Civil servants have been encouraged to identify so-called ‘microaggressions’ in the workplace and to regard them as evidence of potential sexual or racial discrimination, according to an investigation by the Times.
Staff at various government departments have been instructed that everyday gestures like rolling their eyes, questioning someone’s professional experience, and using phrases like “black spot” during conversations, can convey hostility if the person on the receiving end happens to be from a traditionally “marginalised” group, like women and minorities.
Since 2021, more than £160,000 has been spent by the government hiring private sector consultations to train staff to see these perceived slights.
A microaggression is the concept, culled from Critical Race Theory, that someone might innocently or unconsciously display a dismissive or hostile attitude through unwittingly made minor gestures.
In the words of one civil service training scheme, microaggressions are “often unconscious gestures, facial expressions, postures, words and tone of voice which can influence how included (or not included) the people around us feel”. Examples cited include: rolling of eyes, looking at your phone whilst someone else is speaking to you, questioning someone’s professional experience while others are present, and “insults, whether intentional or unintentional”.
Writing for the Spectator, Patrick West isn’t impressed.
“The underlying assumption,” he says, “is that the people doing the excluding will invariably be white and male, while those at the receiving end are those categories who have been historically marginalised.”
This is where the bleak, Manichean worldview inherent to Critical Race Theory asserts itself, and everyone assumes their allotted role, as either ‘the oppressor’ or ‘the oppressed’.
It’s this conceit, he adds, which has been borrowed in its entirety by the ostensibly impartial civil service, and reveals itself in the assumption that microaggressions are only ever committed by the powerful, flow one way, and must therefore be racial or sexual in nature.
Then of course there’s the contradiction inherent in the idea of teaching anyone – oppressor or otherwise – how to avoid committing microaggression:
You cannot avoid making an unconscious gesture. The unconscious by its very definition is unknowable to the rational mind. There is no conscious way to know we are making a microaggression, and consequently, no logical manner to prevent ourselves from making them.
Furthermore, the consequential offence that they might generate is all in the eye of the beholder, beyond the ken of those putatively causing the offence: it is entirely subject to the interpretation of anyone sensing – or seeking – offence.
Nevertheless, the whole notion of microaggressions chimes with the times, resonating with a culture that places a premium on feelings and subjective interpretation above dispassionate objectivity:
In the wake of the 1999 Macpherson inquiry, our legal system came to enshrine such subjectivity into the definition of a racist incident, which is now described as ‘any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim’.
Now it’s not the intention, conscious or not, of a word or action that matters, but the subjective perception of it.
We have witnessed the corresponding elevation of feeling in the radical trans movement, which holds that so long as one believes oneself to be of another sex, or ‘identifies’ oneself as such, that belief should be respected or even enshrined in law.
Microaggressions resonate, too, to ‘woke’ ideology, and one of its central tenets: that power is exerted in an invisible, not obvious fashion – hence the presence today of such similarly nebulous and unverifiable concepts as ‘unwitting racism’ and ‘implicit bias’.
So far, the success of lessons on microaggressions in the civil service seem to have been limited. According to the Times, feedback from trainees after one series of lessons was “scathing”. Most respondents said that the training “did not meet their objectives, did not enhance their knowledge, they did not feel they could apply what they had learnt to their work and would not recommend the sessions to others”.
But don’t expect to hear the last of them, Patrick says. “They are very much of our era.”
Worth reading in full.