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Whether people are objecting to building an Islamic center near ground zero or to Glenn Beck holding a rally at the Lincoln Memorial on the anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I Had(ph) A Dream" speech, the word sensitivity is sure to play a role in their argument.

Our linguist Geoff Nunberg has these thoughts on an old word that's taken on new meaning in public life.

GEOFF NUNBERG: The sensitive was complicated long before it was political. Like other words for feeling, it alternates between an inert and an active meaning. Somebody can be sensitive the way a tooth is, pained by the slightest touch. We talk about that as a bad thing, as in gee, don't be so sensitive. Or it can be like having a sensitive nose, attuned to what's in the air. That kind of sensitivity is usually considered a good thing, at least in moderation. Novelists have always made a butt of the bluff, insensitive male the man of the undeveloped heart, as E.M. Forster called him, the character who says things like good lord, woman, now what's the matter?

But we're apt to mock men who demonstrate too much sensitivity, that long line of broody souls that stretches from Gilbert and Sullivan's Reginald Bunthorne to Sal Mineo and Johnny Depp to those emo guys in hoodies with a shock of hair falling over their glasses.

The ambiguities of the word sensitivity were multiplied when it was promoted to a civic virtue in modern times. Sensitivity training was originally developed in the 1940s, using encounter groups and the like as a path to personal growth. But in the 1960s it was repurposed as a technique to help managers, police officers, and others come to grips with the perplexing demands of social diversity. By now, most people associate sensitivity training less with self-actualization than with learning to avoid cultural gaffes and miscues.

And it was also in the '60s that people invented the new plural form sensitivities to refer to the sore spots that called for delicacy in dealing with the members of a particular group. Having sensitivities wasn't the same thing as being sensitive. The new word left it open whether the feelings were exaggerated or irrational. You didn't have to understand or agree with them, just not go there.

That was the birth of the modern regime of sensitivity - the age of can't we all just get along? At the outset, the approach seemed to have a lot to recommend it. For one thing, it was easier to persuade people to modify their language than to get them to root out their deep-seated attitudes about race, gender and the rest. And the hope was that if you changed behavior, attitudes would eventually follow. It's cognitively more efficient to believe the words you're obliged to say rather than always surrounding them with mental air quotes.

But over the long run, the stress on sensitivities probably set back cultural understanding as much as it advanced it. For one thing, it permits people to blur the distinctions between mere thoughtlessness and antipathies that run deeper in the heart. It's only insensitive when Michael Steele uses the phrase honest injun he probably never gave the expression any thought before. But there's a moral obtuseness in talking about the insensitivity of carrying a sign that depicts Barack Obama as a witch doctor with a bone through his nose. A lack of sensitivity is the least of that person's problems.

And while most people are raised to be polite, it turned out not to be such a good idea for institutions to try to impose deference to the sensitivities of certain groups. In response, a lot of people took to pronouncing sensitivity with that mocking tone and derided it under the heading of political correctness.

That actually gave a new life to a lot of the very language the speech codes were supposed to eliminate. When you preface a sentence with, this may not be the politically correct thing to say, you can make what used to be mere boorishness sound like a daring defiance of fashionable attitudes.

But it isn't just in the liberal enclaves of the academy that people invoke their sensitivities to trump other objections. People have used that argument to oppose the Islamic center near ground zero, to urge Glenn Beck to move his rally at the Lincoln Memorial, to object to public displays of affection by gays. In fact, these cases usually turn out to be the ones where honoring the sensitivities of one group involves ignoring the sensitivities of another: Merry Christmas or happy holidays you're treading on somebody's sensitivities whichever way you go. So these controversies always devolve into squabbles about whose sensitivity should have precedence: We've been through more than you have, we were here first, there's more of us than of you.

Some people suggest we'd be best off paying a lot less attention to sensitivity. On ABC's "This Week" recently, George Will dismissed the whole Islamic center brouhaha as a filler for a slow August news season: You can always tell a fundamentally weak story because it turns on sensitivity, he said. Sensitivity is overrated.

He may be right about that story, but it's not as if we could ignore sensitivity, it's the oil of civil society. But pointing to somebody's sensitivity doesn't close off the discussion. It's not like a food allergy that everybody has to defer to when picking a restaurant. In public life, it isn't a valid argument to say well, it makes me uncomfortable, without spelling out the reasons. Sensitivities can be a stand-in for a lot of different attitudes, some more defensible than others. It's like having a sensitive tooth: you want to find out if it really needs attention.

GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist who teaches at the School of Information at the University of California at Berkeley.

You can download podcasts of our show on our website, freshair.npr.org. I'm Terry Gross.

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