Where is the further conversation?

“Check your privilege” has become a mainstay of social justice rhetoric. Assumed privilege is also a presumption behind microaggression accusations now seeming to sprout by the second. Those employing the terms frequently describe them as reminders to be empathetic and sensitive, elevating social relations. But they are often little more than assertions that others are members of an oppressor class, fundamentally mistaken in their views and responsible for a cornucopia of complaints.

The “kinder, gentler” version offers a sometimes-useful reminder that you might be including some inappropriate assumptions in your understanding, because something that may be sensible for you, given your characteristics and circumstances — i.e., your privilege — may not be sensible for others, leading to insufficient consideration of others and therefore erroneous evaluations.

Max Borders has described the latter meaning (or demeaning) as:

Your rights and opinions are invalid and you have no real complaints or suffering because you belong to X group. Or … you are obligated to pay because people who look like you in some ways did bad things at some point.

In other words, others need not listen to, much less respect, your arguments. Further, your inherent “wrongness” sacrifices your rights and property to satisfy those claiming to be oppressed, an aggression justified as undoing your alleged privilege or responding to your microaggression.

How are we to judge between such dramatically opposed interpretations?

The key is that, where confusion reigns, better evaluation requires clearer, more accurate understanding. That demands a real, ongoing conversation. So ask what would be entailed if “check your privilege” or its microaggression progeny was intended to advance such a conversation.

When such terms are used to preemptively cut off communication by stopping those who disagree from being heard or taken seriously, neither clarity nor empathy will be improved. So they must not end discussions; they must facilitate more complete conversations.

By themselves, the terms say you are wrong in your understanding and views, and too self-absorbed to notice. However, they leave how and why unspecified, beyond somehow relating to membership in an allegedly privileged group defined by accusers. Progress toward better understanding requires several additional steps.

Such progress would require specifying precisely what faulty premises, assumptions or arguments a person holds to, as well as why they are inappropriate for the issues considered. The appropriate premises to replace them would then need articulation.
How the “new and improved” premises would alter one’s conclusions would need to be demonstrated, followed by considering the appropriate remedies based on the alternative analysis. It would have to explain how proposed remedies were not merely “more for me” gambits, connected to the rationales offered only by self-interest. It would have to justify any special privileges to be created now for those claiming victimhood status, including any coercive impositions on members of supposedly dominant or victimizer classes who had nothing to do with the “sins of their fathers.”

When “check your privilege” and microaggression claims communicate that we should think carefully about others’ circumstances, which may be far different than ours, and be empathetic, it can be a useful reminder in advancing mutual understanding. But it can bear good fruit only as the beginning of a far deeper discussion.

In contrast, when they are used to peremptorily declare victory in social justice disputes, they assert special privileges for speakers to define themselves as morally superior and disqualify those who disagree from any consideration, without any coherent argument. And when that social demonization is leveraged into coercive imposition of “solutions” at the expense of those they decide must make it up to them, it undermines social cooperation, by undermining the rights upon which it is built, without advancing understanding or empathy.

Gary Galles is a professor of economics at Pepperdine University and a research fellow at the Independent Institute. His books include Lines of Liberty (2015), Faulty Premises, Faulty Policies (2014), and Apostle of Peace (2013).

Avoiding Alphabetical Microaggression

Whenever political correctness fades from the headlines, “new and improved” examples arise. Now the progressive language police want us to avoid microaggressions, to insulate everyone from potential mental distress, as when UC President Janet Napolitano’s website advised professors to avoid referring to America as a “land of opportunity,” opposing affirmative action as “inherently racist,” etc., to prevent aggressing on any hearers’ feelings. But at least teachers haven’t been threatened (yet) with an official “check your privilege” reprimand.

In the supercharged PC world ruled by fears of microaggression, nothing is allowed to be negative or twistable into conveying any negative connotation. Anything that could be construed as evaluative or judgmental must be avoided or expressed as positive. But because reality gets in the way of that requirement, clarity and analytical thinking are thereby often sacrificed to verbal contortions.

Even traditional children’s alphabet books violate microaggression protocol. “A is for Apple” could trigger thoughts of Eve’s role in the Garden of Eden story, which some might find sexist. “B is for Ball” has potential sexual overtones. “C is for Cat” and “D is for Dog” connect to verbal sniping (being catty) or being lazy (dogging it). We would have to abandon such books.

A microaggression-free alphabet book would have to mollify objections of potential psychic dents. Given the vast number of words and phrases people find ways to object to, it would be almost impossible. But perhaps the following almost alliterative approach — 3 As to match the 3 Rs — could work.

A can be for Attitudinal Antiquity, which can replace the potentially insulting “old fashioned.” B can be for Botanical Bankruptcy, a kinder, gentler way of saying that someone lacks a green thumb. Cranially Constrained can be substituted for stupid and Diplomatically Deprived for rude, so that stupid and rude people won’t think you noticed. Euphemistic Enhancements could replace accusations of lying.

We could use Follically Fortunate to avoid upsetting both the hirsutely over- and under-endowed. And being Gravitationally Gifted is certainly better than being fat. In the same vein, since no one likes being called egotistical, we could substitute Honorifically Habituated, and shy people could instead become Interactionally Impaired. Hurt feelings could also be avoided by substituting Judicially Juxtaposed for confused and Karmically Keen for superstitious. Similarly, criminals could be upgraded to Legally Lavish, schizophrenics to Mentally Mobile, and inattentive listeners to Neurologically Noncompliant.

We could turn slobs into people who are Organizationally Overburdened, and replace good-looking (a term which injures the psyches of those who don’t think it extends to them) with being Perceptionally Preferenced. Complainers can rise to being Quintessentially Querulous, bad dancers to being Rhythmically Repressed, and poor dressers to being Sartorially Stressed. Being old can be transformed into Temporally Troubled, a “lazy bum” into Ubiquitously Underutilized and someone who can’t hold a job into Vocationally Variable.

To fully dodge microaggression accusations, W-Z would best be left undecided, to avoid hurting anyone by implying that they couldn’t advance society with their own contributions.

This approach might allow us to pass microaggression muster (though that would end when people recognized the potential connotations of such substitute wording). Of course, few will know what others are saying anymore, hamstringing clarity and our ability to bring logic to bear in understanding or evaluating virtually anything. That would be particularly true of anything relating to social issues, given how many claim to be infringed upon by even the suggestion of disagreement with their understanding or their “solution” to be imposed. And it would not solve the problem, because nanoaggressions could then trigger outcries, and still more convoluted conversations will become necessary.

Gary M. Galles is a professor of economics at Pepperdine University.