July 30, 2015 14:32 UTC

USA

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


Or download MP3 (Right-click or option-click and save link)

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.

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Learn with The News

  • Myanmar hopes to replace poppies with coffee

    Audio In Myanmar, Replacing Poppy Plants with Coffee

    Myanmar’s Shan State is the second-largest opium-producing area in the world. But the area's poppy farmers are now earning less for their crops, as the price of poppy fluctuates. Now, the United Nations is hoping many farmers in Shan State will decide to grow coffee instead. More

  • FILE - In this undated image released by the FBI, Mullah Omar is seen in a wanted poster. An Afghan official said his government is examining claims that reclusive Taliban leader Mullah Omar is dead.

    Audio Afghan Government: Taliban Leader Mullah Omar Died in 2013

    The Taliban earlier this month said Mullah Omar is alive. Also Wednesday, U.S. lawmakers sought details about the group to enforce a nuclear deal with Iran; Turkish warplanes attacked targets in northern Iraq; and Zimbabwean officials are seeking an American dentist who killed a protected lion. More

  • Fish teeth and shark scales from sediment in the South Pacific Ocean dating around the mass extinction event 66 million years ago, photographed under a high powered microscope. (Credit: E. Sibert on Hull lab imaging system, Yale University)

    Audio Dinosaur Death Leads to Rise of Fish

    Tens of millions of years ago, an asteroid hit what is now the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico. The event led to a global mass extinction that has been linked to the end of the dinosaurs. New examination of fossils from sediment shows what that great disaster led to: a modern age of fish. More

  • Video Turkey Bombs Kurdish Rebel Targets in Iraq

    The North Atlantic Treaty Organization has expressed support for Turkey’s military operations against Islamic State militants and the Kurdish rebel group the PKK. The rebels have been fighting Turkey for greater minority rights for more than 30 years. More

  • Audio North Korea: 'No Interest at All' in Nuclear Deal

    U.S. special diplomat to North Korean talks is meeting with Chinese and South Korean officials about restarting talks with North Korea on its nuclear program. However, North Korea has said it is not interested in giving up its weapons. The six-party talks were suspended in 2009. More

Featured Stories

  • Audio Folk to Rock: When Dylan Went Electric

    Fifty years ago, folk music legend Bob Dylan rocked out at the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island on an electric guitar. He was widely booed. The audience may have been unhappy with Dylan’s performance that day, but it changed the direction of music and culture in the United States. More

  • Audio Why Do Mosquitoes Choose to Bite You?

    Mosquitoes need blood to survive and their favorite target is humans. They are completely driven by smell. How do they find their victims and why do they prefer some people more than others? New research now shows how mosquitoes choose who to bite. More

  • 'You're Giving Me the Creeps!'

    "You're giving me the ...!" The jitters, the creeps, the willies, the heebie-jeebies, goose bumps, butterflies, and a heart attack ... you can give all these things to other people. Are they good or bad? Read on to find out! More

  • Audio Everyday Grammar: Can I, Could I, May I?

    English teachers and parents used to try very hard to get young people to use "may" when asking for permission. Now it seems that "can" or "could" works just as well. Learn about the rules for asking permission with these modals. More

  • Video The Devil and Tom Walker by Washington Irving

    In this classic American story, we learn about the hunt for a famous pirate's treasure and the greedy desire for wealth. One couple, Mr. and Mrs Tom Walker, learn the danger of making a deal with the devil. They want the treasure but learn there is a high price to pay. More

Practice Your Writing

Confessions of an English Learner
Confessions of an English Learner blog

Tell us About Our Programs