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Last Word

How Did We Get Here: The Age of Digital Micro-aggressions

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When the Internet became mainstream, it was heralded as a truly open forum for discussion, thoughts and ideas. As it has evolved, the Internet has provided more and more ways to share thoughts and ideas — nice and not so nice — in a rapid way. Jason Manning, assistant professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, has studied the rise of “micro-aggressions” and how users often seek validation in their viewpoints on web spaces with like-minded individuals. He recently sat down to discuss the issue with Assistant Professor Elizabeth Cohen and Associate Professor Nicholas Bowman, both from the Department of Communication Studies.

Jason Manning: We wanted to ask why do people take their complaints into online forums, to complain in public rather than confronting the offender, insulting them back, discussing it with them, beating them up — there’s different methods of conflict management people use. That was our initial question and the paper kind of spiraled out of control from there. We felt if we’re going to explain one aspect of the phenomenon, we need to explain the others. Why people rely on third parties? Why do they shape or frame conflicts as they do to present to others? Why morality changes and why some people in some cities have different kinds of morality. 

Nick Bowman: Is reporting your neighbor being annoying a micro-aggression? They’re mowing their yard, their dog is being loud, for whatever reason I don’t want to violate the social contract of the neighborhood, and I go online and vent with some vague language to vent. Am I reporting a micro-aggression, or am I making one myself? 

Manning: Something that someone would label a micro-aggression — someone complaining about it might also be a micro-aggression. One example of one website we looked at had a woman from a South American country complain that men were whistling at her and making advances at her because they didn’t respect women. At which point a Latin American poster said “You’re disrespecting Latin American culture, and you’re the privileged one here disrespecting us.” Her complaint was, in turn, labelled the same thing. 

Bowman: So most of us would be on her side, U.S./Western culture would be “Oh my gosh, that would be terrible.” That would only apply to the audience she’s talking to, not the audience she’s got a problem with. 

Elizabeth Cohen: If you’re posting these examples of micro-aggression online, then you have access to a world of validation. You’re able to go to a site where the entire point is — not like being at a bar, discussing it — I’m going to a website that is specifically there for me to voice my complaint. And what I’m hoping will happen is all these people are going to rally around me and say how terrible that was and validate my experience. It almost seems like it would function to diffuse some of that process of aggression . . . What I’m saying, what I have to do is take it online — which is less physical — and just have people remind me how right my feelings are. Would that actually have positive effects on the aggression process itself? 

Manning: My gut instinct is that whenever people get support for their judgments, they can sometimes be more aggressive with their judgments. 

Cohen: We know in some of our own research — when people are able to be anonymous, whether it’s because they are posting a fake name or no name at all, it increases aggressive responses. When people don’t have to be accountable, it can lead to flaming behaviors. I was wondering if some of these sites, because people can go and conduct micro aggressions without consequence, that can be different. 

Manning: One of the interesting things about online conflict and social control is that there’s the potential to do it safely — or more safely — than face-to-face encounters. Using fake names, leaking something to the blogosphere, so on. If I were an economist, I would say it’s lowering the cost of moralistic behavior.

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Manning, Bowman, and Cohen

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Jason Manning (center), assistant professor of sociology, Nicholas Bowman (left) and Elizabeth Cohen, both professors in the Department of Communication Studies, utilize different methods to uncover how people share and respond emotionally to information and social control.