Microaggression and Moral Cultures

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These are my evolving thoughts on the paper “Microaggression and Moral Cultures” by Bradley Campbell & Jason Manning. I have not read the entire paper in detail and am reacting to a number of articles I have read about it including this and this and this and this.

If you are already familiar with the paper, jump to the criticism here.


Campus activists and others might refer to slights of one’s ethnicity or other cultural characteristics as “microaggressions,” and they might use various forums to publicize them. Here we examine this phenomenon by drawing from Donald Black’s theories of conflict and from cross-cultural studies of conflict and morality. We argue that this behavior resembles other conflict tactics in which the aggrieved actively seek the support of third parties as well as those that focus on oppression. We identify the social conditions associated with each feature, and we discuss how the rise of these conditions has led to large-scale moral change such as the emergence of a victimhood culture that is distinct from the honor cultures and dignity cultures of the past.



  • The authors interpret behaviour observed in blogs as a shift in values.
  • They frame it as victimhood culture: calling attention to one’s own hardships – to weaknesses rather than strengths and to exploitation rather than exploits.
    “[C]haracterized by concern with status and sensitivity to slight combined with a heavy reliance on third parties. People are intolerant of insults, even if unintentional, and react by bringing them to the attention of authorities or to the public at large.”
  • IE there are two key components
    • The “victim” is sensitive in their reaction to minor and perceived insult/grievances (“microaggressions”) and may even exaggerate how they have been wronged.
    • The victim appeals to authorities to adjudicate instead of settling matters themselves directly or shrugging it off.
  • They interpret this reaction to microaggressions as “a form of social control in which the aggrieved collect and publicize accounts of intercollective offenses, making the case that relatively minor slights are part of a larger pattern of injustice and that those who suffer them are socially marginalized and deserving of sympathy.”


Ummm… Bias much?

The paper is riddled with bias:

  • The name itself “culture of victimhood” leaves little wiggle room for positive interpretation of behaviour compared to the authors’ own value system proudly named “culture of dignity ”. Why not call it Culture of Social Justice or Culture of Justice? Social justice is already a term associated with the phenomenon of calling out perceived discrimination.
  • The language used describes dignity culture as having a “thick skin” and is otherwise strong whereas the overly sensitive victimhood types are weak.
  • They imply that the microaggressions catalogued are not actually part of a pattern of injustice when they might well be.
  • Likewise the offences were repeatedly referred to as “slights” which is diminutive. A few “slights” listed include:
    • telling an Asian American that he or she speaks English well;
    • a mother telling her son to “stop crying and acting like a little girl”;
    • saying, “you are a credit to your race” to an African American.

These are all things you might want to call slights and I might want to call pretty appalling things to say. Either way, your bias is showing when you use a diminutive term to describe them. It’s quite dismissive of the underlying complaint.


Welcome to the internet

  • The authors draw on data cherry picked from blogs.
  • Blogging and social media have encouraged more openness and now many people share their thoughts & feelings online – not only as blogs but a constant stream of pics, comments and social media posts. The kind of bitching they may have done previously was offline and did not provide a ready datapoint for researchers but certainly still happened in small groups.
  • Social media also encourages people to garner “likes” and this is achieved by stoking emotions. Outrage online may not be so much about being thin skinned as it is about trying to get attention for social capital.
  • So yes there is a shift in behaviour but this almost never involves appealing to authorities and almost always is about appealing to peers for approval. But it could also be said that people are photographing their lunch for similar reasons and this is not at all indicative of changing values.

Interpretation of Microaggressions

  • The policing of microaggressions is actually something that has been going on in some liberal circles for 2 generations. It is not new. However the language of policing and “calling out” has reached a wider audience – propelled by the internet and a growing audience disenfranchised by lingering (and sometimes growing) issues of discrimination.
  • As minority groups gain more power and feel more confident to speak out about their experiences, there has been growing awareness about the subtle ways discrimination can manifest.
  • To say that “microaggressions” should be shrugged off sounds rather like telling people to suck it up: it is a push back against the changing power dynamics. For instance, for a very long time women were told not to complain when treated poorly by men (“boys will be boys”). But increasingly they pointing out the myriad ways sexism manifests in their lives. This can be interpreted as not being as thick skinned as the previous generation or that the environment is such that they feel brave enough to call it out.
  • Likewise the complaint that victimhood results in “overreaction” is completely subjective and falls into the territory of tone policing and the angry minority trope, “You may have a point but why do you have to be so angry about it?” Is this complaint not its own kind of hypersensitivity? “It is disturbing when you complain in a way I deem inappropriate.”
  • “Microaggressions” is a kind of self-serving term: if someone makes a complaint and I claim it is valid, the retort can be “Well valid complaints are not microaggressions so that doesn’t count.” It’s a kind of “no true Scottsman” fallacy: valid complaints are not true microaggressions. Just today I came across this FB post of a woman (who based on her media profile is about 35, has a very high profile and is well versed in the language of calling out bias) claiming she’d been racially profiled by airport security and temporarily stopped from boarding. Later the Airline apologized. It fits pretty much all the criteria of microaggression… except perhaps severity? Does someone stopping you from boarding your flight count as a slight or a slap? At what point do you say micro becomes macro?


Appealing to authorities – maybe, maybe not

  • I personally have not observed an increased tendency to appeal to authorities but admittedly because I live in a very different culture as an adult as I did in my youth it is hard to compare.*
  • If there has been it wouldn’t be altogether surprising given how protective parents have become over the years, giving kids far less space to be independent. Increased parental presence would mean kids were more used to having an authority figure to sort out grievances so turning to authorities may seem more normal.
  • Even if this is so, it does not necessarily mean that this is intertwined with the tendency to identify microaggressions.
  • In any case, as mentioned above, appeal is almost always to peers in order to get validation or social cred.


In Summary

I think these guys have misread the signals. The phenomenon they are witnessing is mostly an artefact of the internet age and the drive for social capital. What’s going on is not so much a reflection of changing values as changing demographics and power structures in which the authors, as people with status, see their privilege eroding.

As push back they suggest that the next gen are cry-babies that are thin-skinned instead of, say, less tolerant of inequality and discrimination. The authors interpret these complaints as minor because they cannot imagine a scenario in which any “dignified” person would take offence. In other words, these complaints are minor to *them* and they are inclined to defend the status quo because it is a system in which they benefit – or at the very least is a system in which they can’t take such complaints seriously. Their interpretation stems from a point of view in which they cannot even conceive these complaints have merit.

Debating what is reasonable or not is part of the jostling for power to define acceptable behaviour.  Yes there will always be cases of individuals who overreact to slight or seem unreasonable in their demands. And you can cherry pick the most egregious cases and say there is an emerging trend of people being unreasonable… but that is a strawman.

I recognize that there is a parallel behaviour of wanting “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” which has, at times, run up against other liberal values of being open to different ideas and freedom of speech. Again this can be seen as part of the cultural shift in which minorities and women become more assertive and not a fundamental change in moral culture.

Overall I question whether their claim of a shift in values is really any different than the usual complaints driven by the generation gap in which the older calls the younger self-centered and lacking in moral fibre.

And what always ends up happening? The old die out and the world keeps spinning.




*I can only recall a single case where a student asked for intervention by University authorities in what seemed to be a private dispute (Phneah). But I must admit I was amazed the university did step in to play a role instead of letting them sort it out mutually. So I concede I may be completely out of touch on this aspect.