Bryan Caplan  

The Microaggressions of Immigration

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Kudos to Brad DeLong... Two dubious ideas...
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 cisgendered 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: 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 natives 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 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.




COMMENTS (32 to date)
Philippe Belanger writes:

A thought experiment for libertarian open-borderers:

You live in a country where 100% of the population is libertarian. It's a very wealthy and peaceful country because, well, everybody is a libertarian. Do you open the borders to non-libertarians, even if as a consequence, libertarians become a minority and lose political power? What is the libertarian thing to do?

I take it that if libertarianism is to have any internal coherence, the rational thing to do would be to preserve the libertarian culture. But if that's the case, then why would it be irrational for natives, given what they believe, to preserve their culture by passing it on to their children or keeping foreigners out?

JK Brown writes:

Well, there must be some cultural preservation. Americans have a tradition of individual liberties, of women being able to go about unmolested and without a male family member wearing very little. As well as the liberty to draw an image, even debase any book or burn the very flag of the nation.

Much effort has been put in to removing strictures put into place by the Christian majority, it hardly seems useful to permit a minority to impose their religious controls.

So exactly where it the cultural preservation line?

Richard writes:
With the possible exception of Mormons, what group doesn't leap at the chance to decry the slightest of slights?

Yeah, whenever a college professor or journalist criticizes white males, there's always an outcry. Actually, no, the people who take offense at white bashing are considered scum of the earth who would reinstitute slavery if they could.

Shane L writes:

On a related note, it struck me that being sensitive to other people's vulnerabilities seems good and compassionate, but being sensitive to one's own is rather different. While it may be kind and thoughtful to pause before making a joke that could hurt your neighbour's feelings, snapping at a neighbour that unthinkingly hurts yours is selfish. In so far as it makes people compassionate towards the sensitivities of others, the movement could be beneficial. I fear that it encourages people to be hypersensitive and selfish regarding themselves, seeking offence where there is none and causing hurt to the innocent people who offend them.

Jon Murphy writes:

@Philippe

I take it that if libertarianism is to have any internal coherence, the rational thing to do would be to preserve the libertarian culture.

I disagree. I think that, if libertarians were to insist upon closed borders, it would be decidedly incoherent.

One of the main tenants of libertarianism is that freedom and rights are naturally given; they do not derive from some governmental body but rather simply from existence. If one insists that rights and freedoms pertain only to those within some politically-drawn borders (which is essentially what closed borders does), then it is an implicit confession that rights and freedoms derive from a political source, which would be an anathema to libertarian philosophy.

The thing with defending freedom is that it is not easy. It requires you to defend it for people you like as well as those you dislike. I may not like what Trump or Sanders have to say, but I will defend their right to say it.

Ultimately, that is what your question comes down to: are we willing to defend the freedoms of those with whom we disagree? Closed borders is a very loud "no." It also leads to the question "how far should one go to preserve "libertarian culture"? Should anti-libertarian books be banned? What about anti-libertarian speeches? Should all citizens have to pass an ideology test before being allowed to vote or run for office?

If you start making the "freedom for me but not for thee" argument, then one will quickly become the very evil he claims he's fighting against.

Emily writes:

If you don't like it when the relatively liberal and tolerant Americans make known their preferences for the types of communities they would like to live in/their expectations of their neighbors/the laws they would like to protect these things, you're going to really hate it when the folks doing this are the much less liberal and tolerant folks we were trying to keep out!

Effem writes:

"With the possible exception of Mormons, what group doesn't leap at the chance to decry the slightest of slights?"

Seems like it has become politically-fashionable to insult 100% of "Wall St"/"bankers" by calling them greedy and responsible for the GFC. As best I can tell they just keep going about their business.

RPLong writes:

@ Philippe Belanger -

Very interesting thought experiment. I propose that we repeat it a few times, with slight variations:

1) You live in a country where 100% of the population is libertarian. It's a very wealthy and peaceful country because, well, everybody is a libertarian. Do you guarantee the freedom of speech to non-libertarians, even if as a consequence, libertarians become a minority and lose political power? What is the libertarian thing to do?

2) You live in a country where 100% of the population is libertarian. It's a very wealthy and peaceful country because, well, everybody is a libertarian. Do you guarantee the right to bear arms to non-libertarians, even if as a consequence, libertarians become out-gunned and lose military power? What is the libertarian thing to do?

3) You live in a country where 100% of the population is libertarian. It's a very wealthy and peaceful country because, well, everybody is a libertarian. Do you abstain from excessive market regulations even for non-libertarian businesses, even if as a consequence, libertarians and lose market power? What is the libertarian thing to do?

4) Etc., etc.

The point is this: guaranteeing liberty to all human beings, regardless of their political point of view is the libertarian thing to do. Any other point of view might be well-meaning and well-reasoned, but probably not liberal in the libertarian sense of the word.

MikeDC writes:
One of the main tenants of libertarianism is that freedom and rights are naturally given; they do not derive from some governmental body but rather simply from existence. If one insists that rights and freedoms pertain only to those within some politically-drawn borders (which is essentially what closed borders does), then it is an implicit confession that rights and freedoms derive from a political source, which would be an anathema to libertarian philosophy.

Disagree. I'm a libertarian and I believe exactly the opposite. I'm agnostic, and thus, I don't see any "natural" source of freedoms and rights at all. There's likely no God that's given us freedom. Rather, what we naturally have is a (flawed) capacity for rational thought, which leads to the ability to reach agreements with each other. Our rights and freedoms are by definition "political" because they are the product of these agreements.

Indeed, without the agreement of others, it's hard to see how a right or freedom has any meaning. If I were alone on an island, of course I'd have perfect freedom of speech but it'd be a pointless artifice.

Thus, our freedoms only even go so far as our society is willing to agree to and enforce.

-----------------

And obviously, from that perspective, the sole criteria that makes sense for a libertarian society is to ask whether its members are willing to take the responsibility to protect those mutually agreed upon rights.

Noah writes:

Rightest identity politics seem to be jumping on the bandwagon. More and more seem to take secret pleasure in attacking those whose words can be twisted in any possible way to imbue a purportedly perceived offense to whites, males, working class white males, or especially white working class males of the Christian persuasion.

Why not mention the offense? Don't take offense, but explain how it might be offensive. This can lead to discussion of whether different vocabulary better communicates desired meaning, or possibly make a person aware of their biases.

Richard's point gets to the heart of the absurdity of the matter. Any white male who strays from the victim narrative wherein white males are the root of diverse evils is himself complicit in all those evils. No amount of protestation that you're not one of them is relevant, so long as you stray whatsoever from the victim narrative wherein white males are the root of all these evils. I don't pinpoint the left in general, but there is definitely a vocal minority, possibly increasing in number, who apply such reasoning. I try to convince them that the Trump phenomenon is their fault, as a response to such excesses of the 2016 variant of PC.

MikeDC writes:

@ Phillipe and RPLong
I think this thought experiment depends on what sort of libertarian you are.

If you're a libertarian like me who thinks that our rights arise from mutual consent and tolerance, the question to whom we allow membership in society is important.

So, suppose

You live in a country where 100% of the population is libertarian. It's a very wealthy and peaceful country because, well, everybody is a libertarian. Do you open the borders to non-libertarians, even if as a consequence, libertarians become a minority and lose political power? What is the libertarian thing to do?

You open the borders to everyone who credibly promises to support the foundational libertarian principle.

Over time, my assumption is that even with 0 immigration, such a society will cease to be 100% libertarian because some people will change their minds about libertarianism, and people born into the society would presumably inherit membership but not explicitly agree to it.

In such a society, immigration could work to either preserve or destroy libertarian culture based on the rules of membership. I submit that for folks making the conscious decision to join the society it's not to much to ask for them to credibly agree to its core principle. If that were the case, immigration would tend to further promote the libertarian society and we'd have little to worry about.

kpk writes:

Of the people I generally agree with, I find myself taking exception to BC frequently. In this case, I believe that a culture can be overwhelmed, and overwhelmed unfavorably. Throughout history people have been on the move, immigrating. As often as not they have destroyed the existing people and culture. A civilized, rather humane culture can be replaced a new culture, far less tolerant and humane.
I have visited every inhabited continent, visited nearly 100 countries, and lived in the third world for years. I have experienced and embraced diversity.....but lets us be careful to change slowly, integrate new residents at a pace we can cope with, and not blindly go forward with the naive belief that all will be well. We need immigrants, and should want them..but thoughtful caution is warranted.

Jeff writes:

Good post and I generally agree with the sentiments expressed, but that said, I do still really get annoyed when I go to watch a DVD and I now have to sit through that FBI warning about copyright infringement in English and Spanish, mostly because nobody who speaks either language actually reads it. I do not hold immigrants responsible for this, but still, when you add up all the times I'm going to watch a DVD from now until eternity, you're talking about shaving hours or days off my life. That's like a tax on my free time, and I demand recompense, which in the spirit of minimizing transaction costs ought to take the form of an allotment of free or reduced price meals at Baja Fresh.

Noah Carl writes:
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

Many immigrant groups do have objectively high crime rates:

http://www.unz.com/akarlin/immigrant-crime-in-germany/

Jon Murphy writes:

@ Jeff:

Who still watches DVDs? Digital download is where it's at ;-)

Martin writes:

"ATM machine"

Now THAT'S a microaggression.

A thought experiment for libertarian free-speechers:

You live in a country where 100% of the newspapers are libertarian. It's a very wealthy and peaceful country because, well, the entire media establishment is libertarian. Do you allow socialist or populist newspapers, even if as a consequence, libertarians become a minority and lose political power? What is the libertarian thing to do?

Levi Russell writes:

I invite Brian to put his money where his mouth is and spend some time along the southern border. Instead of calling people intolerant racist xenophobes, maybe you would learn something about the lives of people along the border. You can get a flight to McAllen, Laredo, El Paso, or Chula Vista pretty easily.

MikeDC writes:

@ Joseph Hertzlinger
The libertarian thing is to have confidence that that freedom of speech does not inevitably lead to the loss of freedom of speech.

Jonathan Murphy writes:

MikeDC, your definition of rights and freedom is contradictory. Besides, I didn't say anything about God. You needn't believe in God to believe rights are natural.

MikeDC writes:

@Jonathan Murphy,
I disagree, but perhaps you could elaborate. Some objectivists call the result of their rational conclusions a "natural right", but again, it doesn't seem right to me to call a rational conclusion and mutual agreement between people a "natural" thing.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Levi Russell,
I invite Brian[sic] to put his money where his mouth is and spend some time along the southern border. Instead of calling people intolerant racist xenophobes, maybe you would learn something about the lives of people along the border. You can get a flight to McAllen, Laredo, El Paso, or Chula Vista pretty easily.
As I’m guessing you know, you’re not likely to talk Bryan into making that trip. But maybe he doesn’t need to. What is that you think he would see that should change his mind on statement(s) he has made above?

Joe Munson writes:

As a life long (unwilling) mormon who left the church at 18, I'd say that when mormonism is the overwhelming population, its pretty clear you get the state of Deseret and Brigam Young / Utah state in 1850. With a 51 percent majority you likely get a federal government much more like utah state gov.

A theocracy

Anecdotally, it seems to me that the strange culture that is Utah Mormonism, seems very concerned with saving face and respecting the social hierarchy, it reminds me of cultures that are heavily influenced by Confucius teachings.

Then again, I have no direct experience with other cultures, but it is certainly more hierarchical then main stream america, and muted, mormons insult each other very subtly.

Joe Munson writes:

Ugh, bit of a typo.

I don't mean to say Utah state gov is a theocracy, (though without federal oversight it would a lot more like one!)

I mean to say that in 1850 what was Utah was essentially a theocracy, at least the areas controlled by Brigham Young.

Prakash writes:

Is this the Bryan Caplan that wrote "My Beautiful Bubble"?

That whole essay was a poetic praise of "safe spaces".

Levi Russell writes:

David

What is that you think he would see that should change his mind on statement(s) he has made above?

I doubt any of it would change his mind but it might cause him to have a bit more respect for the people with whom he disagrees. Perhaps they're simply mistaken about the effects drug laws and political borders have on their daily lives, but that doesn't make them evil racists. It's easy to scream about how "intolerant" people are from a bubble in the D.C. area.

I don't see how it's so clear that "open borders" are a libertarian solution seeing as that would require the people who actually own the land at the border to allow others to move across their land. Isn't that trespassing? What if a landowner doesn't want people to cross his land?

Levi Russell writes:

Additionally, David, any advocate of open or closed (or something in between) borders has to recognize that there are both costs and benefits associated with these policies. I'd wager that many of the heavier costs of open borders will fall on those at the border, not those in their "safe spaces" in the northeast.

DonnieBoSchmo writes:

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johnson85 writes:

I rarely, if ever, see econlog posters make intellectually dishonest posts, but I think this qualifies:

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.

This is not why americans fret and the crime rates comment is a non-sequitur. They don't care whether Muslim immigrants come from, what they care about is that they politically support bringing government force against people that are insufficiently Muslim, and that there are examples both in the U.S. and more so in the U.K. and France, that concentrated Muslim populations result in Western values related to free speech, freedom of religion, equality between the sexes, etc., are often erased at the local level.

I'm not sure if their position is a good one or not, honestly, but if you want to argue against their position, you should at least engage it honestly and make an argument of why those problems won't manifest on a larger scale with more Muslim immigration.

I have reread that paragraph several times trying to be charitable and the more I read it, the more it seems to fall well beneath the standards that econlog posts typically adhere too.

Ron H. writes:

MikeDC

Instead of the term 'natural rights', would a principle of 'sovereignty of the individual' or 'right of self ownership' meet your definition of human attributes not requiring the permission or approval of others?

It's not hard to consider such attributes part of our nature as human beings when we observe that people will instinctively defend those rights, or that self ownership against infringement by others. Maybe that's why they are called 'natural'.

That right of self ownership could also be considered inalienable, as we can't give up our will to act or think. We may refrain from acting by choice, or because we are physically restrained or for fear of negative consequences if we DO act, but we can't give up the will to do so.

Natural rights are generally considered to be negative, but I assume you already know that.


johnson85 writes:

I guess there is no way to retract or edit posts?

I should have reread the entire post, as I lost track of the context. I guess looked at only in the context of micro-agressions, that would be a relevant argument to address, although it still seems like something of a strawman because I've never actually heard that pushed as an argument against immigration and I doubt any significant number of people actually rely on that as their justification for any immigration policy they hold.

Still an overreaction on my part.

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Tony writes:

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