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When Is a Fad Not a Fad?

When Is a Fad Not a Fad?

Our first foray into studying victimhood culture focused on websites that listed examples of so-called “microaggressions.” The microaggression catalogues were a strange new behavior, one that suggested new ways of thinking about and handling moral conflict. We soon realized it was part of a larger pattern, one that included other new practices like campaigning for safe spaces, demanding trigger warnings, and telling people to “check their privilege.” We pointed to social conditions that we believe explained the rise of this new pattern of moral life — what we called victimhood culture. Having no reason to think these conditions would reverse themselves, we suggested victimhood culture would continue to grow.

This was in 2014. When our first paper on the topic began to attract attention in 2015, it met with some skepticism. Some noted that a few of the microaggression blogs that first attracted our attention had become inactive and took this to indicate that the entire concern with microaggression was a fad whose time had passed.

Yet, in the years since, it seems like the concept of microaggressions has continued to gain currency and influence. Consider some recent signs that concern with microaggressions is still going strong:

  • On February 9-10, Illinois State University hosted a two-day workshop on “Race and Immigration Under the Trump Administration.” The theme for the second day of the conference was “Microaggressions in Everyday Life.” It featured presentations such as “Microaggressions in the Classroom: What We’ve Learned from Student, Faculty, and Staff Responses to the Microaggressions in the Classroom” and “Micro-aggressions, School Climate, and Educational Equity: A Critical Praxis Approach.” The event reportedly cost $14,000.
  • On January 31, Indiana State University hosted a webinar on “Micro Aggression, Equity & Inclusion.” Describing the event, the school’s Associate Vice President of Inclusive Excellence said, “Martin Luther King Jr said it best ‘Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.’  This statement simplified how micro aggressions can hinder or hurt our society and campuses.”
  • On January 22, Multnomah County, Oregon reached an agreement with a municipal workers union. The contract states that “the County and the union won’t tolerate any form of “micro-aggression,” which is defined as ‘commonplace and casual verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities and denigration, often unintentional or unconscious, that repeat or reaffirm stereotypes and convey negative or derogatory messages based on the recipient’s status in a racial minority or other non-dominant culture group.’”
  • On February 13, Hip Hop Wired magazine published a piece on a Brooklyn woman, Andrea X, who founded a women-of-color-only retreat in Costa Rica because “her annoyance with white micro-aggression moved her to remove ‘white people from my personal life.’”
  • On January 15, a Michigan high school teacher authored an editorial claiming that his school’s ban on wearing hats and hoodies in class (excepting religiously mandated headwear) was a racial microaggression because it expects students of color to follow a European tradition of politeness.
  • The YMCA in Manchester, New Hampshire hosted workshops on Martin Luther King Day that addressed such topics as microaggressions and the gender spectrum. (A larger workshop, attended by 200 people, was initially entitled “Unpacking Whiteness” before complaints led to it being called “Unpacking Social Identies.”)
  • Last November, the University of Arkansas publicized a talk given by one of its doctoral students, who “spoke to a group of about 60 parents and students between the ages of 14 and 18 at the ABC Adolescent Center in Little Rock” about microaggressions and their impact.

Some of these cases involve educating people on how to avoid accidentally giving offense, and so are not drastic departures from the norms of restraint and etiquette found in mainstream dignity culture. The same goes for something like a recent blog post at HuffPost Canada with the title “How to Shut Down Microaggressions While Keeping Your Cool,” which gives advice that includes keeping calm and considering the possibility that the offense was unintentional. Not all who invoke the term fully embrace every aspect of victimhood culture, and not every aspect of victimhood culture is completely different from mainstream morality.

Yet it’s still notable that these everyday slights and awkward statements are now being labelled as a species of aggression (a term we used to reserve for intentional hostility), that they are presented as evidence of large-scale conflict (the domination of entire social groups), and that they are treated as something worthy of so much attention. Also notable is that they are defined so that only people from historically disadvantaged groups can be subject to them. Speaking of the need to remove white people from one’s life is, apparently, not a microaggression, not matter how hurtful a white person might find it. The concept itself suggests a heightened moral sensitivity and a moral system that treats higher social stature as a kind of moral handicap.

We might also note that the term microaggression has, to some extent, been supplanted by new terms describing specific microaggressive offenses. One of these new offenses is cultural appropriation, and it too is quite visible in recent headlines. For instance, we recently blogged about the newly deviant nature of white people practicing yoga. Consider some other examples:

  • Cosmopolitan tells us that fashion retailer Zara was “Called Out for Cultural Appropriation For its “Check Mini Skirt,” which sported a pattern similar to traditional clothing from parts of South and Southeast Asia: “Literally ANY Indian person could’ve pointed out in two minutes what the problem is with this.”
  • Teen Vogue describes a similar complaint against clothing company H&M, accused of cultural appropriation for selling socks with a pattern that resembled the word “Allah” written in Arabic letters. The company insists the resemblance was a coincidence.
  • Fashion designer Zuhair Murad was criticized for cultural appropriation after a runway show in which models wore clothing inspired by Native American styles, with some wearing feathers in their hair.

Cultural appropriation is, like other sorts of microaggression, an intercollective offense — something described as a way of oppressing entire social groups. Though not an act of physical force, it might be labelled as a kind of aggression or even violence. And like other microaggressions, it is by definition something that only some groups can commit.

What’s particularly interesting about cultural appropriation is that, in the recent past, some of these offenses might have been described as virtues — signs of tolerance, wordliness, and interest in other cultures — in the very same social circles where they are now condemned. One of the reasons we write about all this stuff is that, as sociologists who study morality, it is fascinating for us to see new categories of offense come into being. It is equally fascinating to see these moral concepts rapidly spread through the social world, such that people casually talk about them as if they had always known that offenses like cultural appropriation or deadnaming were great sins, even if they first heard of them last year.

It makes one wonder how often cultural change renders itself invisible, with those ahead of its advance dismissing it as an irrelevant fad, and those in its wake forgetting it was ever any other way.

Photo: Alfred Levegh vainqueur de Paris-Toulouse-Paris 1900 sur Mors à pneus Michelin, Histoire de l’automobile, Pierre Souvestre, éd. H. Dunod et E. Pinat, 1907 (ASIN B001BPBE58) p.484 (reprise d’une photographie de Motor Review)
The Crime of Yoga

The Crime of Yoga

What’s wrong with yoga? If you haven’t been paying much attention to recent moral concerns of the American left, you might assume any opposition to yoga would come from those on the right who object to it as culturally alien or associate it with Eastern religion. For example, recently parents in a Georgia school district objected to the use of yoga and mindfulness practices to reduce student stress. The statements of two of the parents make clear their concerns about the religious (and non-Christian) nature of the practices:

“No prayer in schools. Some don’t even say the pledge of allegiance,” Cobb County mother Susan Jaramillo told NBC affiliate WXIA. “Yet they’re pushing ideology on our students. Some of those things are religious practices that we don’t want our children doing in our schools.”

Christopher Smith, whose sons attend Bullard, shared a similar sentiment on Facebook.

“Now we can’t pray in our schools or practice Christianity but they are allowing this Far East mystical religion with crystals and chants to be practiced under the guise of stress release meditation,” he wrote. “This is very scary.”

It might come as a surprise, then, that yoga has also started to become controversial on the far left. At the University of Ottawa, Jen Scharf had been teaching a free yoga class for the disabled for years with the Centre for Student Disabilities before the Centre began having concerns with what they called “cultural issues.” The problem, apparently, was that that yoga comes from India, and it is therefore “cultural appropriation” for non-Indians to practice it. The instructor suggested changing the name — from “yoga” to “mindful stretching” — but the class ended up being canceled.

Shreena Gandhi, of the Religious Studies department at Michigan State, and Lillie Wolff, “organizer, facilitator, and healer,” also have concerns about yoga. In “Yoga and the Roots of Cultural Appropriation,” they even link yoga to “white supremacy.” They lament that yoga teachers in the U.S. “do not learn about Hindu tradition or Indian cultural history.” The physical aspects of yoga are only part of the practice, and by using these outside the larger context, Western practitioners “are perpetuating the re-colonization of it by diluting its true depth and meaning.”

This is “cultural appropriation,” they say, and it is “a continuation of white supremacy and colonialism, maintaining the pattern of white people consuming the stuff of culture that is convenient and portable, while ignoring the well-being and liberation of Indian people.”

They do not recommend that Westerners stop practicing yoga, but they do implore readers to “take a moment to look outside of yourself and understand how the history of yoga practice in the United States is intimately linked to some of the larger forces of white supremacy.” They ask them “to go beyond an unaccountable surface level relationship with yoga to a deeper, more transformative place of practice, awareness, contemplation, and engagement.”

Oddly, the complaint of conservative parents in Georgia is that yoga is a religious practice that shouldn’t be taught in schools, and the school officials say it’s just exercise. But the complaint from the left is that it’s just being used as exercise without embracing the religious and cultural practices that gave rise to it.

As different groups of activists draw from such divergent, incompatible moral frameworks, following contemporary debates can be bewildering. To a rural, conservative Christian who associates yoga with urban liberals, and who might be suspicious of its Hindu origins, the claim that it is (or usually is) a white supremacist practice must seem nearly insane. It may even confuse cosmopolitan liberals for whom dabbling in a wide variety of cultural practices is a sign of tolerance and openmindedness.

When did cultural appropriation become a crime? When did it become white supremacy? As the emerging victimhood culture spreads, expect to keep hearing of new kinds of offenses like cultural appropriation. Expect to see old terms like white supremacy used in new ways. Expect to see practices long thought of as benign, perhaps even liberal, come under attack.

Photo by lululemon athletica (Flickr: Yoga Journal Conference) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons