Saturday, November 24, 2007

Less Sensitivity, please

Ophelia Benson offers some apt remarks on hypersensitivity:
'As a Christian I am offended' - there's one of the worst, most repellent formulas in the discourse of complaint we have today - but boy is it popular. Variations of it were all over Nova's 'Judgment Day': one stalwart citizen of Dover after another talking about being offended. I think that was the first thing the awful Bill Buckingham said - 'I am personally offended by evolution because the Bible etc etc etc' - the 'personally' was a nice annoying touch. So you're 'personally' offended by reality, so what! The world doesn't revolve around you, so suck it up...

['Sensitivity' is] another one - it's like the mirror-image of 'offended.' It's what you're supposed to run to the closet and fetch when someone is offended - sensitivity. They're a co-dependent couple, those two words... But all the same, there is something very stomach-turning about the idea that a university is supposed to deploy 'sensitivity' about the organ of offendedness in godbothering students when planning its lectures on academic subjects.

It's so depressing how arbitrary subjective responses are presented in public discourse as though they were legitimate reasons ('Shut up! Shut up! You're making me feel bad! So do as I say!'). We've developed a disastrous social norm according to which anyone can win instant brownie points by claiming to be a "victim" -- and doubly so if their claim is made qua membership in some "community" ('As an X, I'm offended...'). Maybe the thought is that all communities are equal, so if one is feeling a bit hard done by, this must reflect some injustice, and certainly not any shortcoming on their part.

There's no more vicious character trait, we're taught, than being insufficiently "sensitive" to others' feelings. Manipulative liars are hunky dory - nobody cares about intellectual honesty - but the moment you make someone feel bad, social disapproval is sure to follow. Maybe this is legitimate when it comes to personal interactions: as private individuals, we should of course be considerate of others. But the public sphere should not be governed by the same norms.

It's vital for the progress of civilization that there be a space for open debate and unhindered intellectual inquiry into controversial issues. People won't always like what they hear, but that's an inevitable consequence of seeking the truth. A truth-seeking society cannot allow public discourse to be derailed by merely subjective complaints. Feeling offended is not a public reason that has any place in the discourse. It's a purely private fact about yourself (or your faction, if you're angling for the "community" bonus points) that has no claim on society at large.

The underlying problem, I suspect, is that our public culture has become so infected with subjectivist assumptions that people don't realize that there's a difference between desires and reasons. Sentiments are taken as given; no-one ever stops to question whether their reactive attitudes are warranted. Any kind of negative emotion is not just evidence, but constitutive, of suffering injustice. You're offended, therefore they're in the wrong. It's fucked up.

Social norms exert great influence over public behaviour. In recent times, they've been pressing us to become more sensitive to others' arbitrary feelings (and to cultivate our own feelings of victimhood). One gains instant sympathy by playing the victim, and others risk social censure if they don't play along. This is daft. A more sensible society would privilege the truth, placing great weight on intellectual honesty and warranted - rationally defensible - emotions. We have it backwards: unreasoned emotional appeals should lead us to roll our eyes, not roll over -- such coddling simply encourages the blithering idiots!

Of course, if it can be established that you've truly done bad, then that must be taken seriously. But merely making someone feel bad is insufficient. That's a fact about them, not you. If the feeling is unwarranted, then it's their problem, not yours. The quality of public discourse would, like, double overnight if everyone would just remember this. A just society seeks to give each their due -- a matter that calls for measured assessment, not pandering to whingers and whiners.


  1. I agree and yet I am not entirely convinced by your argument.
    as a utilitarian making someone feel bad is indeed an issue.

    It is also a pragmatic issue - if you make someone feel bad you are less likely to be able to engage them in debate, less likely to get their support etc.

    Of course as I said I agree in that I am constantly annoyed by the use of the argument and its use generally speaking to support the wrong side in any particular debate.


  2. But then there is a pragmatic reply to the pragmatic issue (and thus perhaps a pragmatic treadmill to get on): if you make someone feel bad you are less likely to be able to engage them in debate, but by the same token if people greet every truth-claim they don't like with 'I'm offended' then grown-up open free rational discussion will become impossible.

  3. Hi Richard,
    What of our respect for people's right to frame, revise and pursue their own conception of the good? Ok, my Mum might be wrong that there is something objectively wrong with slurping; but, knowing her sensibility, and sitting at her table, haven't I still got a (pro tanto) reason not to slurp?

  4. Hi Barry, I certainly agree that we shouldn't go around gratuitously offending people (especially in our personal interactions). I'm making the more limited claim that arbitrary sensibilities shouldn't be admitted as public reasons or grounds for complaint in public discourse.

    Could you say a bit more about how you see this impeding anyone's right to "pursue their own conception of the good"? (If anything, I would have thought such considerations would support my position, since it protects individuals from being pushed around by sensibilities they do not share.)

  5. It always seemed to me that the only ethical infractions committed by Milgram, Zimbardo, and other prominent social psychologists of the 60s and 70s was revealing discomforting truths about people, yet their very promising research program was essentially shut down. If psychology isn't allowed to reach uncomfortable conclusions it can't get very far.

  6. Hmm, I don't think that's right. The problem with the Milgram and Zimbardo experiments was about informed consent, wasn't it? It was to do with the well-being of the experimental subjects, not with uncomfortable truths. The people in the Milgram experiment were really messed up afterwards - understandably. No, I think the ethical problems are very real. It's too bad because the knowledge is invaluable - but - the experiments just were hell on the subjects. And Zimbardo says so himself! He thinks he was blind and ruthless to put his subjects through what he did.

  7. It really is kind of hard to pinpoint the ethical problems in Milgram's experiments (in Zimbardo's, they're more obvious). Deception is a regular, and quite frankly, integral part of psychological research (I've used some degree of deception in almost every study I've ever done), and Milgram thoroughly debriefed his participants and, at least according to his own defense of his studies, followed-up with them to ensure their well-being. But his participants did report a great deal of anxiety during and after the studies, and it's hard to know what long-term effects participation had on them (Milgram himself doesn't really look at this very closely). The ethical status of those studies (which lasted more than 20 years!) is a thorny and hotly debated topic to this day in psychology.

    Milgram, interestingly, argued that the intellectual contribution of a study should be weighed heavier than ethical considerations. Of course, this is a guy who essentially stole his research paradigm and got famous for it, so you can't really trust his ethical intuitions.

    More on topic, I think you have to be very careful about issues of sensitivity. It's true that we're too careful to avoid stepping on people's toes, and this does stifle rational discussion, but we also live in imperfect societies in which certain groups have historically been, and continue to be marginalized. As a result, it's very often the case that members of those groups being offended is a pretty damn good sign that something's amiss, and as a result using their sensitivity as a compass is a pretty good heuristic, even if it sometimes limits the scope or topic of debate.

  8. But you have a sampling problem there. The ones who choose to be publicly offended are not necessarily representative of the minority population; their reactions may well be (I would say, are more likely to be, in many cases) due to their own psychology than to their membership of the minority group.

    This problem is a commonplace one in management; there are always a couple of members of staff who will go on about how poor morale is, how the staff are upset by x policy and so on. Most of the time, they speak only for themselves and are regarded by their peers with more-or-less indulgent contempt. "High-maintenance" is the term often used for such people. An inexperienced or weak manager who takes their views seriously is normally heading for trouble,

  9. "As a result, it's very often the case that members of those groups being offended is a pretty damn good sign that something's amiss..."

    Hmm...I really don't think so. For the reason potentilla mentions, and also just for the obvious reason that people can 'be offended' about anything and everything; can be and are; and if we all clutch our hair and rush to soothe them all, all discussion and writing and thought will freeze up like a pipe in a blizzard and everyone will turn into a spoiled whining self-obsessed bedwetting baby. I really think that's a terrible road to go down - I don't think it does the victims any good at all; on the contrary it fosters contempt (as, again, potentilla indicates). Inayat Bunglawala is shooting himself in the foot every time he talks about 'Muslim sensibilities,' as are the people who want to force Taslima Nasreen out of India for the identical reason. (I'm not being unfair, Bunglawala was doing just that in a BBC article on the 'teddy bear' outrage today.)

    I agree with Milgram in a way about the intellectual value. But I don't think I have the right to stick to that - because being one of the torturers would be so horrible. Life-damaging. It kills me to think we won't get any more experiments of that kind, but I can't justify what it takes to get them. (I would not want to live the rest of my life with that knowledge about myself - it would poison it. So I can't justify it for other peopel. The experimenters can't very well seek out especially thick-skinned people who wouldn't mind - that would distort the experiment!)

  10. Richard, it almost seems like "being cool" has taken the place of being right. Perhaps we allow this because we lack proper education these days and it's easier to not offend anyone, especially with the truth.

  11. Richard, I think you have a valid point with respect to substance: we shouldn't let sensitivity deter us from making substantive points that stand up to rational argument. On the other hand, it makes a lot of sense to me that we should be sensitive enough to express those substantive points in tactful ways. That dichotomy stands up well to the pragmatic line of argument at the beginning of this comment thread: if you want to convince people, you have little hope of doing so if you express your argument in a way that offends them, and as for fostering open dialogue, there is little to be lost by insisting that the dialogue be civil.

    When I look at the specific example to which you link, it seems that the issue was a formal one (timing) rather than a substantive one.

  12. I'm shocked to see Ophilia comment as she does. How is the issue of sensitivity any different from that raised by the Milgram experiment. You initially criticized sensitivity claims as stifling to discourse and suggested that people don't have a right to refuse true information, but then when I bring up Milgram you seem to say exactly the opposite in, what seems to me, a very non-borderline case, e.g. one where the person really needs to know because without knowing something that they don't want to hear they will be a danger to others.

  13. "I'm shocked to see Ophilia comment as she does."<--pun intended? (hope so)


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