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Chaparral 2015-2016: 24.3 Microaggression, Hypersensitivity, or Neither?

Microaggression, Hypersensitivity, or Neither? (December 2015)

Editor’s Note: This piece is one of a pair of articles representing a debate between two faculty members, Randal Parker and Steve Bie, within GCC’s Philosophy Club, about the concept of “microaggressions” and how they should be addressed in an academic setting. Chaparral would like to acknowledge that these papers are the result of a philosophical debate and do not cite specific sources. For alternative definitions of this term than those used by the authors of these pieces, see this 2009 APA piece which includes a then emerging taxonomy of microaggresion,, as well as this Oxford Dictionaries definition: Randal Parker and Steve Bie both welcome your comments.


Microaggression, Hypersensitivity, or Neither?

by Steve Bie

Social Sciences Division


In his hit song "Man in the Mirror", the late Michael Jackson offered this sage advice: "If you want to make the world a better place, take a look at yourself."  Unfortunately, students at colleges and universities across the United States are being advised to ignore this recommendation and, in fact, to do just the opposite.  The new advice is more like "If you want to make the world a better place, look for the microscopic flaws in others and blame them without any thought that you might bear some responsibility."  The core concept in this new paradigm is that of a "microaggression".  I hope we at GCC never adopt this paradigm; but at the very least, we should carefully weigh its costs and benefits before we do.

Toward this end, consider an example of a microaggression presented by administrators at recent faculty-training sessions on all University of California campuses.  The proposed "microaggression" in this case is the statement made by “Instructor Jack” in the following exchange.  Imagine an instructor, “Jack,” and his student, “Jill.”  Jack teaches a lesson on immigration and at some point says that immigrants come to the United States because "America is the land of opportunity."  Imagine further that few, if any, students are offended by this statement, except for Jill.  Jill is offended because she has a deep understanding of the way in which the patriarchal culture in the United States has denied- and continues to deny- equal opportunities to women.  Suppose that she raises her hand and accuses the teacher of being unjustifiably hostile and aggressive toward her group (women), and suggests that the instructor both increase his sensitivity in this regard and refrain from ever uttering the offensive statement again.  Finally, imagine that Jack responds by telling Jill that she's hypersensitive; that he is a first generation immigrant; that his parents made great sacrifices to leave their own country so that he could grow up in a country with more opportunity; that his parents' sacrifice is why he was able to go to school and earn a PhD; and that it is simply a fact that America is the land of opportunity- relative to the rest of the world. 

Instructor Jack's statement, "America is the land of opportunity" is considered a microaggression in this example because it fits the following definition:  A microaggression is speech or action that- although not offensive to a typical, "reasonable person"- offends a member of a protected group.  Microaggressions are different from macroaggressions in that macroaggressions are recognized by almost all reasonable people as aggressive, while microaggressions are only perceived to be offensive by a few people due to their unique experiences as members of a protected group.

The paradigm built around the core concept of a "microaggression" offers one approach to dealing with interactions such as the one between Instructor Jack and Student Jill above.  The question I would like to address is, Does the microaggression paradigm offer the best approach to dealing with this type of intellectual debate?  To answer this question, it will be helpful to consider three contrasting approaches: the microaggression paradigm, the hypersensitivity paradigm, and the dialogical paradigm. 

According to the microaggression paradigm, Instructor Jack in the only guilty party.  His comment is, by definition, overly hostile and aggressive toward women because Jill experienced it that way.  According to this paradigm, Jill is not called upon to question the legitimacy of her reaction, or to consider Instructor Jack's perspective at all, because only she- as a member of the offended group- gets to define what is unjustified and aggressive.  This paradigm, then, encourages students to believe that whenever they're offended, the instructor's behavior must have been unjustified and blameworthy. 

This paradigm does an excellent job of preventing students from being offended, but it does a poor job of allowing instructors to offend students as a natural part of having them really dig deep and wrestle with their unreflective beliefs about controversial topics.  Hence, this paradigm suffers from two major defects: (i) it interferes with the emotional and intellectual development of students, and (ii) it severely restricts an instructor's ability to teach critical thinking.

The second and diametrically opposed approach to dealing with the exchange between Instructor Jack and Student Jill can be called the hypersensitivity paradigm.  According to this way of thinking, it is only Student Jill who is at fault and in need of growth.  This is because "offensive" and "unreasonable" is defined (on this view) by the way a "reasonable person" would act or react, not by the way one hypersensitive person reacts. Since the vast majority of the class was not offended in the example described above, Student Jill was, by definition, unreasonable and hypersensitive.  Rather than putting the blame on Instructor Jack for being unjustifiably aggressive, this paradigm places the blame on Student Jill for having such thin skin. 

This paradigm does an excellent job of allowing the instructor to challenge the students' reactions to controversial ideas, but it does a poor job of encouraging the instructor to gain a fuller appreciation of the perspectives and experiences of many of his students who are perhaps the most likely to need to feel safe on campus.

Before turning to the third paradigm, note that both the term "hypersensitive" and the term "microaggression" are rhetorical and biased in this context.  They both assume at the outset that the focus of blame should be directed at only one of the two parties in the exchange.  The microaggression approach asks us to focus our attention only on the blameworthy instructor, while the hypersensitivity paradigm urges us to focus only on the immaturity of the student.  Both paradigms assume that, by definition, one party is completely in the right and the other perspective has no value or importance.  A consequence of this one-sidedness is that both paradigms foster a closed-minded attitude rather than an attitude conducive to the honest exchange of ideas.

A better approach is to encourage both Jack and Jill to consider the legitimacy of the other party's perspective.  This approach can be called the dialogical paradigm.  On this view, the perspective of each party is deemed valuable and as containing an element of truth, but neither is considered by definition the only legitimate perspective.  This paradigm assumes that each party can learn and grow by being open to the value of the other party's perspective.   Unlike the first two paradigms, this model fosters the open and empathic exchange of ideas.  Rather than encouraging each party to assume his/her own complete righteousness and the other's guilt, the dialogical paradigm promotes an attitude of mutual respect and self-examination.  It provides more opportunity for intellectual growth because each party can learn that his/her own view is not the whole truth; and it promotes emotional growth by assuming that each party should contain his/her initial unreflective reaction and be willing to critically evaluate it.

Since critical reflection, intellectual exploration, and dialogue provide a better approach to personal development than the self-righteous and close-minded search for microaggressions, I hope we never adopt the latter approach here at GCC.  In short, I agree with the late Michael Jackson: we should encourage students to put down their judgmental microscopes and pick up a self-reflective mirror. 



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