. And here is what your book does. So very, very well is to split out the fact that as, as you put it, um, the problem with, with, with microaggression or the furory around it, isn’t a sense that. And I’m quoting you. We suffer from an inability to hold two thoughts in our heads at the same time. The first is that microaggressions add up to real and serious harm in the lives of marginalized people. And the second is that most microaggressions are not the sort of thing that we can easily blame people for that there’s this real disconnect between the harm caused and the blame attributable. Can you help us unravel all of this?

Regina Rini: Yeah. It’s I mean, it’s part of why I got so interested in this topic is that normally when we think about cases of harm being done, it’s pretty easy. If somebody gets a bit drunk at a pub and takes a swing at somebody else, it’s pretty easy to say, well, this person. It was mostly in control of themselves.

They mostly knew what they were doing and they intentionally attacked another person. And we know who gets blamed for that in most cases. But microaggressions are so hard because they typically don’t meet traditional philosophical, conceptions of blame worthiness. Would that be helpful point for me to introduce a couple of those?

Turi: Yes, please. That’d be lovely. Thank you.

Regina Rini: Sure. So there are two key points. Uh, this comes from centuries of philosophical thinking about what it makes someone more other blameworthy. One is that, you know what you’re doing and you’re in control of your action. And the other is that we can assign the cause of the action clear cause of the effect.

The cost of what happened. We can assign that clearly to you. So let me take those in turn. The first idea is you’re in control of yourself and you know what you’re doing, and the problem with microaggressions as we’ve already seen from the example on the airplane is that it’s not always clear people know what they’re doing or in control of themselves, even unserious perception of what happened that the flight attendant was motivated by unconscious racism. She’s not aware of that motivation. And she probably doesn’t have in the moment personal control or whether expresses herself. Well, it expresses itself in her actions. So even if Sue is right about what motivated her, it doesn’t look like she has full control over the, the, uh, effects of that motivation. And so that already is part of the problem of assigning blame. Even if Sue’s right, what’s going on, it’s not entirely clear. We can blame this woman for what she’s done. The second factor I mentioned is a little bit more esoteric, but if that, I think I can explain it fairly quickly and has to do with.

The harm that’s been caused because remember microaggressions aren’t bad, just because of the one incident. This was the only time in Derald wing Sue’s life that he felt that he’d been unreasonably targeted because of his ethnicity. It wouldn’t be that big a deal. It’s only because of the repeated pattern that this happens over and over and over again. And so. The harm is a result of the accumulation of lots of small harms. And we have a really hard time thinking about moral blame for that. The good analogy here is climate change, right? The harms of climate change can be quite severe when they cause serious flooding changes in temperatures, crop failures, but each of us contributes only tiny, tiny bits.

As an individual level, maybe some oil company executives are not so tiny, but most of us are constantly contributing tiny, tiny bits right now. You and I are using electricity to have this conversation. Presumably that’s fired by some municipal power plant that’s producing emissions. So we are contributing tiny little bits to that cumulative harm. And we have a really hard time assigning more responsibility for our tiny individual contributions to big collective harms. So to take that idea and return it to the case in the airplane. This is a small act. This one thing this woman has done by itself, it would have very little effects. It’s only in combination with many other small acts by many other people that adds up to a cumulative pattern of big harm to marginalized people.

So we have the same problem we did with climate change of saying, how do we assign blame for these tiny little fractional contributions to a big systemic problem? So now we’ve got both of those problems. Same problem with climate change, the fractional contribution and the problem with assigning responsibility for things people don’t quite know they’re doing or have full control of.

Turi: So you talk about the difference. I mean, you’re the chapter title, which, which looks at this in the book is, is you call collective harm versus individual blame, which sort of sums up a little bit what the number of this issue is, is it, is this where you think the furory the anger, the rage around the concept of microaggressions?

Come from I’m thinking of Jonathan height, the founder moral foundations theory. Um, who’s written a book on the coddling of the American mind, this, this theory around cancel culture, claims of nimbyism, et cetera, et cetera. Um, do you think, do you think it comes from this misunderstanding of, um, harm and blame and it’s attributional does it come from something else?

Regina Rini: Yeah, that’s a good question. So I think there are multiple sources of the, the difficulty, the social difficulties. Um, but you mentioned Heights for in particular. And I think you’re right that in the case of Jonathan height, um, and his coauthor, Greg, lucky enough, a lot of their concerns I think are due to a misunderstanding. They repeated the characterize microaggressions as just slights or rudeness, and they talk about it as, as the sort of thing people have to learn to deal with. Um, and I think that is just a lack of understanding that this is not just, like we said at the beginning, it’s not just ordinary random rudeness. It is targeted and systematic, and it affects certain people, not others in a systemic way. And to talk about it as they do to just ignore that systemic factor is I think to really miss both the harm, both the reason why we have to deal with microaggressions and make them not happen anymore. But also importantly, to miss the difficulty of assigning blame.

It’s actually, um, I kind of wish these authors people like heightened lucky enough appreciated this because to some extent, I think they have a point is just like mis-characterized. But the point is they’re treating this as a bunch of over-sensitive kids, not, uh, not putting into appropriate context. And this is just a minor, slight, what they’re missing is that the kids are the kids and it’s not just kids, of course, but that’s how they’re talking, um, that the people are, are, um, Are are correctly tracking, systemic, indignities and harms.

The problem is in how we assign responsibility, both work for backward looking assessments of who did wrong, but also for forward-looking decisions about how to fix it. And that’s really hard. And I don’t think we have, I don’t think I have a full answer to that either a little, the book, it partly addressing that.

And that, that difficulty, I think it’s important to address it directly and not obscure it with these. Less informative, less illuminating worries about, uh, that the kids getting over sensitive.

Turi: Yeah. So there’s key, key, key element that Jonathan height and Tolkien of talk, talk about in the coddling of the American mind, but I’ve seen argued by many friends of mine who work in academia, for example, which is a very rarefied space.

Let’s also be clear about, about it. It’s not it’s, there are very few social or, or workplace environments in which the idea of microaggressions really gets any play at all. So, um, that’s also recognize it for the, um, Uh, the rarity that it is, but there’s a sense that the, uh, the punishment for, uh, the act is disproportionate to, um, to, to the amount of blame that can be attributed.

I think, sorry, that’s a sort of unwieldy way of describing it, but back to the hostess being accused of racism on your, uh, on your job is instantly a fireable offense. Um, Okay, that one of the questions that you asked just now is how do we deal with, um, with something which causes over the longterm in a systemic way, a great deal of harm, but which it’s, it’s very difficult to apportion blame to the individual.

How do, how do we deal with that? Without having people terrified of being fired, fired from their jobs for potentially unconscious bias, um, but also taking it on the chin and realizing that there is an issue here.

Regina Rini: Yeah, I want to, that’s the big question. I want to answer it, but I also want to address something that you, you kind of snuck in as a presupposition of the question, which I think is a mistake.

You talked about academic environments as being rarefied and some of the critiques from people like, again off, et cetera, is to think of discussion on microaggressions and affectation of well-off college students, uh, or. And university folks and bureaucrats. Um, and I think that’s just a big mistake for one thing. A lot of the contemporary discussion on microaggression comes through activists. Some of whom might be well off, but many of them are not many of whom are people who are in day-to-day contact further. There is a, probably a reason why people like height in the gain off perceive this as a discussion coming from privileged groups. It’s because that’s who they talk to. Um, and that’s who has the social power to be able to communicate these points. It’s really important to remember that that, you know, places like, uh, uh, universities have strong protections for students and also favored often unionized faculty. That makes sense hard to bring down, um, discipline, retribution on people who point out systemic inequality. So did you, I, I should,

Turi: I should jump in because I actually meant it sort of the, in the opposite way. What I meant to suggest was that, um, the idea that microaggressions or th that the concept of microaggressions is throttling, uh, free inquiry, um, is I think an absurdity because. The very idea of microaggressions. So it doesn’t have that much purchase elsewhere. I sort of meant it in therefore in the opposite way. Not that a whole bunch of privileged students are, um, uh, complaining about something, which doesn’t really impact them sort of an affectation as a hype. Describe it, but so much as to say that that microaggression somehow has, this is the scourge of freedom of speech across all corners of, of, of, of this course, which of which, of course, it’s not very few people. We’ve been aware as you say of the time, it’s quite a new idea.

Regina Rini: Yeah. Okay. I, this is, this is, I think I jumped at the chance to attack a particular irritant of mine in this, this, uh, actually in the popular writing about this, especially like the Atlantic article that heightened the can off road.

Turi: Gotcha. Gotcha. Um, I’m flattered to be, to be a standard from, uh, the very brilliant John height to, um, But let’s perhaps talk therefore to, uh, to this question of free speech poly-A, as you know, is a civil discourse project. We’re trying to build an encyclopedia of opinion in the hope that we can help people bridge the gaps.

Um, so bridge the polarization bridge, the political divide, and therefore freedom of speech is super, super important to us. Um, we are believers in the marketplace of ideas and, um, not, not, not, um, Not on critical believers, but nevertheless, well sort of aspiring believers, perhaps. Um, you have a very careful and nuanced definition of microaggression, which runs.

If I may, as follows you describe microaggressions as an act or event that is perceived by a member of an oppressed group as possibly, but not certainly instantiating oppression. In other words, Microaggressions really are all in the eye of the beholder. And that throws up a bunch of problems, or it might appear to throw up a bunch of problems for free speech, because it sort of feels like thought police culture, but almost reversed in the days of the stars. Or you could be hold off for an idea that someone might have suspected you of holding. Whereas with your definition of the microaggression, it sort of allows the perpetrator. You sort of in question in quotation marks to be held off for a thought that someone else might suspect might be suspected of having had, if you see what I mean? So how does one, I should preface this by, by stating that I am a full, fully understand, um, the, the idea of systemic injustice, some are a hundred percent behind the idea that everyday culture reinforces that injustice, but yeah. How do you deal with that critique of, of, of the idea of microaggression.

Regina Rini: Yeah. So part of the big problem here is the assumption that, um, microaggressions are firing offenses, which is almost never true, actually. Um, the vast, I mean, I would, I can’t, I don’t know how to quantify this, but I would say upwards of 99% of all microaggressions, there are no consequences for the person who micro grasses.

In fact, it’s so small and quick that the person who is being marginalized person. Is destabilized and doesn’t have time to figure out how to handle it and they just let it go. Um, and so, yeah. It just almost all microaggressions, never get any reaction at all. Even those that do tend to lead to at maximum something like an apology. Uh, the, the cases that make the news are the ones where someone in HR overreacts to rather than minor thing, or because there’s an uproar on social media, somebody gets fired, um, just to try to protect the, the PR standing of the corporation that employs them. And so the problems there, I think get miss attributed.

To discussions of microaggression. But in fact, the problem is something about precarious employment. It’s about having an at-will employment contract without some sort of strong union protection that allows you to have it to fight back. If you’ve been unfairly accused of something much greater than what you actually did. I’m writing a different book right now about social media and what it’s doing to our culture. Um, one of my big worries there is that setting aside microaggression and systemic inequality right now, I think that the kind of, uh, mobbing the, the, the pile on, on social media is really bad across many, many dimensions supply, especially in politics, but also in people’s employment security. Um, and so I, I do think there’s a problem here, but I think it’s a mistake to understand that as being a problem of Microsoft, Gosh, rather than a problem about how we haven’t figured out how to use influence social media gives us. So I want to bracket these, like these, these really dramatic cases where somebody gets fired because they said something relatively minor as falling under that heading, then we’re doing more serious problem. I think that has to do specifically with microaggression is supposing that firing people for minor offenses is off the table. How do we handle it? Given that we can’t genuinely blame people in many cases, how do we motivate people to avoid. Uh, contributing to the systemic pattern of harm without relying on these heavy, unfair things like firing, taking away their means of sustaining themselves and their families.

And here, I think we have to rely upon informal, relatively mild interpersonal forms of interaction. And this is where blame comes in as a kind of communication between people. So I introduced a bunch of stuff right there. You asked me about that nuanced definition of microaggression. I haven’t actually addressed that yet in the eye of the holder, kind of figure at a crux point with a couple of different issues, which one do you think we should address first,

Turi: help us understand this idea that microaggressions are in a sense always in the eye of the beholder. And while that may be problematic on some levels, it has to be that way.

Regina Rini: Yeah, good. So I think it doesn’t mean to be that way, um, because the alternatives end up causing more trouble. So if I forget to say this by the end of explaining this idea, let me say it now. I don’t think that this eye of the beholder concept is free of trouble. It has all kinds of trouble, but my worry is that any other way of thinking about microaggression has even worse trouble. So we already saw one at the beginning, which is Susan. The theory that the flight attendant on the airplane has an unconscious racial bias and that’s, what’s motivating her, which may very well be true.

It may be a fact about her psychology, but the trouble is that no one is in a position to know that she isn’t Sue isn’t we reading about the story 15 years later, we’re not in a position to know it. And so thinking about microaggression that way. Uh, is it only counts as a microaggression? If the person actually does have some little psychological component, that’s a racist or sexist, that means we’re never really gonna know whether micro-aggressions are happening individual cases.

Let’s just grant the sake of argument. If I think it’s got to be true, that they definitely happened at some points, but we’ll never know about particular cases. Was that just a total accident or was that one of the times when the little psychological component was activating and causing implicit racism or sexism?

And so. I think it’s worrisome to have this already controversial concept come down to cases where we’re just never going to know whether or not the person is having the kind of motivation that makes it count as a microaggression. So to avoid that problem, I say that the right way to define microaggression is in terms of the experience of the target. Person who’s on the receiving end. And this is why I defined it really carefully as being an actor event. That’s perceived by a member of an oppressed group is possible, but not certainly instantiating oppression that we, what we want to do is describe events where people see that might have been a case of racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, et cetera.

But I’m not certain. We want to include that certainty restriction because really obvious cases of blazingly, obvious cases of oppression are not like regressions. There’s something worse. There’s something bigger there. Like there, things like burning across in someone’s lawn or shouting a racial slur at somebody in a crowded room.

Those are not microaggressions because they’re not ambiguous. They’re incredibly obvious. Microaggression is picking out this really tricky category. That’s a bit short of being obviously oppressive. But the person who’s receiving it senses there’s a pretty good chance. This is an instance. And so the way I’ve defined the concept says, yeah, that person is the authority on whether or not they’re having that experience of ambiguity and uncertainty, because that experience is really important is destabilizing.

It’s realizing something bad. Might’ve just been done to me. That’s part of a pattern that has happened to me before, but I’m not certain. And so I have to second guess myself and the people around me witnesses. So I believe me, if I say, Hey, look, it’s that pattern again. And that experience is really a problem in and of itself.

And so it’s important, the definition of microaggression, pick that out and make that the focus of concern. So notice how the shifts or questions. The question is no longer, is this a microaggression or not? Because the person who had the experience as the authority on that, it’s not a question of what’s going on with somebody else. It’s their own experience, but now we have the question of, well, what do we do with that? What does it matter? Interpersonally, morally, politically that somebody is experiencing this ambiguous case. It may or may probably was oppression, but I’m not sure what do we do with that as a moral question? And that, that I think is the right place to put the uncertainty rather than on, does this count as a microaggression or not?

Turi: Understood. Okay. So in the context of free speech, I wonder whether we go, we go all the way back. The great defense of free speech is John Stuart mill on Liberty, who makes a very clear distinction between acts of violence to the body and active, I suppose, violence to the mind or harm is an idea that only can be, uh, can be experienced by. The body, this isn’t in the glory days where the mind and the body was still considered separate, I think. Um, but that, so his, his core idea is we need freedom of speech because you cannot actually harm with speech. You can harm with sticks, um, Obama’s and everything else. And we need to, we need free speech, be able to tease out the best ideas and ensure that the best ones bubble up. To the surface classic definition over the course of the 20th century, the mind is, are actually earlier, right? Th th the mind is, is embodied Hume. I think it might be. And we understand that you can cause damage to someone’s mind. You can cause harm to someone’s mind that therefore, that, that very clear line in the sand between between harm course to the body and discussion and speech is instantly blurred.

And w with all sorts of subsequent, um, results for discussions around free speech, we’re constantly trying to tease out or counselors, uh, an act of harm with microaggressions. It goes even more granular. It seems to go even more detailed there. And I just wonder where you see this being played out, whether you think that there is anything problematic about the idea of sanctioning people.

Well, sanctioning perpetrators of microaggressions based on the eye of the beholder experience of the target of those, does it chill free speech as so many people starting the John height and others would claim.

Regina Rini: Yes. So you frame this in terms of Mill’s classic defense of free speech. Um, and if there’s rich philosophical questions, I’m happy to talk about, but I want to just make sure it’s very clear at the beginning.

No one advocates, criminalizing microaggressions. No one that gets talked about in that way. A lot of people, people who don’t like micro aggression, like to like to catastrophize by talking about , uh, government restrictions, I don’t know, a single serious scholar of microaggression who has ever advocated government, uh, criminal punishments from microaggressions.

You might find some random people on Twitter who say that none of the people that were in this literature, I I’m not, I’m not correcting you on this aggression listeners who might get this misapprehension from what they’ve read before. It’s really important. Um, and so the million point about legal restrictions on free speech, don’t actually apply here because no one is advocating criminal restrictions on microaggression.

Turi: Just that that’s super clear. Thank you. Um, the, the Carla that others might make is that, um, if people are able to lose their jobs for microaggressions in the, as you say, in the 1% of cases that that’s potential potentially can happen, um, That’s that can often be worse than criminalization. Right?

Regina Rini: Fair, fair enough. I just wanted to make sure, because that brings into people’s heads worries about government censorship, and that’s just not on the table here. It’s not part of the discussion and I know you’re not doing this, but other people have done this. Um, so I wanted to make sure that was clear. Now there are things that are not government restrictions that can be really bad for people’s lives and that can show open discussion.

And I think that’s what you’re, that’s where it’s right to have this conversation. So things like corporate or university speech codes. Uh, disciplinary measures by HR departments or collegiate academic integrity departments, things like that. And you’re right. That there can be cases where non-governmental entities can severely affect people’s lives. And we’ll sometimes do that as a form of retribution or discipline for microaggressive actions. Again, as you acknowledged, I think these are extremely rare. This, this almost never happens. And we tend to hear about the few cases where it does because they, they, they get, they get talked about over Twitter.

Um, they dominate our mind in a way I think is misleading because they’re so rare, but they do happen. And, uh, it’s hard to talk about them. Abstractly. It depends on the details. Sometimes you dig into the tails and well, let me put it this way. So that was when I didn’t get into the details of the case, I think, Oh no, this person really did make an honest mistake. Maybe, maybe, maybe it was not a good thing for them to do, but they should not have been fired. And it looks like an HR department panicked or someone in the university bureaucracy got worried about a Twitter flame war. Um, so they just decided to make a scapegoat. Sometimes that is what happens then, like I said before, a lot of the problem you’re asked to do with precarious employment, but sometimes you dig into the details, then you discover that the media representation of what happened actually trivialized, something that was more serious.

A lot of times this happens with cases of sexual harassment or are you sexist microaggressions where the thing that the news is someone relatively small incident, but then it turns out when the university investigator it’s, the person concerned actually has a 20 year history of being accused of sexual harassment or sexual assault.

And that’s actually why they got. Fired, not the relatively small incident that makes the news. So it’s hard to talk about these abstractly because we get misled by the initial media representation of like a case where everybody says, Oh my God, that doesn’t seem like a firing offense. Why did they get fired?

And then we don’t follow up a couple of years later to find out exactly what the story was and whether it was one of those hyperreactive HR cases or whether it was a case where the microaggression was a kind, it was this, the proverbial Canary in the coal mine for a much deeper actual fire where the offenses.

Kind of coloring this discussion, is that the case, as we have in mind, uh, each of us has pumped thinking of different cases right now, uh, or different patterns and they may not be representative of the underlying phenomenon. So that’s all by a long way of just saying, yeah, you have to be careful how we think about this because I will concede and I think almost all microaggression theorists will concede, there are cases where somebody loses their job or is. Really roughly treated, uh, in the name of preventing microaggression that should have not happened, but are unjust and should not happen. But we have to be careful about overgeneralizing from those relatively rare cases,

Turi: all ties back to this fundamental issue right. Of the fact that there is a tremendous amount of harm caused, but. Very very difficult to attribute blame. And therefore there’s a potential for overreaction just as it’d been huge that, you know, sort of, uh, forever long history of underwriting action. There’s now a potential full overreaction now. Yeah,

Regina Rini: that’s absolutely right. And, and, um, over the long. We may have to apply a similar analysis to our response, to systemic harms. So, I mean, uh, it’s hard to do this with microaggression that we’ve, but let’s, let’s imagine a fanciful example of climate change. Imagine that, um, some, you know, extremely, uh, green government comes into power or some, or some corporation decides it’s going to commit to absolute environmental ism and it starts, you know, I dunno publicly shaming people who don’t recycle and it, you know, Hires hackers to get into their email and find the most embarrassing things about them and just getting juror some horrible dystopian scenario where in the service of a good goal that is saving the planet, people start doing really terrible things and overreacting to individual contributions to climate change. That would be really bad. And we would need as a society to constrain those who are going too far, you responding inappropriately, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t. Reduce emissions. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to fix climate change. And I think the same thing is going on. There are some cases of overreaction, some rare cases of overreaction to dealing with my Greg Gresham, even, even systemic oppression. But that doesn’t mean we just ignore the entire problem and say, Oh, this is all just privileged college students overreacting to something and we’re fine. We don’t have to deal with it. And that’s the really hard balance.

Turi: I think the, the piece, which the sentence, which jumped out most, um, uh, around this issue from your book is I think your future book, your next book, which is, um, the trauma, all the dangers of, uh, of social media and how social media amplifies these things.

Because, um, I’m not in, I’m not an academic, but I spend far too much time on Twitter. And they’re kind of mob mentality of Twitter really is terrifying and does perform that. So I’m really looking forward to your next book, but in the meantime, Regina, thank you so much for walking us through this book, which we will link to in the show notes. Um, and we’re tremendously grateful to have you come and talk to us all about. Thank you.

Regina Rini: Well, thank you so much. It was a really good conversation. I really enjoyed it.

This page was last edited on Wednesday, 3 Feb 2021 at 11:26 UTC