October 01, 2014 20:21 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

  • South Koreans march during a rally 100 days after the ferry Sewol sunk in Seoul, South Korea, July 24, 2014.

    Audio Ferry Investigation Divides South Korea

    South Korean lawmakers have agreed to launch a new investigation into the deadly passenger boat accident in April. But many people are not happy with the measure. Other citizens protest a second investigation. More

  • Mercedes Garcia of El Salvador fills in the application for her new ?green card? while waiting in a predawn line outside the Immigration and Naturalization Service office on Wednesday, March 20, 1996 in Los Angeles. Wednesday was the deadline to apply for

    Audio US 'Green Card' Lottery Registration Begins

    The US government’s Diversity Immigrant Visa Program makes 50,000 visas available every year. The program is designed for people from countries that have “historically low rates of immigration to the United States.” | As It Is More

  • Carter Elections

    Photogallery Former US President Jimmy Carter Turns 90

    He won the Nobel Peace Prize and served as Georgia’s governor and as a Navy officer. Former peanut farmer, former nuclear engineer now works as a human rights activist. Liked and disliked around the world. He has written 26 books and is writing more. | As It Is More

  • Afghan National Security Adviser Hanif Atmar (R) and US Ambassador to Afghanistan James Cunningham (L) sign documents as Afghan President Ashraf Ghani (2R) and Afghanistan's new Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah (C)  look on at the Presidential Palace in

    Audio US Signs Security Agreement with Afghanistan

    US officials are calling the agreement, “an important step in strengthening the strategic partnership between the two countries.” The signing comes just three months before U.S. and NATO forces are set to officially end military operations in the country. More

  • Protesters block a street near government headquarters in Hong Kong September 30, 2014. Tens of thousands of pro-democracy protesters extended a blockade of Hong Kong streets on Tuesday, stockpiling supplies and erecting makeshift barricades ahead of what

    Video Hong Kong Protesters, Officials Dig In

    The Occupy Central protest group has said it will announce plans for the group’s next action on Wednesday if Hong Kong’s leader does not resign by October 1st. It also said the official, Leung Chun-ying, must meet demands for fair elections by that day. More

Featured Stories

  • Children exercise during a weight-losing summer camp in Shenyang, Liaoning province, August 3, 2009. Obesity is becoming one of the biggest threats to children's health, a nationwide investigation has warned, pointing out that students' physical indicator

    Audio Physically Fit Children Do Better in School

    Several studies found that children who had physical activity on a usual basis improved in school. The children also learn best if physical activity is included during class or before. | Health Report More

  • Union and Confederates troops clashed on July 21, 1861 near Manassas Junction, Virginia.

    Audio Manassas Ends Hope for a Short War

    Many northerners wanted Union forces to seize the new Confederate capital and quickly end the rebellion. Pro-Union newspapers urged, "On to Richmond!" But the North soon learned it needed a better trained army to fight the Confederacy. More

  • Singer Lorde performs at the 2014 Billboard Music Awards in Las Vegas, Nevada May 18, 2014.    REUTERS/Steve Marcus (UNITED STATES  - Tags: ENTERTAINMENT TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)  (BILLBOARDAWARDS-SHOW) - RTR3PR0U

    Audio Lorde Releases Single for 'Hunger Games' Soundtrack

    The 17-year-old New Zealander is curating the soundtrack. The album is to be released a few days before 'The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part One' opens November 21st. | American mosaic More

  • The US is a nation of immigrants. But China is a nation of ... Chinese.

    Audio US, China: A Look at Immigration and Migration

    The U.S. and China have the two largest economies filled with opportunities and jobs. In 2013, a Pew study found that 45 million international migrants lived in the United States. Yet only “850,000 people living in China were born in other countries.” More

  • Artist conception of ISEE-3 in space.  (ISEE-3 Reboot Project)

    Video Citizen-Scientists Take Control of Old Satellite

    Former NASA engineer helps group get information from a satellite that was launched in the 1970s and had been silent for years; giving an old satellite a new mission. | As It Is More

Practice Your Writing

Confessions of an English Learner BlogConfessions of an English Learner Blog

Tell us About Our Programs