Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Maybe We All Need Some 'Sensitivity' Training

By Geoff Nunberg

"Sensitive" was complicated long before it was political. Like other words for feeling, it alternates between an inert and an active meaning. Someone can be sensitive the way a tooth is, pained by the slightest touch. We think of that as a bad thing, as in, "Gee, don't be so sensitive!" Or it can be like having a sensitive nose, attuned to what's in the air. That kind of sensitivity is usually considered a good thing, at least in moderation. Novelists have always made a butt of the bluff, insensitive male — the man of the undeveloped heart, as E.M. Forster called him, the character who says things like, "Good Lord, woman, now what's the matter?"

But we're apt to mock men who demonstrate too much sensitivity, the long line of broody souls that stretches from Gilbert and Sullivan's Reginald Bunthorne to Sal Mineo and Johnny Depp to those emo guys in hoodies with a shock of hair falling over one side of their glasses.

The ambiguities of sensitivity were multiplied when it was promoted to a civic virtue in modern times. The "sensitivity training" that was originally developed in the 1940s used encounter groups as a path to personal growth. But in the 1960s it was repurposed as a technique to help managers, police officers and others come to grips with the perplexing demands of social diversity. By now, most people associate sensitivity training less with self-actualization than with learning to avoid cultural gaffes and miscues.

Geoff Nunberg

Geoff Nunberg is an adjunct full professor at the University of California, Berkeley's School of Information. He is the author of The Years of Talking Dangerously.

It was also in the '60s that people invented the new plural form "sensitivities" to refer to the sore spots that called for delicacy in dealing with the members of a particular group. Having sensitivities wasn't the same as being sensitive. The new word left it open whether the feelings were exaggerated or irrational. You don't have to understand them or agree with them, just not go there.

That was the birth of the modern regime of sensitivity, the age of "Can't we all just get along?" At the outset, the approach seemed to have a lot to recommend it. For one thing, it was easier to persuade people to modify their language than to get them to root out their deep-seated feelings about race, gender and the rest. And the hope was that if you changed behavior, attitudes would eventually follow. It's cognitively more efficient to believe the words you're obliged to say rather than always hedging them with mental air quotes.

But over the long run, the stress on sensitivities probably set back cultural understanding as much as it advanced it. For one thing, it permits people to blur the distinctions between mere thoughtlessness and antipathies that run deeper in the heart. It's only insensitive when Michael Steele uses "honest injun" — he probably never gave the expression any thought before. But there's a moral obtuseness in talking about the insensitivity of carrying a sign that depicts President Obama as a witch doctor with a bone through his nose. A lack of sensitivity is the least of that person's problems.

And while most people are raised to be polite, it turned out not to be such a good idea for institutions to try to impose deference to the sensitivities of certain groups. In response, a lot of people took to pronouncing "sensitivity" with that mocking tone and derided it under the heading of political correctness.

That actually gave a new life to a lot of the very language the speech codes were supposed to eliminate. When you preface a sentence with "This may not be the politically correct thing to say ..." you can make what used to be mere boorishness sound like a daring defiance of fashionable attitudes.

But it isn't just in the liberal enclaves of the academy that people invoke their sensitivities to trump other objections. People have used that argument to oppose the Islamic center near ground zero, to urge Glenn Beck to move his rally at the Lincoln Memorial, to object to public displays of affection by gays. In fact the controversial cases are usually the ones where honoring the sensitivities of one group involves ignoring the sensitivities or rights of another. Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays — you're treading on somebody's sensitivities whichever way you go. So these controversies always devolve into squabbles about whose sensitivities should have precedence: "We've been through more than you have"; "We were here first"; "There's more of us than of you."

Some people suggest we'd be best off paying a lot less attention to sensitivity. On ABC's This Week recently, George Will dismissed the whole Islamic center brouhaha as a filler for a slow August news season: "You can always tell a fundamentally weak story because it turns on sensitivity. Sensitivity is overrated."

He may be right about that story, but it's not as if we can ignore sensitivity, the oil of civil society. But pointing to somebody's sensitivity doesn't close off the discussion: It's not like a food allergy that everybody has to defer to when picking a restaurant. In public life, it isn't a valid argument to say "Well, it makes me uncomfortable" without spelling out the reasons. "Sensitivities" can be a stand-in for a lot of different attitudes, some more defensible than others. It's like having a sensitive tooth: You want to find out if it really needs attention.

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