Monday, November 30, 2015

Jonathan Haidt Wants Us to Ignore Microaggressions

I like Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind and find his study of human universals and morality helpful in understanding our current political divide, among other things.

But Haidt’s recent statements against the study of microaggressions have gone off in an odd direction. He receives approval from other social scientists (like Steven Pinker and John McWhorter), and a few days ago, another academic tried to use these words from Ralph Ellison in a 1967 interview to join Haidt in undermining the idea that microaggressions matter:

Any people who could endure all of that brutalization and keep together, who could undergo such dismemberment and resuscitate itself ... is obviously more than the sum of its brutalization," Ellison said. "I am not denying the negative things which have happened to us and which continue to happen, but I am compelled to reject all condescending, narrowly paternalistic interpretations of Negro American life and personality from whatever quarters they come, whether white or Negro.
The writer, NYU professor Jonathan Zimmerman, continues:
Ellison would be appalled by our current moment on American campuses, where the damage thesis has returned with a vengeance…. black students and their allies are claiming that racist behavior — and administrators' weak response to it — are harming minorities' psychological health. They insist that overtly racist comments as well as "microaggressions" — smaller, day-to-day slights — take a psychic toll.
I think this is a misuse of Ellison’s words; I believe, if faced with a question specific to our current situation and the research on microaggressions that exists, Ellison would see himself on a middle path between victimhood and an insult-proof hero. Of course the depredations of slavery didn’t permanently damage the “black character” — but that doesn’t mean the microaggressions that continue to this day aren’t real and damaging to people. And it doesn’t mean that pointing them out makes people of color wimps or whiners.

This moving article about black historian John Hope Franklin (which connects his work with that of of Bryan Stevenson and Ta-Nehisi Coates) supports my belief. Franklin was a productive and revered historian from the same era as Ellison, yet,
The past and present of racial oppression in America angered Franklin. His own treatment in graduate school, in the profession, in humiliating incidents that occurred till the very last years of his life provoked him to express his outrage—in autobiographical writings and in what he called “literary efforts” that he refrained from publishing. He was scrupulous and insistent that such emotions and any of what he called “polemics” or “diatribes” should not “pollute” his scholarly work. Yet he acknowledged that “the task of remaining calm and objective is indeed a formidable one.”
Franklin died in 2009, so when the writer says “till the very last years of his life” he means about 10 years ago.

Franklin didn’t let those macro- and microaggressions keep him from succeeding, but we all must understand that they weighed on him and caused him damage that someone with white privilege does not experience. Why smart guys like Haidt and his supporters can’t see that and think they're helping matters by harping about whiners and victimhood is beyond me.

Here's an American Psychological Association article about some of the research on microaggressions. And a commentary from the Atlantic that connects microaggressions with implicit bias and calls for recognizing that empathy is what's wanted and needed, not "political correctness."

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