Culture wars: who’s to blame- the ‘snowflake’ or the ‘microaggressor’?
It is often claimed that culture wars are deployed as a distraction from bigger political struggles. We are presented with a false choice between matters of so-called identity politics and supposedly ‘real’ social justice concerns: who cares about the definition of a woman when two million British citizens can’t afford to eat every day? 'Woke snowflakes' are said to be offended by minor or unjustifiable acts and the noise they create interferes with those trying to ‘get on with the job’ of politics. However, if we dismiss too readily these cultural conflicts as a distraction, then we are also declaring a winner. Culture wars are a struggle for dominance of values, beliefs and practices. Any social progress begins with a clash against the dominance of the status quo. Dismissing the battle, without due deliberation, uncritically rejects this progress and reinforces the dominant status quo with all that it entails.
At the heart of the claim that woke culture breeds snowflakes, is the assumption that those who are offended have insignificant concerns. Those who favour the cultural status quo identify snowflakes as a readily offendable group, a group who are too ready to levy blame against well-meaning people who have just failed to be totally politically correct.
On the one hand then, we have those who are perhaps a product of a ‘time gone by’ and do not intend any harm when they make a false assumption that the young woman in the room will take the minutes, or just don’t see why others should take offence to their slightly racist joke (it’s just a joke right?). On the other hand, we have those who ignite twitter with claims of being ‘triggered’ only because a colleague talked over them in a meeting, or because their preferred personal pronouns were not used.
Each of these cases carries different implications. Some of the trickiest cases are those which feature microaggressions. So let’s consider: who needs defending, and who deserves blame: the microaggressor or the snowflake?
Microaggressions: why they hurt and why they matter
Although microaggressions have come to the fore only in recent years, the term was first coined in 1970 by the psychoanalyst and Harvard Professor, Chester Pierce. Pierce, a black man, observed that many students after his lectures would come to him with small suggestions: how to better arrange the classroom, suggestions for restructuring his discussions, ideas for when he ought to hold extra meetings. These suggestions had a subtext. They were assertions that their tenured Harvard Professor was a fitting recipient of their better advice (serving the aims of increasing the students’ comfort). They were microaggressions.
Pierce observed that the suggestions entailed a form of automatic prejudice, exercised effortlessly and most likely without any intention, a prejudice that was a product of the American culture of the time. In this context, it is no wonder that white and black people had such different experiences of racial reality: if displays of superiority are automatic, then of course the white people displaying them were unaware of their own complicity in racist norms.
At this point, a critic might say – yes, this is a small insult, but does it really hurt? Each instance alone, may not cause the kind hurt we care about from the perspective of social justice – it is not, for example, similar to the hurt of being unemployed, or imprisoned, or unable to afford food. The counterfactual would suggest this: would my life be any better overall if that particular student had not tried to suggest to me, a young female teacher in universities, how I could better moderate their debate? Probably not. However, a simple counterfactual model, one that takes each instance separately, is going to get things wrong. Certain forms of harm are composite. They are made up of lots of individual actions, each of which might be negligible by itself. We could consider pollution as an example of this kind of harm – no single car’s emissions alone will harm us, but the collective effect of many cars presents a risk to our health.
Okay, says the critic, but isn’t hurt just a feeling? Why is this a justice-based issue? Does it warrant all the offense and anger? Microaggressions by their nature are systematic. They are based upon a feature of a person’s existence such as their race, gender or class. They operate to lower the status of that person within a wider system of oppression. Ordinary rudeness happens more or less at random, while microaggressions happen again and again to the same people and chip away at the status of their victims. Status is a person’s relative social standing and those whose status is continually undermined have reduced opportunities in a society. Consider the effect of repetition in these cases: ‘Where are you really from?’, ‘All lives matter!’, ‘You’re a lesbian? That’s a shame.’.
Understanding the various features which create oppression is complex. Marilyn Frye helps us by using the metaphor of being trapped in a birdcage:
‘If you look very closely at just one wire in the cage, you cannot see the other wires. If your conception of what is before you is determined by this myopic focus, you could look at one wire, up and down the length of it, and be unable to see why a bird would not just fly around the wire any time it wanted to go somewhere … It is only when you step back, stop looking at the wires one by one, microscopically, and take a macroscopic view of the whole cage, that you can see why the bird does not go anywhere.’
The wires of the cage are hard to identify, and surely microaggressions are amongst the thinnest. Nonetheless, they reflect the power of a dominant group (who may themselves be blind to the power dynamics at play). This power is held in contrast to oppressed groups, whose status is being undermined.
But if microaggressions only matter cumulatively, and they are unintentional, can we really blame someone who gets things a bit wrong?
Blaming has a particular power. In blaming, we reveal that standards which may at first appear neutral, are in fact reflecting an assumption which falls short of our moral or political expectations. A definition of privilege is not having to notice the way in which you are different. Those who enjoy privilege, may feel affronted by others who point this out: after all, it wasn’t chosen. However, we may benefit from considering how this compares to the affront felt by those who are subject to privilege and who experience systematic degradations of status (for instance through microaggressions). Ignoring hurtful speech acts gives those acts and the assumptions behind them a legitimating force. Blame can be a tool. Blame can reveal that speech is not neutral, and it can reveal to us the wires of the cage which keep certain groups from enjoying equal opportunities.
There are reasons to be suspicious of blame. Blame can be toxic if improperly used. Undue blame, or excessive blame, can exhaust good will and hinder attempts to make social progress. Yet, to exclude all blame or the legitimacy of those blamers who have suffered real harm is to go too far. Is the problem in these cases of microaggression that the blame is undue, or that the person being blamed doesn’t respond well to it? Blame can be an invitation to moral introspection. In a society, I would argue, we all have some duty of care to others to reflect on our own practices and to engage in conversation about the effect of our collective behaviours.
Twitter-style blame seems to fall short of this goal. Blame on Twitter leads to 280-character assassinations, bitter retorts, and inevitably to a post-fight conversation about cancel culture.
We might consider cancel culture – a prominent feature of culture wars - and what’s entailed, in light of this discussion of what it means to have dominant and oppressed status in a society. Those with highest status are indeed the ones being (allegedly) cancelled (consider the size of the platform of JK Rowling for instance). Those with lower status are dismissed as a ‘mob’. A rabble of voices expressed in tweets, with incoherent views, angry at what on its own seems a minor harm. This is an old story. Aristotle notably dismissed forms of democracy we today consider synonymous with justice based on the idea that it would give undue power and influence to just such a ‘mob’. Now, we take all citizens to be entitled to their democratic voice and we see them as the engines of social change. Perhaps in future, we will find a better forum than Twitter to hear these voices.
It is too easy for the big, powerful voices, which represent the dominant culture, to decry the mania and weakness of the smaller ones. Of course, individual voices may vary. However, this is not a sufficient reason to dismiss and disregard the messaging coming through. The platform of a voice with high status is much greater. They enjoy an illusory neutrality of their speech: presented as ‘common sense’. But really, they are relying on the dominance of the cultural status quo they seek to defend.
In the right circumstances, microaggressors should be blamed and ‘snowflakes’ ought not to be dismissed (or, to be clear, called ‘snowflakes!’). This is not a call to arms. It is a call to introspection. We, as fallible humans, must accept that we may sometimes be blameworthy and we may be capable of better. Our wrong may be slight, but the harm may be great and, moreover, it could support a wider social injustice. Everyday activism puts burdens on those on who are the blunt end of power dynamics. Caring for our society might mean that we have good reasons to support them in pushing back against microaggressions.