Monday, October 17, 2011

Sensitivity U

The university stands for the free exchange of ideas and thought. It marks itself out as the place where transgressive thoughts are given a fair hearing. And yet, is there any place in modern American life where one must be more careful about what one says and above all the way in which one says it?

We talk all the time about being sensitive. but what we should really be worried about is being insensitive in the nineteenth century sense of not letting ourselves be succumb to pain and discomfort, of not allowing ourselves to be offended and, when offended, not allowing ourselves to show it or make a great deal of it.

Trying to talk about serious issues without ever offending anyone is a fool's errand. You can't do it. If you are talking about anything important, if you are talking about anything important and taking a position that is different from the position that most people around you take, you are bound to offend someone. You can't help but hurt someone's feelings.

After all, what do people care about but the things that are important to them. If you are telling someone that they are wrong about something that they think is very important and vital to the course of the future you are going to have to challenge a deeply held belief and, almost inevitably, offend someone.

We train our students to follow a carefully worked out set of guidelines that allow them to talk about important issues--within boundaries--without offending anyone, or at least the members of the groups whose sensibilities are considered especially important by the choice and master spirits of the age. If you say something that offends heterosexual males or is generally disparaging of southerners you needn't worry so much. I say that last bit not because I think that those groups deserve sympathy or are treated unfairly but to point out that I wish we could treat all groups with such similar lack of concern for their feelings.

I think that such insensitivity would be to their benefit. People who will be honest with you about your own shortcomings do you a favor, though it may not be one that is very pleasant to receive.

And just as we should be less concerned about being offended for our own good, we should be less careful about offending others for our own good. The reason you should take care to avoid as much as possible putting a thought in a way that hurts someone's feelings or transgresses against their cherished beliefs is that they will be less receptive to your argument. Thus, you should be sensitive out for entirely selfish reasons. When you really want to help someone is precisely when you should put concerns about being sensitive aside.

No comments: