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Microaggression, Mens Rea and the Unconscious Mind

Are we unconsciously demeaning protected groups?

Many senior citizens and others isolated from the cultural cutting edge have been puzzled in recent years by terms like 'microaggression', ‘safe space’ and even ‘hate speech’. The term microaggression was apparently coined in 1970 by a Harvard psychiatrist (psychiatrists are really good at coming up with new names for old things) but only came into common use in the last decade or so. Now we hear these terms constantly from college students and even distinguished academic administrators.

To the uninformed, many so-called microaggressions are simply “opinions I don’t like” and hate speech is “opinions I REALLY don’t like”. Many civilians find it hard to see just what is 'unsafe' about the campus of an elite college -- but some administrators seem to know, even if they cannot explain why.

Micro-As often involve race. Here are some well-known examples: “Where are you really from?” (asked of an Asian-looking girl with a foreign accent); “I don’t think of you as black” (to a well-spoken young African-American); “Is she yours?” asked of a white woman with a dark-skinned young girl.

All these examples apparently cause offense. They are often also taken as evidence of ‘unconscious racism’, and racism is a sin if not an actual crime.

In criminal law, mens rea, the intention, is all-important. If you trip over someone’s leg while trying to get to a seat, you don’t accuse him of an offense unless he intended to trip you. If an assassin aims at a victim sitting on a wall, but the victim decides to move just as the shot is fired and it kills the man sitting next to him – you don’t blame the man who moved. His movement was a cause of death in the sense that without it the dead man would still be alive. But no harm was intended, so no blame is attached.

Do microaggressions qualify as (micro) crimes? Let’s look at the examples. Take the last one: dark-skinned girl and Caucasian woman. The questioner is presumably curious simply because the pairing is both uncommon and ambiguous. Does the little girl, like Barack Obama, have a white mom and black dad? Is she adopted, like the little black daughter of a white friend of mine? Or does she just belong to a friend of the lady she is now with?

Most important: Does the questioner intend to insult? Probably not, simply because there are many non-insulting reasons for her question.

How about “Where are you really from?” I am often asked this question because of my English accent. The likelihood that an Asian-looking girl with a foreign accent or a man with an English accent was born in the US is very low. So the question is probably just curiosity.

And now the most difficult one: “I don’t think of you as black." There is little doubt that this is intended as praise. But of course an unavoidable implication is that the speaker’s picture of black people is different from what he has learned about the person he is addressing. It could mean that the listener is better or worse than the speaker’s stereotype. Or just different. Still, an unsettling ambiguity; a question like this is best avoided.

But in none of these examples is there mens rea. The last one can obviously be interpreted in a bad way, but the other two are well intended and their intent should be clear. So there’s no reason to avoid such questions or to feel guilty about them.

Yet these are all called microaggressions: One writer in a prestigious professional publication defines them this way: “Communications that subtly exclude, negate or nullify the thoughts, feelings or experiential reality of a person of color. For instance, white people often ask Asian-Americans where they were born, conveying the message that they are perpetual foreigners in their own land.”

What means this “conveying”? Not “intending” surely. The use of the word “conveying” here is an interpretation by this writer of what he thinks the listener will hear. Or, to put it another way, since we have already established that the speaker has no mens rea, no bad intention, the problem is not with the speaker but the listener.

But apparently it is the speaker who is to be blamed says the same distinguished writer. We can't let the speaker off the hook. Maybe the speaker's conscious intentions are good, but unconsciously he intendeds to insult.

This is a claim absolutely impossible to prove or disprove. Neither we nor the speaker have access to his unconscious. So whether we blame the speaker or the listener depends on something other than data or logic.

What that might be I will get to in another post.

More from John Staddon, Ph.D.
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More from John Staddon, Ph.D.
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