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Does Ginsburg's Law Apply to Microaggressions?

Image: Does Ginsburg's Law Apply to Microaggressions?
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg speaks at an annual Women's History Month reception on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. (Allison Shelley/Getty Images)

By Paul F. deLespinasse
Tuesday, 18 Apr 2017 11:56 AM Current | Bio | Archive

Liberal icon Ruth Bader Ginsburg famously quotes advice her mother-in-law gave her:

"'In every good marriage,' she counseled, 'it helps sometimes to be a little deaf.' I have followed that advice assiduously, and not only at home through 56 years of a marital partnership nonpareil. I have employed it as well in every workplace, including the Supreme Court. When a thoughtless or unkind word is spoken, best tune out. Reacting in anger or annoyance will not advance one's ability to persuade."

Ginsburg's Law, as I call it, expresses a principle with implications for America's biggest and oldest problem. Race and racism have afflicted America since colonial times. The capture and enslavement of Africans has aptly been called "America's Original Sin." A century and a half after emancipation, fifty years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, reverberations from slavery still bedevil us.

Occasionally a new idea for improving race relations comes along. Often new ideas prove helpful, but not always.

I do not remember hearing about microaggressions — small actions or comments by white people which make minority people uncomfortable — back in the 1990s. I was teaching a class on racism and drafting what ultimately became "The Case of the Racist Choir Conductor: Struggling With America's Original Sin," so I would have noticed this term. Today, it is widely used by people trying to improve race relations, especially in universities.

Sadly, minority people frequently encounter microaggressions and sometimes experience real pain from them. Eliminating microaggressions, though, is not as simple as we might wish. Making white people more sensitive so they can avoid microaggressions can be useful, but may boomerang if overdone. But making black people, who may already be quite sensitive, more sensitive to microaggressions may actually be counterproductive.  

An analogy with allergies can clarify my point. Allergies like hay fever are defined as "conditions caused by hypersensitivity of the immune system to something in the environment." There are three ways to treat hay fever: take medicine to counteract the body's overreaction, move to somewhere with no ragweed, or train the immune system not to overreact by exposing the victim to tiny but increasing amounts of ragweed.

Now imagine a fourth strategy: medicate to increase the immune system's overreaction. No doctor would prescribe such a medicine, aggravating the victim's misery. But this may be what diversity administrators working to increase student and faculty sensitivity to microaggressions are doing.

Since microaggressions are considered signs of racism, people of goodwill will naturally try to avoid committing them. But beyond a certain point preaching about microaggressions may make white people so self-conscious that, to avoid unwittingly giving offense, they hesitate to have anything to do with minority individuals. And minority people may hesitate to interact with white people for fear of being offended.

Anything that discourages people of different races from associating with one another is regrettable. Interactions with individuals of another race can undermine our natural tendency to stereotype. They help us see important differences between people of the same race and similarities between people of different races. Focusing on microaggressions can prompt us all to retreat to "safe spaces," reinforcing the natural tendency for birds of a feather to flock together. I cannot believe that campus diversity administrators intend to encourage this, but self-segregation on campuses is a widely reported problem.

Sometimes we might do better to take Justice Ginsburg's advice: "When a thoughtless or unkind word is spoken, best tune out." Let's assume the speaker means well unless we see unequivocal evidence to the contrary. Speaking up may be a good idea when a comment is intentionally unkind, but failure to become upset can sometimes be a better revenge.

Paul F. deLespinasse is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Computer Science at Adrian College. He received his PhD from Johns Hopkins University in 1966, and has been a National Merit Scholar, an NDEA Fellow, a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and a Fellow in Law and Political Science at the Harvard Law School. His college textbook, "Thinking About Politics: American Government in Associational Perspective," was published 1981 and his most recent book is "The Case of the Racist Choir Conductor: Struggling With America's Original Sin." His columns have appeared in newspapers in Michigan, Oregon, and a number of other states. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.

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Ginsburg's Law, as I call it, expresses a principle with implications for America's biggest and oldest problem.
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