Patrick West

Why is the civil service being given lessons on ‘microaggressions’?

Credit: Getty images

Civil servants are being given lessons instructing them not to roll their eyes or look at their mobile phones while dealing with members of staff. Such behaviour can be deemed evidence of sexual or racial discrimination, examples of ‘microaggressions’.

As the Times reports today, more than £160,000 has been spent by the government since 2021 on hiring public sector consultants to train staff to recognise ‘perceived slights’ in the form of microaggressions. Complaints of microaggressions are even being brought to employment tribunals after Acas, the arbitration service, decided to include them in its guidance against discrimination. Elsewhere, in the same time period, the Education and Skills Funding Agency has spent more than £1,000 per worker on microaggression training for a small number of staff. 

There is no conscious way to know we are making a microaggression and so no way to prevent ourselves from making one

A microggression, an idea derived from the school of Critical Race Theory, is the concept that someone might innocently or unconsciously display a dismissive or hostile attitude through unwittingly made minor gestures. The word was coined in 1970 by the psychiatrist Chester Pierce; and the psychologist Derald Wing Sue has since described microaggressions as ‘brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to certain individuals because of their group membership’.

One class of British civil servants has recently been taught the following definition: ‘Microbehaviours are tiny, often unconscious gestures, facial expressions, postures, words and tone of voice can influence how included (or not included) the people around us feel.’ The definition pointed to examples such as ‘insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate unfriendly, critical or negative messages’. Elsewhere, Berkshire Consultancy, which has been teaching staff from the Competition and Markets Authority (which has spent over £60,000 on lessons), explains that microaggressions ‘are usually delivered by well-intentioned individuals unaware that they have engaged in harmful conduct toward a socially devalued group.’

There is of course one glaring contradiction inherent in the idea of teaching people how not to make microaggressions: you cannot avoid making an unconscious gesture.

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Written by
Patrick West
Patrick West is a columnist for Spiked and author of Get Over Yourself: Nietzsche For Our Times (Societas, 2017)

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