‘Microaggressions’: Just Another Word For Practices

In my previous post, I refer to both microaggressions, in general, and linguistic microaggressions, in particular. I also claim that linguistic microaggressions are intentional and nonsubjective tactics, that is, are directed at specific aims and objectives (are intentional) and can seldom be attributed to a given actor who introduced them into discourse and practice (are nonsubjective). I use the production of ableist language and ableist exceptionism as examples to illustrate my claims in the post.

My claim that linguistic microaggressions are intentional and nonsubjective, which is generalizable to microaggressions per se, draws on Foucault’s insight that modern forms of power operate primarily as tactics in these ways. In The History of Sexuality, Volume One, Foucault explained the intentional and nonsubjective character of modern power thus:

[L]et us not look for the headquarters that presides over its rationality; neither the caste which governs, nor the groups which control the state apparatus, nor those who make the most important economic decisions direct the entire network of power that functions in a society (and makes it function); the rationality of power is characterized by tactics that are quite explicit at the restricted level where they are inscribed . . . tactics which, becoming connected to one another, but finding their base of support and their condition elsewhere, end by forming comprehensive systems: the logic is perfectly clear, the aims decipherable, and yet it is often the case that no one is there to have invented them, and few who can be said to have formulated them: an implicit characteristic of the great anonymous, almost unspoken strategies which coordinate the loquacious tactics whose “inventors” or decisionmakers are often without hypocrisy. (95; emphasis in the original)

My claim that microaggressions are intentional will likely strike most philosophers (and social scientists) familiar with work in the area as odd or even confused. That is, philosophers who work on microaggressions, or at least read the literature in the area, might think that I have overlooked or misunderstood a defining feature of microaggressions. For central to the accepted definition of microaggressions, both in the expanding body of literature that promotes the idea of microaggressions and in the growing body of writing that is critical of the idea (including of the assumptions upon which the idea relies, its implicit normative frame, etc.), is the claim that microaggressions are usually the manifestations or outcomes of unintentional, nonconscious biases.

In other words, it could be said that my claim that microaggressions are both intentional and nonsubjective flies in the face of the very definition of microaggressions, that is, ignores their defining feature—namely, their unintentional, unconscious character. I want to emphasize, therefore, that I am quite prepared to agree with this criticism of my position which refers to (what I regard as) one of the strengths of the position.

I also want to point out that although I employ the term microaggression in this post and my previous post, I do not wish to make a life-long commitment to use of that term. For I regard talk about microaggressions as really just another way in which to talk about practices, which, as a Foucauldian, is what I talk about all the time, or rather, is pretty much all that I talk about.

I assure proponents of objections to my claim about the intentional and nonsubjective character of microaggressions that I have not misunderstood the accepted definition or representation of them. On the contrary. In fact, as I have already suggested, I think that my understanding of microaggressions as intentional and nonsubjective improves upon the accepted definition of them as unconscious and unintentional biases, slights, insults, etc.

To be sure, I want to acknowledge the detrimental impact of microaggressions, that is, acknowledge the deleterious effects that many practices at the microlevel of subjects produce and are produced by and through. Nevertheless, I also want to point out that the heretofore accepted definition of microaggressions and criticisms of it rely upon dubious grounds, including outdated ideas about how power operates.

The argument that these microaggressions, these practices on the microlevel, are intentional and nonsubjective avoids the common appeals to contestable psychological phenomena invoked in accepted explanations about microaggressions, especially the tendency to appeal to implicit biases as their font or origin. As I indicate in the first chapter of Foucault and Feminist Philosophy of Disability, I take seriously the criticisms that contest the very idea of implicit biases. Indeed, I do not wish to develop a line of argument that rests upon that idea.

Furthermore, the argument according to which microaggressions should be represented as intentional and nonsubjective practices—that is, as tactics of power—rather than as unintentional slights and unconscious actions, also provides an alternative way to explain how it is that people who are genuinely committed to social justice and equality may engage in practices that (for instance) humiliate, shame, trivialize, and dismiss people in certain social groups.

As I explain in chapter five of Foucault and Feminist Philosophy of Disability with respect to the subfield of bioethics and its governmental character especially in relation to the apparatus of disability and disabled people, the representation of power as nonsubjective does not require the attribution of bad intentions or personal responsibility to any given individual or group of individuals; on the contrary, the claim that force relations that comprise practices (microaggressions) are both intentional and nonsubjective underscores the deep and far-reaching nature of the apparatuses that generate them.

The argument that microaggressions are intentional and nonsubjective also circumvents the criticism according to which the idea of microaggressions relies upon an untenable notion of harm. The (analytic) philosophers who advance this sort of criticism of the idea of microaggressions usually make great efforts to show that work on microaggressions misunderstands the essential features of harm, that practices identified as microaggressions do not meet some chosen criteria that would qualify them to count as forms of harm. Invariably, however, these criticisms assume the existence of a space beyond harm, that is, outside of power, construing force relations in juridical (repressive) terms.

My argument that modern apparatuses of power produce practices—call them microaggressions, if you wish—that are intentional and nonsubjective makes no such assumptions. For no such space exists in juxtaposition to power. Rather, productive force relations are pervasive. Indeed, the notion of harm that motivates these sorts of criticisms of the idea that power operates at the microlevel of subjects is an arcade of mirrors in the amusement park of the neoliberal philosopher. One can never be freed from power. Nor can one articulate a phenomenology of intersubjectivity that precedes it.

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