All Commentary
Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The Microaggressions of Immigration

"Press 1 for English?!"

I have zero sympathy for the fashionable crusade against “microaggressions.” When backed by government funding and lawsuits, the concept is a thinly-veiled attack on freedom of speech. But even without government backing, “microaggression” is an attack on common decency. Taking offense when a speaker intends no offense is simply rude. If someone happens to step on our emotional toes, civility impels us to suppress the urge to take it personally. Say “don’t mention it” — or better yet, don’t mention it.

The microaggression label is narrowly tied to leftist identity politics. Support for the concept, however, is far broader. With the possible exception of Mormons, what group doesn’t leap at the chance to decry the slightest of slights?

On-campus, of course, we usually hear about straight cis-gendered white males committing racist, sexist, homophobic, and transphobic microaggressions. Off-campus, however, I see a totally different pattern: Natives lamenting the microaggressions immigrants commit against our national identity.

The most obvious case: many Americans routinely grouse when immigrants publicly speak languages other than English. They get even more annoyed when they have to “press 1 for English” on an ATM machine or customer service menu. Offending Americans is the furthest thing from the immigrants’ minds; they’re just going about their business. But nativists take offense anyway: “In America, we speak English!”

The same goes when Americans voice antipathy for immigrants’ distinctive appearance: The clothes they wear, the cars they drive, the sports teams they cheer. Immigrants intend no offense, but Americans take offense nonetheless.

I also often hear Americans fret that immigrants — especially Muslims — are too intolerant to keep around. Why? Not because their crime rates are objectively high, but because they come from sexist, homophobic, anti-Semitic cultures — and thereby make women, gays, and Jews feel uncomfortable. The upshot: even the most tolerant Muslim in the world commits microaggressions by walking around, making Americans wonder if he’s intolerant in his heart.

When leftist college students fume over microaggressions, the non-academic world properly scoffs. Government shouldn’t lift a finger, and students should grow a thicker skin. Logically, the same goes for immigrants’ alleged microaggressions. Government should do nothing, and nativists should grow some tolerance. Immigration inspires some serious concerns, but natives’ hypersensitivity isn’t one of them.

What about Americans’ right to “preserve their culture”? I’m tempted to call it the nativist version of a “safe space,” but cultural preservation is far more totalitarian. A “safe space” is but an enclave — a small corner of the world where politically-correct norms prevail.

To “preserve a culture,” in contrast, requires a whole country to impose traditional norms on everyone. And this is crazy: You don’t even have the right to force your culture on your adult children, much less millions of strangers.

This post first appeared at Econlog.

  • Bryan Caplan is a professor of economics at George Mason University, research fellow at the Mercatus Center, adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute, and blogger for EconLog. He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.