The delicate politics of over-sensitivity

By Aubrey Klein

I came across this story in an internet thread the other day that made me roll my eyes in recognition because it sounded quite familiar.

To paraphrase, it goes something like this: A male customer at McDonald’s nicely asks a female employee for ketchup. She responds with a smile, “Yes sir, here you go!”

A random woman approaches and says, “You don’t have to call him sir, he doesn’t own you.” She then turns to the male customer and says, “You shouldn’t come up here expecting that she serve your every need. She’s not here for you to take advantage of. Men like you should stop spreading the rape culture mindset and making it worse for women everywhere.”

While this story is an extreme example, I encounter this type of thing way more often than one might think, and I’m sure others have too. In the name of political correctness, people over-analyze every situation and, in their perceived morally superior state, take it upon themselves to inform everyone just why they are so, so wrong. It’s just one example of our generation’s tendency to be too easily offended by anything and everything.

This hyper-sensitivity is characterized by extreme reactions, like in the story above, to comments or actions that grate against one’s personal views, especially when it comes to topics like feminism, privilege and cultural appropriation.

While some irritation or disbelief can be expected when someone makes a statement you don’t agree with, one can veer into the too-easily-offended territory when they can find something insulting in nearly every word or action, and immediately berate others for offending them or some other person, culture, etc.

On the one hand I can see where this tendency comes from. The young adults of our generation, especially those of us in a liberal college setting, are more culturally literate and supposedly more tolerant than older generations—or at the very least we like to think we are. We encounter discussions of all the various “isms” on a daily basis in classes, with friends and on the internet.

But despite our well-informed ideologies, or perhaps because of them, one is very likely to encounter the ideological police, quick to attack any incorrect statement or vaguely offensive remark. While they can certainly exist outside the Lawrence bubble, I’ve noticed they are particularly likely to lurk on this campus.

While I believe that people have a responsibility to be educated about the basic ideas of feminism, privilege and the like, in addition to being aware of their surroundings, I object to this extreme over-sensitivity.   Besides being downright exhausting to evaluate each and every word or action of others, how can you reasonably expect someone to be politically correct and 100% informed on every topic at all times?

If someone makes a borderline offensive comment, they could just be oblivious that what they said was hurtful. While obliviousness should not be an excuse, there is no reason to attack someone right away and accuse them of being a bigot. Take the moment to explain to them why what they said might have been offensive: They are probably more likely to respond to calm explanation than aggressive confrontation. Slip-ups and misunderstandings happen, and many are not malevolent in intent.

With that suggestion, I do understand that this might be something that only works in a few situations, and is more likely to be effective in the insular, more accepting environment of Lawrence University. But even when it comes to the comments that are malevolent in intent, there is likely little you can do to change the mind of that person, and they are simply not worth your time.

All of this is not to say that people should have license to make offensive comments on the grounds that they aren’t fully educated. Rather, there are times to be legitimately offended, and there are other times when you can be too easily offended by things that, in the larger scheme of things, really don’t matter.

While it would be easy to say, “Well, people should just be more careful of what they say,” I see this as potentially damaging as well. This mindset breeds an overly cautious environment where people feel like they are walking on eggshells every time they approach topics related to sexuality, gender, race, etc. How is anyone supposed to learn the right way to say something if they never feel safe to enter into dialogue about it without being scolded for saying the wrong thing?

I have some advice for all those fragile butterflies out there that are debilitated by every possibly insulting comment or act: Grow a spine and some thicker skin. Not everyone is out to get you, doing or saying things to purposely target your weak spots. Be happy that you are educated on the issues, pat yourself on the back for being the bigger person and learn to shrug off some people’s ignorance. Save your energy for the bigger arguments that deserve your attention.

You will be mentally happier and healthier for knowing when to mount a discussion versus when to brush it off. You ultimately can’t control other people, what they know or what they say. What you can control is whether or not you let the occasional off-color joke or disagreeable comment get to you, when these small things are really not worth ruining your day.