On Sensitivity and How Not to Sound Like a Jerk

On Sensitivity and How Not to Sound Like a Jerk February 20, 2017

Arguing against sensitivity is neither noble nor rational (image by Chris O'Brien - Ellipsis-Imagery via Foter.com; CC BY 2.0)

Recently, a Facebook friend of mine did something that I typically think is great: They apologized for a joke they had recently made in response to concern expressed by a few people.

I have tried to cultivate friendships with people who I think are conscientious and considerate of other people, which is why I actually appreciate seeing these apologies. They are, in my view, a sign that my friends are listening, trying to do better, and taking responsibility for when they make mistakes. Everything seemed right with this.

The response was quick and quite negative, almost predictably so. There were of course appeals to humor (e.g. “People need to learn how to laugh!”), invocations of the dreaded “PC culture” (one person basically went full “This is why Trump won”), and of course claims that “Our culture is too sensitive.”

Not all of the negative responses fit in this category — I’ll get back to those a little later in this piece — but the vast preponderance of them did.

It would be a deep understatement to say that these responses frustrate me. I question if these people live in the same reality as me if they truly believe that we have a problem of hypersensitivity.

On the other hand, I don’t think that these people are universally trolls. Some of them were even trying to insist that they think sensitivity is a good thing but that this one instance crossed a line. While on some level I appreciate the urge for nuance, I think this is an extremely poor attempt to do so.

So here is, in my non-expert opinion, why sensitivity is something we need to support more and why it matters how we do so.

Yes, Sensitivity Matters

I’m assuming that most people reading this are going to lean my way on this point, but in case anyone is unclear on this point: Yes, of course it matters that we be sensitive.

One big point:

Considering what other people think is part of being a mature, conscientious individual. This should hardly be controversial, but apparently it is for some people.

Second: Who benefits the most from a lack of sensitivity? Quite frankly, privileged people. Accusations of hypersensitivity are often a way of silencing legitimate concerns from marginalized individuals. We all benefit from a multitude of perspectives, and silencing them, even if only just for the personal comfort of the privileged, diminishes that benefit.

Finally, there are some clear components of oppression involved here. Individuals who care are often treated through a gendered lens — regardless of their specific gender — just for caring. That’s why defenders of insensitivity often argue that people are “just trying to be offended” or being overly emotional in general, if they don’t immediately go to further extremes. (Clue to edgelords: The “it’s a joke, not a dick” crack has never been clever.)

As someone who has suffered from this kind of treatment, I can’t possibly express my disdain for this adequately.

No, Sensitivity Is Not the Status Quo

Now that we’ve covered the why, let’s get this next point out of the way.


When I say “we,” I’m referring to American culture, but honestly, I have yet to see sound evidence of this alleged hypersensitivity from other developed countries. I have heard people accuse various European countries of this, but for the most part, those accusations seem to be focused on exceptional anecdotes and overlook a significant amount of other ways in which those countries lack sensitivity on various issues.

One problem here is that there isn’t any objective line in the sand for sensitivity at which point we can say, “Okay, this has officially gone too far.” How far one ought to go in being sensitive is contingent on several things.

I’ve been talking about sensitivity as though it were something measurable on its own, but of course it is highly contextual. When recommendations have been made to use more inclusive language to refer to individuals who are pregnant, as the British Medical Association did last month, the pushback comes from several places: 1) the desire to maintain the status quo of “expectant mothers” (on the grounds that “the way we’ve always talked about the subject is perfectly fine”); 2) a diminishing of the impact, here because the vast majority of pregnant individuals do self-identify as female; and 3) because people just don’t think it’s important to include trans or intersex individuals in this language.

That last point is a significant one when we’re talking about “hypersensitivity” because for many people, going “too far” is merely about other people being concerned about issues that the speaker doesn’t think are important. Not caring is not a reason to disregard someone else’s concern, though, and again, I would hope that would not be a contentious point.

Our sensitivity toward issues tends to follow the idea that I wrote about as the moral asymptote of the universe: As we continue to progress, we find more issues that deserve our attention, more injustices that need to be righted. But there will continue to be individuals who resist that progress because it challenges their own privilege and forces them to grapple with new issues that they were never required to care about before.

In that sense — and others — sensitivity is about challenging the status quo. Being sensitive gains no one any real social capital (except in very limited ways, like showing that you’re not a callous jerk) and risks much of it.

So we can all quit with this idea that there’s incentive to conjure up substance-less instances of insensitivity.

How to Be Sensitive About Sensitivity

Okay, let’s assume that you’re on board with being sensitive, but you have some problems with how some people deal with allegedly insensitive statements or jokes.

Great! That’s laudable consistency. So how do you address insensitivity without coming across as a jerk?

Consider first who you’re dealing with. If the person has a track record of unapologetically making such statements, then I think you would be justified in simply calling out their insensitivity. If you’re doing it in a public forum, you may be more effective at convincing others than the individual themselves. If the person doesn’t have any history of malicious insensitivity (or if you aren’t aware of any such history), then presume that it is a mistake made out of ignorance.

Similarly, the “moral asymptote” aspect of sensitivity mentioned above means that some thoughtful, well-meaning people will simply not have considered the issue at hand if it is still somewhat on the margins. Many cisgender people don’t personally know any transgender people or know much about their personal experiences, for instance, so even if a cis person supports trans rights and opposes their oppression, they could still make an unwitting error.

In that case, they need correction more than shaming. Going from 0 to 60 on them is more likely to result in a backlash, which doesn’t help them or the cause in general. The more outside mainstream thought an issue is, the more likely this will be the case, so keep that in mind as well. You can educate and correct (if you have the patience, energy, and will to do so) to better effect.

And what if someone tries to accuse someone of insensitivity in a way you find to be “too much”?

That’s pretty easy. For starters: Do not, under any circumstances, repeat the same lines as the Status Quo Warriors do to fight compassion in general.

It might be understandable why this happens, as the lines apply whether you disapprove of any sensitivity or just a specific one or few, but all you do when you use them is undercut your support for sensitivity in general by validating the arguments used by those who would deride all such attempts.

Instead, listen to what is being said and encourage the accused individual to do the same. If they are being accused of malice when you suspect ignorance, be willing to stick up for them on that point. Resist the urge to get too defensive because that will only give others an excuse to shut down consideration.

Of course, if you are the target — and any of us has the potential for that — listen. Not every case will be one where you need to apologize, but many will, and you should be prepared to do that if need be.

But above all, remember that the way you react to being called insensitive could just as likely be used in other legitimate cases of insensitivity. If you care about those, you can put up with this small inconvenience.

Those are just a few ways you can avoid being a jerk in these situations, of course. Use your best judgment and keep in mind that your best judgment may sometimes be colored by self-preservation and your own ego. It may not always save you from embarrassment or foolish defensiveness, but it can go a long way toward preventing bigger mistakes.

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Image by Chris O’Brien – Ellipsis-Imagery via Foter.com (CC BY 2.0)

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