Microaggression, Bullies, and Microkindnesses

Microaggression

Those of you who know the Wheaton community will know that Rodney Sisco, the Director of Multicultural Development at Wheaton College, was lost to cancer well before retirement age. He was a big person for racial diversity, a big person in the sense of being a moral giant, and a big person who left literal and figurative size 17EEE boots to fill.

I hope people will not find this comparison excessive or scandalous, but one of the comments C.S. Lewis made was that people object to the idea of God dealing with hundreds of millions of people praying all at once was based on a misconception of an eternal God, and an eternal God has just as much attention for you as if you were the only person that existed. Rodney may not have been able to pay attention to millions of people at once, but I have interacted with him at length, as have many others, and he really did treat you, whoever you might or might not be, whites included, as if you were the only other person God created. Again, he left huge Size 17EEE boots to fill.

There was recently a ceremony honoring him, with an open mic at an event streamed to Sisco family members, for people to tell their “Rodney stories.” I told a story, but even among the white minority at the microphones I did not try overall to challenge the standard framing of U.S. race relations, but instead talked about a time when Rodney took a moment I dropped off a gift to extend a full hospitable visit, and although his wife was not there, his sons also met me with great hospitality. (I did not think to say, in full candor, that they made me feel like family.) One of the sons had expressed considerable interest in being an author, and I said for him that I had given one of my books in the care of a Student Development employee to deliver to Rodney’s immediate family and especially the interested son. And this might be technically called “race relations” in the sense of three black males and one white male interacting peacably and quite amicably and enjoyably, and Rodney seeing a side of me that he hadn’t seen before in that I related as a loving elder to his children, lovingly and fatherly (something that is part of my social behavior but had never come up in my relating to him as one of my own quite loving elders), but it did not fit the framing of interracial relations as the narrative normally flows in America today.

But the whole tone and tenor was dictated with how classic diversity and race relationships are understood, and I would like to take one example of what went on that unnerved me.

There was one young woman who spoke of a “microaggression” with great hurt, and explained how someone who “happened to be a white male” dismissed an idea that she found important that cut her from the heart.

She talked about how she was physically small (I had not noticed until it was pointed out, and admittedly I am significantly taller than her, but she was still something like a foot taller than Christ), “brown” (I had mistaken her for non-Hispanic white, but she clearly conveyed that she identifies as brown), and soft-spoken (me too, even if Toastmasters is changing that). I will mention that once she started speaking, I picked up on the accent of someone who knows at least two languages well.

The idea that she articulated, and was so hurt to have dismissed, was that God cannot be limited to the ideas of a particular time and place. On that point, if I had an appropriate invitation, I might have commented that St. (Pseudo-)Dionysius did a masterful job of engaging that concern, and chapter 5 closes his work The Mystical Theology:

CHAPTER FIVE
That the supreme Cause of every conceptual thing is not itself conceptual.

Again, as we climb higher we say this. It [the Divine Nature, meaning God] is not soul or mind, nor does it possess imagination, conviction, speech, or understanding. Nor is it speech per se, understanding per se. It cannot be spoken of and it cannot be grasped by understanding. It is not number or order, greatness or smallness, equality or inequality, similarity or dissimilarity. It is not immovable, moving, or at rest. It has no power, it is not power, nor is it light. It does not live nor is it life. It is not a substance, nor is it eternity or time. It cannot be grasped by the understanding since it is neither knowledge nor truth. It is not kingship. It is not wisdom. It is neither one nor oneness, divinity nor goodness. Nor is it a spirit, in the sense in which we understand that term. It is not sonship or fatherhood and it is nothing known to us or to any other being. It falls neither within the predicate of nonbeing nor of being. Existing beings do not know it as it actually is and it does not know them as they are. There is no speaking of it, nor name nor knowledge of it. Darkness and light, error and truth—it is none of these. It is beyond assertion and denial. We make assertions and denials of what is next to it, but never of it, for it is both beyond every assertion and denial. We make assertions and denials of what is next to it, but never of it, for it is both beyond every assertion, being the perfect and unique cause of all things, and, by virtue of its preeminently simple and absolute nature, free of every limitation, beyond every limitation; it is also beyond every denial.

If someone I knew who trusted me raised that concern, that is probably what I would offer to see and raise the other person. (St. Dionysius made so much more an interesting version of de-mythologizing than Rudolf Bultmann.) And I might point out that what she put her finger on has the corollary that the God Who Is Justice is not the hostage of any human conception of justice or equity, including those that are feminist or derive from any other human political ideology or identity politics. And possibly I might suggest that this point needs to be counterbalanced by a recognition that the illimitable God is the one and the same God who became incarnate in a particular time and place, and (as Orthodox understand) continues to become incarnate in Christ’s Body, the Church, at particular times, in a particular way, in sacred history.

And as to the interlocutor who “happened to be a white male,” he might have genuinely not been seeking to slap her down because of her skin color. (I honestly mistook her for a non-Hispanic white.) Admittedly, it is not the best manners to instantly dismiss something that is close to someone else’s heart, but the behavior sounds pretty much as believable to me as something a white male would have said to another white male. Admittedly this person might not have been showing the best social skills, but there is a live possibility in my thoughts that the bloke was being dismissive of an idea as such and not of a person as such or a demographic as such. There is a very live possibility that he was, in an immature way, treating her as an equal. He might have been equally forceful and dismissive in responding to a white male saying the same things, and simply didn’t think, “Female. Short. Soft-spoken. Not a native English speaker; accent suggests brown. Therefore, I need to give a very different answer from what I would normally say to someone else.” She felt self-conscious as an outsider; it is possible that his reply was not shaped by raising the question about whether she was an outsider. Now in addition his reply was also apparently overly rambunctious, rude, and quite unfortunate, and hurt her needlessly. However, the fact that he was not walking on eggshells (apologies for the microaggression against vegans) may have been because he saw her as a fellow student and community member, and treated her like he treated his peeps and homeboys.

It may in fact not have been the case that he thought “I need to be careful in criticizing her ideas because she will think that criticisms of ideas that she values include a negative verdict about her demographic.”

As far as microaggressions go, I would (again, assuming I had an appropriate friendship to be challenging her) invite her to read The Seraphinians: “Blessed Seraphim Rose” and His Axe-Wielding Western Converts. That’s a medium-sized slice of the microaggressions I’ve faced in my own life, and I’ve sent five C&D letters after a repeated “No” was not being respected. Not all of the harassment is from white males; some of it is from at white females, and I honestly do not know or care what racial consituents were in the conversation with Fr. Seraphim’s admirers.

Bullies

The topic that I most strikingly remember about Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence was what it said about schoolyard bullies. The assumption I held, and that many people hold, is that bullies believe they are king of the hill and are fully entitled to engage in unprovoked aggression against other children.

What Goleman claimed at least, was that nothing of the sort was going on. Bullies by contrast believe they are victims in a hostile and malicious environment and they need to defend themselves as best they can. So when someone bumps into them in the hallway, this is no accident, but deliberate, intended, hostile, and malicious. And when a bully physically strikes hard against a person that bumps him, intending hurt, that falls entirely under the heading of the bullies’ strict self-defense and is if anything not nearly as forceful as it should be.

The training or therapy endorsed for bullying was to stop being so quick to find microaggressions. In a junior high, children are growing, their bodies are changing, and the children aren’t completely used to the changes. This makes them clumsy, enough so that a crowded junior high hallway is a place where people will bump into each other frequently. Come to think of it, I tend to bump into people when I move through a space crowded with other people, and I’m an adult (but, I am admittedly clumsy). And the unravelling of bullying comes when children stop interpreting things primarily as microaggressions, and recognize that a clumsy bump in a crowded hall is most often meaningless. (Something like this went into a bitter and geeky, “Never attribute to malice what can adequately be explained by gross stupidity.”) And bullies are to be taught to not be so quickly find microaggressions in a situation where boring clumsiness, lack of empathy, being distracted, and so on. Not that there is never genuine hostility, but a great deal of hurts are caused by clumsiness and other equally boo-ooring factors.

I am reminded in one book, talking about sensitivity, that a long-term employee heard a remark from an executive that affected him enough so that he thought the executive apparently wanted him to resign from the company. When he plucked up his courage to ask clarification, the surprised executive was taken aback and said that the remark he made was a throwaway remark, and he did not have the slightest desire for a truly valued employee to resign. He hadn’t been thinking about, or wanted, the employee to resign. He had just been perhaps insensitive and not aware that what are intended as transparent throwaway remarks by someone who is higher socially are not always treated as the mere throwaway remarks they are intended to be, and are considered to transparently be throwaway remarks for the person who is socially higher. (Never attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by gross stupidity!)

And here’s the core point that Goleman does not make: if you run the process in reverse of helping bullies not find hostility at all times and everywhere, and run it backwards, there is a standard term for this reverse process.

That reverse process is “consciousness raising.” Consciousness raising is a process of teaching people to use a pair of X-ray goggles to spot microaggressions in more and more places.

There may be room for a legitimate consciousness raising in general, for majorities to recognize that some people they consider to obviously be community insiders consider themselves to be outsiders, and for people in a position of power to recognize that what are intended to be obviously throwaway remarks and not authoritative statements, are less likely to be such. I needed to adjust in listening to this woman and recognize that she saw herself as an outsider to the Wheaton community, because while she communicated very effectively how marginalized she considered herself to be, I regarded her as an insider before she opened her mouth, or rather more an insider to the Wheaton community than I was, because she was an active student, under the Community Covenant, not to mention wearing the full regalia of Wheaton’s Gospel Choir, and I was only an alumnus coming in to visit. Admittedly this was a visit where I was entirely welcome and alumni had been explicitly invited to participate, but still, I was visiting. (Other people are welcome to disagree with this perspective.) This did not change when she opened her mouth and I heard the speech of someone who speaks two or more languages well, and communicates quite powerfully in English.

Microaggressions, and for that part larger-scale aggressions exist, but seeing things in terms of frequent microaggressions is a path to hurt and alienation.

Microkindnesses

I would like to mention two moments that I have been thanked for and been caught completely off guard, having barely registered in my mind as something I had done.

The first was to wander up to a young woman, give my name and shook her hand, and then wandered off; I believe the interaction lasted something like fifteen seconds. The other was with a young woman who had suffered the creepiest tale of sexual violence I’ve heard yet, and I deliberately related to her distantly, but told her very briefly, “I’m praying for you.”

In both cases the women came to me afterwards and gave what was clearly a five minute thank-you they had thought out. In the first case, I was the one other person of several people standing around nearby, and what had registered was that I had just acknowledged her as human, and that was something no one else had done; everybody else had treated her like furniture. In the other woman’s case, I cannot repeat details beyond saying that she was very appreciative of a gesture I would offer to almost everybody, even people who were hurting me. And in both cases it took me a minute to remember what it was that had been so striking.

Perhaps instead of, or perhaps in addition to, looking to avoid microaggressions, we should keep our eyes open to do at least just a little more microkindnesses, like acknowledging another person as human. I thought of my interaction with the first woman to be socially shallow, but I gave her my name, asked her name, and gave her the salute of a handshake, all three of which recognized her as human. The woman was right that this was in fact not a socially shallow interaction, and I had, in fact, given her something no one else of over a dozen people had offered.

In another setting at church, I had begun to offer my arm for stabilization for a white-haired senior as he stepped down for receiving communion. I had been wondering if he thought of it as unnecessary (and he could well enough have gotten by without my help). This self-questioning ended when he thanked me for something that was “so respectful.” What seemed like a very minor offering to me, and dubiously necessary to me, was to him neither a minor offering nor needless.

Let’s opt for microkindnesses, whether or not we think we are touching anyone’s life at all!

I’d Love if You’d Purchase my Paperbacks

I am writing as an author addressing cherished readers, to ask you to buy some of my paperbacks.

As an author, I would like my works to survive rather than disappear with the digital dark ages. I’d love for you to have your copies of these books to at least potentially survive for the rest of your life and long after. Kindles won’t do that.

I am tring to set up all of my books as Matchbook for free. What this means is that if you pay a bit extra and buy one of my paperback books, I’m basically throwing in the Kindle copy for your commuter survival kit free.

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Here I Bow

Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain humility—I do not accept the authority of the I-lost-count-how-many Protestant denominations and the sprawling bazaar of “Christian” books, for they have gone to the next level in unending contradictions of each other, vastly eclipsing of the the child’s play of Popes and Councils Luther complained about—my conscience is captive to the Holy Church that is inseparable from Christ the Word of God. I will not go out of the frying pan, into the lava. I cannot and I will not recant her Tradition for to go against the collected experience of Orthodox Christians and my holy guardian angel is neither right nor safe. Here I bow. I can do no other. Lord have mercy on me. Amen.

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Contact Jonathan Hayward about Jonathan’s Corner.

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Books by Christos Jonathan Seth Hayward

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The Administrator Who Cried, “Important!”

Revisited after some time

Someone said that a memo is written, not to inform the reader, but to protect the sender.

There is something wrong when employees receive so much allegedly mandatory reading material that if they were actually to sit down and read it as told, they wouldn’t get other work done. And it is entirely inappropriate to demand that people without significant legal acumen claim to have read and understood a contract. Really, contracts are rightly understood only if you understand the tradition surrounding how they are interpreted. That means that unless (or possibly even if) you are a lawyer (or else a hobbyist who may not legally be licensed to practice but who is fascinated at learning how law works), you don’t understand the contract. This is, incidentally, why there’s the website tosdr.org (“Terms of Service – Didn’t Read“).

That much I still believe. However, I believe there was some nasty pride in expecting the business world to meet what I consider reasonable. The normal way of dealing with things is to not read, or to read just enough. And that is why in my first job with over a quarter inch of daily allegedly mandatory reading, I should just have listened to a colleague gently tell me that I didn’t have to read that.

I’ve worked on humility a little bit since then.

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Once upon a time, there was a new employee, hired fresh out of college by a big company. The first day on the job, he attended a pep rally, filled out paperwork concerning taxes and insurance, and received a two page document that said at the top, “Sexual Harassment Policy: Important. Read Very Carefully!”

So our employee read the sexual harassment policy with utmost care, and signed at the bottom indicating that he had read it. The policy was a remedial course in common sense, although parts of it showed a decided lack of common sense. It was an insult to both his intelligence and his social maturity.

Our employee was slightly puzzled as to why he was expected to read such a document that carefully, but soon pushed doubts out of his mind. He trotted over to his new cubicle, sat down, and began to read the two inch thick manual on core essentials that every employee needs to know. He was still reading core essentials two hours later when his boss came by and said, “Could you take a break from that? I want to introduce you to your new co-workers, and show you around.”

So our employee talked with his boss — a knowledgeable, competent, and understanding woman — and enjoyed meeting his co-workers, trying to learn their names. He didn’t have very much other work yet, so he dutifully read everything that the administrators sent him — even the ones that didn’t say “Important — please read” at the top. He read about ISO 9001 certification, continual changes and updates to company policy, new technologies that the company was adopting, employee discounts, customer success stories, and other oddments totalling to at least a quarter inch of paper each day, not counting e-mails.

His boss saw that he worked well, and began to assign more difficult tasks appropriate to his talent. He took on this new workload while continuing to read everything the administration told him to read, and worked longer and longer days.

One day, a veteran came and put a hand on his shoulder, saying, “Kid, just between the two of us, you don’t have to read every piece of paper that says ‘Important’ at the top. None of us read all that.”

And so our friend began to glance at the first pages of long memos, to see if they said anything helpful for him to know, and found that most of them did not. Some time after that, he realized that his boss or one of his co-workers would explicitly tell him if there was a memo that said something he needed to know. The employee found his workload reduced to slightly less than fifty hours per week. He was productive and happy.

One day, a memo came. It said at the top, “Important: Please Read.” A little more than halfway through, on page twenty-seven, there was a description of a new law that had been passed, and how it required several jobs (including his own) to be done in a slightly different manner. Unfortunately, our friend’s boss was in bed with a bad stomach flu, and so she wasn’t able to tell him he needed to read the memo. So he continued doing his job as usual.

A year later, the company found itself the defendant in a forty million dollar lawsuit, and traced the negligence to the action of one single employee — our friend. He was fired, and made the central villain in the storm of bad publicity.

But he definitely was in the wrong, and deserved what was coming to him. The administration very clearly explained the liability and his responsibility, in a memo very clearly labelled “Important”. And he didn’t even read the memo. It’s his fault, right?

No.

Every communication that is sent to a person constitutes an implicit claim of, “This concerns you and is worth your attention.” If experience tells other people that we lie again and again when we say this, then what right do we have to be believed when we really do have something important to say?

I retold the story of the boy who cried wolf as the story of the administrator who cried important, because administrators are among the worst offenders, along with lawyers, spammers, and perhaps people who pass along e-mail forwards. Among the stack of paper I was expected to sign when I moved in to my apartment was a statement that I had tested my smoke detector. The apartment staff was surprised that I wanted to test my smoke detector before signing my name to that statement. When an authority figure is surprised when a person reads a statement carefully and doesn’t want to sign a claim that all involved know to be false, it’s a bad sign.

There is communication that concerns the person it’s directed to, but says too much — for example, most of the legal contracts I’ve seen. The tiny print used to print many of those contracts constitutes an implicit acknowledment that the signer is not expected to read it: they don’t even use the additional sheets of paper necessary to print text at a size that a person who only has 20/20 vision can easily read. There is also communication that is broadcast to many people who have no interest in it. To that communication, I would propose the following rule: Do not, without exceptionally good reason, broadcast a communication that concerns only a minority of its recipients. It’s OK every now and then to announce that the blue Toyota with license place ABC 123 has its lights on. It’s not OK to have a regular announcement that broadcasts anything that is approved as having interest to some of the recipients.

My church, which I am in general very happy with, has succumbed to vice by adding a section to the worship liturgy called “Announcements”, where someone reads a list of events and such just before the end of the service, and completely dispels the moment that has been filling the sanctuary up until the announcements start. They don’t do this with other things — the offering is announced by music (usually good music) that contributes to the reverent atmosphere of the service. But when the service is drawing to a close, the worshipful atmosphere is disrupted by announcements which I at least almost never find useful. If the same list were printed on a sheet of paper, I could read it after the service, in less time, with greater comprehension, with zero disruption to the moment that every other part of the service tries so carefully to build — and I could skip over any announcements that begin “For Married Couples:” or “Attention Junior High and High Schoolers!” The only advantage I can see to the present practice, from the church leadership’s perspective, is that many people will not read the announcements at all if they have a choice about it — and maybe, just maybe, there’s a lesson in that.

As well as pointing out examples of a rampant problem in communication, where an administrator cries “Important!” over many things that are not worth reading, and then wonders why people don’t believe him when he cries “Important!” about something which isimportant, I would like to suggest an alternative for communities that have access to the internet. A web server could use a form to let people select areas of concern and interest, and announcements submitted would be categorized, optionally cleared with a moderator, and sent only to those people who are interested in them. Another desirable feature might let end receivers select how much announcement information they can receive in a day — providing a discernible incentive to the senders to minimize trivial communication. In a sense, this is what happens already — intercom litanies of announcements ignored by school students in a classroom, employees carrying memos straight from their mailboxes to the recycle bins — but in this case, administrators receive clear incentive and choice to conserve bandwidth and only send stuff that is genuinely important.

While I’m giving my Utopian dreams, I’d like to comment that at least some of this functionality is already supported by the infrastructure developed by UseNet. Probably there are refinements that can be implemented in a web interface — all announcements for one topic shown from a single web page, since they shouldn’t be nearly as long as a normal UseNet post arguing some obscure detail in an ongoing discussion. Perhaps other and better can be done — I am suggesting “Here’s something better than the status quo,” not “Here’s something so perfect that there’s no room for improvement.”

In one UseNet newsgroup, an exchange occurred that broadcasters of announcements would be well-advised to keep in mind. One person said, “I’m trying to decide whether to give the UseNet Bore of the Year Award to [name] or [name]. The winner will receive, as his prize, a copy of all of their postings, minutely inscribed, and rolled up inside a two foot poster tube.”

Someone else posted a reply asking, “Length or diameter?”

To those of you who broadcast to people whom you are able to address because of your position and not because they have chosen to receive your broadcasts, I have the following to say: In each communication you send, you are deciding the basis by which people will decide if future communications are worth paying attention to, or just unwanted noise. If your noise deafens their ears, you have no right to complain that the few truly important things you have to tell them fall on deaf ears. Only you can prevent spam!