February 27, 2015 15:20 UTC

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What Americans Mean When They Make an Appeal to 'Sensitivity'


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AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on WORDMASTER: our guest is linguist Geoff Nunberg. He's been listening to how Americans debate issues, and there's a particular word he often finds they invoke: "sensitivities."

GEOFF NUNBERG: "It's used by the left, it's used by the right. It's a word that really came into the language -- I mean sensitivity is an old word. But sensitivities, particularly in the plural, came into the language in the nineteen seventies as a response to all of the movements of the period -- civil rights movement, feminist movement, later what was called the gay liberation movement at the time -- in an effort to get people to be more sensitive in their language and attitudes and behavior towards members of minorities or towards women or towards people with other sexual orientations."

RS: "Now has that changed in the last thirty, forty years?"

GEOFF NUNBERG: "Well, it hasn't changed, at least to the extent that whenever a broadcast personality or a politician or someone makes a remark that's arguably offensive to some group, he or she is required to undergo sensitivity training. And people -- whether they're on the left criticizing a politician on the right, or on the right criticizing a politician on the left -- will argue that the remark demonstrated insensitivity on the part of the politician. So it's become a very general term in American English for any activity that might offend the members of another group."

AA: "It's interesting, it seems like one person's sensitivity is another's political correctness. Doesn't it make some people cringe when they hear that term?"

What Americans Mean When They Make an Appeal to 'Sensitivity'
What Americans Mean When They Make an Appeal to 'Sensitivity'

GEOFF NUNBERG: "Absolutely. And particularly in the academy, in the universities, where there was this effort to impose rules that respected the sensitivities of certain groups, there was this reaction where people said 'Oh, that's a matter of political correctness.' And that, in turn, in some ways it exacerbated the very problems that the sensitivity training was supposed to address, because people then had a pretext for using language that twenty or thirty years earlier would have been merely offensive. Now you can start a sentence with 'This may not be the politically correct thing to say,' and go on to say something that would have been just a horrible thing to say thirty years earlier."

RS: "In your writing you say 'over the long run, the stress on sensitivities probably set back cultural understanding as much as it advanced it.' What do you mean by that?"

GEOFF NUNBERG: "Well, I mean on the one hand, as I say, that there's been a reaction against sensitivity -- then some people pronounce it with a shudder: 'Oh, let's worry about being "sensitive."' And that gives them almost a political pretext for continuing the behavior that the stress on sensitivity was supposed to address.

"And, on the other hand, an appeal to sensitivity can replace reasoned argument. But in this case those sensitivities may have any number of bases. They may be genuine, rational; they may also conceal attitudes that are ignorant or racist or bigoted or unfeeling.

"Often appeals to sensitivity on one side involve people who want to offend the sensitivity of people on the other side. So it can become a way of avoiding a serious discussion of the issues. It can become a way of closing off the discussion."

AA: "You know, it's funny, when you think about it, if you describe someone these days as 'sensitive' -- maybe it's always been like this -- you can look at that two different ways. You know, one is that can be a sympathetic statement: 'Oh, this person's sensitive, we don't want to hurt their feelings.' Or, on the other hand, 'Oh, you're sensitive!' Maybe it's how you say it, or the tone or what you mean."

RS: "No, I think that what I heard from you, though, was that when it's in political discourse, it takes on another meaning, and that sensitive, in the word of being sensitive or not sensitive, is something personal. But when it goes beyond the personal -- is that what I'm hearing you say?"

GEOFF NUNBERG: "Yeah, I think in ordinary language it's a very difficult word, because, as you say, it can be either a criticism -- 'Don't be so sensitive!' -- or it can be a criticism to not have it. Men are always being accused by women of being insensitive, so that you can have too much sensitivity or too little sensitivity depending on the context.

"In political discourse, and particularly when it's used in the plural as sensitivities, in which case people are always talking about the feelings of a group rather than an individual, it's very often a way of suggesting that these are things you should avoid without thinking about why you should avoid them."

AA: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist at the University of California, Berkeley, and a contributor to public radio's "Fresh Air" program. And that's WORDMASTER for this week. Archives are at voanews.com/wordmaster. With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.

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