By Patricia Lee Sharpe
The following comes from a Danish reader’s letter to the editors of The Economist: “As one of the octogenarians who ‘fiddles with my hearing aid and takes afternoon naps,’ I wonder what the age limit is in order to avoid being ridiculed by your young reporters?”
So black people aren’t the only ones who are deeply hurt by careless speech that insults and belittles—verbal shrapnel, essentially. But we can be grateful to the young African-Americans at Yale for calling the phenomenon to our attention—and for demanding an end to it.
Microagression: it’s a term that hasn’t had wide circulation until recently. But it’s a good one, and it’s often a sign of ageism or sexism as well as racism.
I’ve felt the first two—and just imagine the double whammy of being an older woman! Imperfect body a constant butt of jokes to say nothing of revulsion. Every search for le mot juste or for car keys becomes a “senior moment,” symptom of imminent Alzheimers. I’m pretty sick of it. (I even wrote a story called “Senior Moments.” It’s in my book Driving under the Influence. Just click on the title in the “Our Books” list.)
So what I’m suggesting here and now is that we incessantly insulted segments of the population should make common cause instead of competing for first prize in the angry victimhood contest. Whenever we feel the painful stab of microaggression, as the Yale students suggest, we shouldn’t shrug it off. We should call attention to the insult, the cruelty, the insufferability.
“Don’t be so sensitive!” We’ll get that from a lot of perpetrators, but the smartest retort is simple: “Don’t be so insensitive.”
Meanwhile, we ourselves need to be sensitive to the fact that what seems like microaggression may not, in all cases, be consciously intended as such. First of all, some people come across as offensive because they are clumsily inarticulate in all situations. They need help with both social and language skills. Others are mentally inert clones of a passé culture. They’ve inherited attitudes they’ve never felt free to examine or even, in many cases, been conscious of. These people need to be liberated intellectually or by positive personal experience, not ultimata.
Others are the victims of language itself.
The thing is that language has evolved over centuries, picking up some good stuff and some bad stuff along the way. Society also changes over time. But social and linguistic change aren’t always in sync, and cleaning out the linguistic attic isn’t a chore that most people have ever seen as a necessary task. Encouraged to become conscious of the hateful cliches they spout, the dismissive labels, the ridicule masquerading as a joke, they may discover that this frozen language doesn’t reflect their own thoughts and experience. Do they really think that Blacks are intellectually inferior? Do they really think women are nothing but sex objects? Do they really think that old people are overly expensive, useless drags on the economy? Maybe not, when they come to actually think about it. They need help to get beyond myth and stereotyping.
What I’m trying to suggest is that not all offensive language is evidence of determined, irredeemable bigotry. Not every thoughtless comment is evidence of crypto-racism. Making offenders face the import and impact of what they have said will change the nature of discourse more effectively than reciprocal insult. This is not to say that repetition and more repetition may not be needed. But water erodes the hardest rock.
As for me, I am deep down furious when people treat me condescendingly, as if aging has made me into an idiot, but I am also reminded of a distinction that Buddhists make. Intentionality is the key. If no harm is consciously intended, the offense may be unfortunate, but forgivable. Cultivating greater awareness is the cure. As my Grandmother said, "Think before you speak." But if the harm was by intent, it is something that has to be taken very seriously indeed. In that case, how best to counteract the bigotry?
Which brings me to this: will we focus on chewing out the people who insult us or can we join hands to build a better society? The former is almost irresistible, of course, but the latter is the best way to win. Instead of dwelling on personal pain, here are the big undone things we can achieve only by supporting one another in the effort. Truly equal voting rights. Equal pay for equal work. Shame-free security in old age. All good for everyone of us.
Even after trying to be as understanding as possible of as many people as possible I have to admit that there are some hard core bigots who will never see the light, but it doesn't help to behave like them.
Look at it this way: no one likes ants, but if the picnic is really really good, it’s fairly easy to brush off a few ants.