Our “hypersensitivity,” “ of victimhood” — however you may describe it — is a problem. While this notion is sometimes exploited to caricature requests for respect, the attitude it refers to can ultimately disrupt and threaten the rigor of academic life. Both aspects are concerning. The phenomenon of acute sensitivity is not restricted to any particular group or outlook, but usually emerges in the context of demands for certain language and the like, and it betrays deeper flaws behind our use of and need for such measures.
Arguments for politically correct language are completely reasonable. As discourses include a broader range of individuals, some of their expressions must be changed — it is claimed — to avoid alienating people whom such language might appear to undermine. For example: On campus, psychological problems that might once have been characterized as poor responses to environmental stressors are now increasingly being characterized by advocates as neurological differences. This “politically correct” stance actually clashes with NextYale’s calls for mental health practitioners who specialize in problems deemed unique to minorities. One cannot insist that psychological problems should be considered innate differences and also demand racially sensitive psychological treatment without contradicting P.C. gospel. To do so would suggest that what may appear as symptomatic of anxiety in a person of color is, in fact, a maladaptive response to perceived discrimination (or some racialized disorder) — while the very same symptoms in a white student are effects of neurological abnormality.
While the two viewpoints above are not strictly contradictory, few would dare hold both, and the problem is not that such perspectives may offend — they’re just too simplistic to be accurate or useful. One must become “insensitive” to proceed here. Unquestioning adherents of fashionable P.C. expressions will at some point undermine other supposedly progressive views and erect harmful stereotypes in their wake. “Correct” premises give way to “incorrect” interpretations. Even in a therapeutic context like the above example, “insensitivity” is inevitable. It’s also inevitable in academic and intellectual life. Blind adherence to ready-to-hand phraseology makes serious thinking impossible. By concretizing identities in narrow and inaccurate ways, it also makes real respect difficult to give or receive.
Taking someone or something seriously will at some point produce a statement that might seem “insensitive.” Moreover, being treated “sensitively” does not always mean one is being taken seriously or treated respectfully. In practice, demands for absolute sensitivity promote a false pluralism that reinforces rigid stereotypes. When we craft our discourse according to abstract ideas of what we think will be politically correct, we often ossify identities. We encourage – not challenge – the idea that difference is weakness.
This is not a justification for mistreatment. The point is not that we should aim to offend. Kindness is of the utmost importance. Nor do I mean to suggest that a perfectly individualized discourse is any more possible (or desirable) than a perfectly “sensitive” one. The point is rather that a language superficially attuned to difference can hinder the process of mutual understanding. Moreover, when we expect that the people we interact with should know as well as we do what offends us, we’ve passed from sensitivity into hysteria. To demand participation in a language game with rules perfectly tailored to one’s own experience is to cross from self-assertion into self-absorption. In any case, what point would there be in trying to craft a language in which no expression gave offense? Such an effort would be deadening and futile. Absolute sensitivity is extraneous to the goal of respectful exchange.
To be misunderstood is not to be undermined, and the possibility of misunderstanding is what makes social and intellectual life meaningful. All of us, even those who aren’t minorities in any sense, have been guilty of accounting for our own problems as another’s prejudice. Yet where does self-defense stop and serious engagement begin? I ask this as a liberal (and a woman of color) who would resent excusing gratuitous and intentional offenses as free speech. Resisting the rigid and superficial byproducts of P.C. culture should not be a partisan task.
The deeper embarrassments of identity are often less about a particular biography than the chagrin of feeling like one’s biography is all one has to bring to the discussion. One can feel this sense of guilt regardless of background. Challenging our prejudices is important, but emphatic sensitivity is not an end in itself. If we spend more energy trying to perform our sensitivities for each other than seriously interacting and working together, we risk turning each other into bundles of superficial attributes that lack real personhood.
Katherine Adams is a junior in Berkeley College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .