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Sunday, September 1, 1991

The Case for Being Insensitive

Professor Irvine teaches philosophy at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio.

At the university where I teach there recently was an uproar when a white dean allegedly said that a black faculty member is paid as much as he is because he is black. Although the dean ultimately was cleared of the charge of racism by a university committee, there were those who nevertheless held him to be guilty of the lesser crime of “insensitivity.”

This charge of insensitivity has been thrown around quite a bit in the last few years. Indeed, it is one of the main tools used by those who seek to impose “Politically Correct” thinking on America’s college campuses and elsewhere.

It is curious that Americans, who with each passing year become less concerned about good manners and etiquette, become ever more concerned with sensitivity in speech. It is okay to be a slob at the dinner table. It is okay to go out in public half dressed. It is even okay—some would have ns believe—to use four-letter words in mixed company. But never, never say something political that will hurt the feelings of another human being.

Racist and sexist remarks certainly are morally offensive. But what about remarks that are merely insensitive? Should the members of a free society attempt to suppress these remarks or condemn those who make them? Before we can answer these questions, we must first inquire into exactly what sorts of remarks, in today’s political climate, count as insensitive.

To be guilty of insensitivity, you must first say something that hurts someone’s feelings. If people don’t mind what you say, you are a sensitive individual; and if what you say makes people feel good about themselves, you will count as a wonderfully sensitive individual.

But hurting someone’s feelings alone won’t make you guilty of insensitivity, for it matters whose feelings you hurt. If, for example, the above-described dean had announced that his feelings had been hurt by being accused of racism, no one would have rushed to charge his accusers of insensitivity.

As it tums out, for a remark to count as insensitive, the person whose feelings get hurt must belong to a “protected” group. Some of these groups are defined by their minority status. For example, it is insensitive to hurt the feelings of a black or a female. (On the other hand, people with Scottish-sounding surnames are in a minority group, but not a protected minority group; it is therefore not, in today’s political climate, considered insensitive to say things that hurt their feelings.) Other protected groups are defined by lifestyle. For instance, it is insensitive—as Andy Rooney of 60 Minutes fame found out—to hurt the feelings of homosexuals, since homosexuality is a protected lifestyle. No one will charge you with insensitivity, however, if you attack the heterosexual proclivities of bachelors; their lifestyle isn’t protected.

One other thing to realize about the charge of insensitivity is that remarks need not be false to count as insensitive. Indeed, most of the remarks that get labeled insensitive are arguably true. (The dean’s remark, for example, that the black faculty member gets paid as much as he does because he is black might well be true. Indeed, given the chaotic state of affirmative action in America, it is possible that the black faculty member wouldn’t even have been interviewed for his job if he hadn’t been black.) Generally, people accuse someone of being insensitive only when they are unable to convict him of the more serious charge of being wrong.

Thus, it would appear that when someone accuses someone else of making an insensitive remark, what he is really doing is accusing someone of making an arguably true remark that members of a certain protected group don’t care to hear.

Why do people .accuse others of insensitivity? No doubt because they have found that it is an effective way to intimidate their critics into silence—much the same way that in the 1950s Senator Joseph McCarthy intimidated many of his critics into silence by labeling them Communists. Notice, too, that it is far easier to prove that someone is insensitive than to prove that he is mistaken; for to prove insensitivity, all you have to do (if you are in a protected group)is announce that your feelings have been hurt.

Is it, then, wrong to make insensitive remarks? Not if we value the truth. The charge of insensitivity, if Americans take it seriously, threatens to undermine our freedom of speech. For if we concern ourselves with the sensitivity of what we say, we bring into existence a multitude of censors—namely, ourselves. Before we open our mouths, our concern will not be, “Is what I am about to say true?” but instead, “Do people want to hear what I am about to say?” Of course, what makes freedom of speech valuable is that it protects our right to say things that people don’t want to hear. Our right to say things that people do want to hear will never be in danger.

When discussing the issues of the day, we should not worry about being “insensitive.” Conversely, when someone says something political that hurts our feelings, we should stop and ask ourselves whether his criticism is valid. If it is, he probably has done us a favor in speaking. And if it is not, we shouldn’t sit there whimpering about the critic’s insensitivity; instead we should defend ourselves by vigorously demonstrating to him why he is wrong. We will both be better for the experience.

  • Professor Irvine teaches philosophy at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio.