Microagressions anyone? On the thermonuclear expressions turning up in our in-tray

For over a year I’ve had something in my ‘draft articles’ file. It consisted of little more than a table like the one you see below. I’d love to enlighten you with an article that I’d slaved over for a few days trying to get to the bottom of things on this subtle and tantalising subject. Perhaps one day I will. But right now I’m basically going to do a quick tidy up of the table and pop it up here. I sent it to the fellow you see above with whom I’ve been recording weekly conversations for a while and we used it as a prompt for our discussions.

It’s fascinating to me that our culture has been hard at work over the last decade adding a particular class of expression to the popular lexicon which reflects the new terms of ideological engagement — and polarisation. I’ve called them ‘thermonuclear expressions’. They’re terms such as ‘gaslighting’, ‘virtue signalling’ and ‘microaggressions’. And I think they mark a real cultural event. They are terms of weaponisation predicated on the idea that we miss out on a lot of what matters in various acts and speech acts if we don’t attend to what might be intended beyond what is explicitly conveyed. Further, the expressions presume that even if certain meanings were not consciously intended, there might nevertheless be lots more to say — and to object to — based on how they might be received.

Many of those terms are a wonderful asset to the language. (I’d include ‘gaslighting’ and ‘mansplaining’.) But they’re explosively tendentious. They are typically framing expressions and they frame the other as the bad guy. So they’re used as weapons. But at the same time they turn on subtle cues. Further those cues can be read differently and even if they’re not read differently one can still disagree on whether they are socially acceptable or not. These terms connote the kinds of things you think when an argument goes ‘meta’. Then you feel gaslit. But so, unless they’re in simple bad faith, does the other side.

Now let these terms out into the wild where kids are having their first experiences with arguments that go ‘meta’ with their friends and family, or onto Twitter or a mainstream media outlet which is hungry for clicks and you have a heady cocktail. So I hope if you listen to it you enjoy our discussion, I welcome your comments below and here is the mp3 file if you’re like me and don’t like watching conversations that you could listen to.

Below the fold is the table of terms. (Apologies for the table’s formatting which is the best I can do in WordPress). I welcome contributions to the table or commentary on it or anything I’ve written in comments below: 

New term Old terms My comment on new term
New terms and practices from wokestan
Gaslighting Great term. Unalloyed plus for our language. But not for its usage. It’s a totalising and framing term — the playing of a trump card and a thermonuclear one at that. Effectively it claims that the other person is, either deliberately or through lack of self-awareness occupying a different reality to the speaker and that it’s the speaker who represents actual reality. 
Microaggression Being patronising, probably unintendedly insulting I hate the term and think it’s mostly desctructive, but I can see how it could capture the infuriated fatigue of people who are endlessly patronised. It also picks up the way in which being patronising can be used deliberately or pretty close to deliberately as a power move. Even there however I’d rather any claim that this was being done be unpacked. If it’s just labelled as a ‘micro-aggression’ the term will have a double meaning which won’t get through to its targets. 
Triggered  Good (identifies something) and bad (infantilising)
Cultural appropriation Good (points something out) and bad (tries to ban it which I expect is usually on balance bad.)
Misogynist  Sexist These two terms used to refer to profoundly — if subtly — different things. Alas the older meaning of misogyny which is hating women is now dormant. Alan Jones is a misogynist in this sense. This is to be opposed to the cluster of sins comprising sexism that second wave feminism launched its ‘consciousness raising’ and then public campaigns against. 
Safe space Handle with kid gloves Infantilising 
Dogwhistling Good term.* 
Mansplain  Being patronising Great term.*
Woke Politically correct Freddie deBoer on the subject. 

‘The basic stance of the social justice set, for a long time now, has been that they are 100% exempt from ordinary politics. BlackLivesMatter proponents have spent a year and a half acting as though their demand for justice is so transcendently, obviously correct that they don’t have to care about politics. When someone like David Shor gently says that they in fact do have to care about politics, and points out that they’ve accomplished nothing, they attack him rather than do the work of making their positions popular. Well, sooner or later, guys, you have to actually give a shit about what people who aren’t a part of your movement think. Sorry. That’s life. The universe is indifferent to your demand for justice, and will remain so until you bother to try to change minds. Nobody gives you what you want. That’s not how it works. Do politics. Think and speak strategically. Be disciplined. Work harder. And for fuck’s sake, give me a simple term to use to address you. Please? Because right now it sure looks like you don’t want to be named because you don’t want to be criticized.

Edit: I might not have underlined this point enough – I sincerely am asking for a better term and would happily use one if offered. If woke, political correctness, identity politics, etc, are inflammatory terms, I’d be happy to substitute something that’s not. But surely something is happening in our politics, and we have to be able to talk about it. So I’m asking for a name.’

Acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, their elders past, present and emerging  Nice idea, but, in becoming de rigueur it somehow slips the moorings of meaning and becomes a new piety. Here’s Freddie deBoer again.

‘21st century racial politics always takes place in the shadow of our inability to do anything about our racial problems. We are forever creating weird rituals to center and honor and elevate Black people, in lieu of feeding poor Black children or freeing Black prisoners. The deal we’ve made, essentially, is to say “Sorry about all the oppression, Black people. Can’t do anything about it! But tell you what, white liberals will be very weird around you for the rest of your lives, out of a very sincere desire not to offend or oppress you. We can’t do anything about Black poverty or violence against Black people, but we’ll act like racial injustice is, like, double plus bad in polite society. Also Wells Fargo will send out a very respectful Kwanzaa email every holiday season. So that’s nice.”

Personally, I would like better options.’ 

 

New terms from the anti-woke resistance
Virtue signalling  Moral vanity (Edmund Burke) Good term identifying a powerful force. The downside is that signalling is a major vector through which social morality works.  

 

  

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Antonios Sarhanis
Admin
3 months ago

This is funny… I have a essay sketch drawn up about why two of your preferred words, dogwhistling and gaslighting, are terrible and have had a hand in making everything worse in online discourse!
I think dogwhistling and gaslighting as common concepts are dangerous because they legimitise mind reading and nefarious interpretations. Rather than taking someone’s words at face value, maybe even interpreting them charitably, you deliberately interpret what someone has to say badly and invent what the person was “really” thinking.
It’s part of the reason why anything and everything someone says is “racist” — because you are encouraged to wholly invent what a person really means. You are SMART for deliberately misconstruing what a person has said because you are showcasing that you can see the nefarious dogwhistling and gaslighting taking place!
So I don’t understand why you say you like gaslighting as a term and go on to say why it’s no good!

Last edited 3 months ago by Antonios Sarhanis
Antonios Sarhanis
Admin
3 months ago
Reply to  Nicholas Gruen

I didn’t understand the joke in the video you linked to — I’m unsure if that’s the joke!
On gaslighting and dogwhistling, I don’t think either exist.
I don’t believe politicians use coded language — the public isn’t paying attention to the direct language let alone the indirect. And when Howard said “we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come”, there was nothing coded in that! That’s crystal clear political language without any subtext. The whole notion that Howard was the master dogwhistler was bizarre to me.
And gaslighting might happen on the micro-level in interpersonal relationships. But it just doesn’t happen in any meaningful sense in the political arena. Politicians lie and misrepresent and persuade and reframe — calling all that gaslighting as if it’s different to what happens all the time or some grand conspiracy doesn’t make any sense.

Chris Lloyd
Chris Lloyd
3 months ago

I think gaslighting can legitimately be used as an accurate pejorative description in some cases; I am thinking of gender theory in particular, where you are asked to believe what you know is false. I am also thinking more generally of the redefinition of words. The term does however require the user to be of a certain generation who recognize Hitchcock references!
Mansplaining I am not crazy about. It is often used by left leaning women at faculty meetings who are themselves incredible patronizing. It tells the previous male speaker not only that they have transgressed by explaining something in detail but that the accuser is way smarter than them and did not need the explanation. I do not think this can possibly lead to better communication.

Chris Lloyd
Chris Lloyd
3 months ago
Reply to  Nicholas Gruen

I hardly use twitter but I have just been trawling your twitter threads. You are more of a shit stirrer than I am! If you ever hoped to have a late blooming political career if am afraid you are jeffed.

derrida derider
derrida derider
3 months ago

I think “gaslighting” has lost some of its usefulness simply because it has broadened its meaning as it has become more widespread. It originally meant “deliberately imposing a different version of reality to undermine someone’s confidence or ego”, as the villain does to the heroine in the <a href=”https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gaslight_(1944_film)”>original film noir</a>. Now it is just a shorthand for “now who are you gonna believe – me or your own lying eyes?” – a common phenomenon but one that needs its own term.
If we keep misusing our verbal chisels as screwdrivers, we lose the usefulness of a chisel.

Chris Lloyd
Chris Lloyd
3 months ago

I am still only aware of the first interpretation. I have never encountered the second. You have it in quotes, perhaps onlyt stylistic. Can you give me some links DD? :)

R. N. England
R. N. England
3 months ago

This collection picks up a trend of language evolution in a culture that is increasingly playing its members off against one another. The question is how much it can afford to crank up the level of interpersonal conflict before it does serious damage to itself. It can also damage itself by directing rising phobia externally, and becoming a pariah culture in the eyes of others.

desipis
3 months ago

Here’s a few others:
“Rape Apologist” – see Peter Dutton lawsuit
“Toxic” – Fairly generic term that marks one that should be avoided due to their behaviour being harmful in some way.
“Transphobic” – Often directed at anyone who deviates from the trans-orthodoxy.
“Racist” – Obviously an old term, but one that has a new use as per Ibram Kendi: used to mark anyone not actively part of a particular anti-racism movement.
“Cancel Culture”

Weary
Weary
3 months ago

Indeed. I’d like to add a couple of terms that have spilled over from psychology/ psychiatry into popular culture. And they relate to terms like microaggression. What happens as the result of a microaggression? The victim is “triggered”, and experiences “trauma”. Now, I don’t mean to suggest triggering and trauma are not genuine phenomena affecting many people who experience real-life events. I do suggest that many of the neologisms described here function as rhetorical power moves directed at neutralising any opponent. I’d like to propose “narcissism” and “safety” as deserving special mention as additional pop psychology power moves.

Samuel Watkins
Samuel Watkins
12 days ago

The problem with these words and phrases is that they are too popular, and lots of ignorant chuckle-heads use them just to insult people or to avoid a proper argument.