We all feel complimented when someone describes us as sensitive.
But there are instances when we are deluded into confusing sensitivity with a perversion of common sense.
Some years back, I recall covering a story on a local controversy. The mascot for a local Class A powerhouse high school was an American “Indian.” Native Americans here and in the North Country wanted the school to adopt another figure. (This was shortly after Siena College abandoned its four-decade “Indian” sobriquet for that of “The Saints.”)
At first, I thought the objections were silly. But after speaking with a chief near the Canadian border, I believed the term was truly offensive to him and to his tribe. Even if I did not conjure up images of marauding “redmen” acting dumb or notorious, I understood that the term Indian was deeply hurtful to men and women whose ancestors inhabited our land long before ours arrived.
And so I changed my mind — got off the fence, so to speak. If a term bothered, hurt or offended a number of our citizens, change it. It’s the right and sensitive thing to do.
Things get sticky
But kick this sensitivity up or down a notch and you are in the land of political correctness. Here is where things get more than sticky. Political correctness is not always compatible with sensitivity; further, it can lead to and foment a situation endangering freedom of speech and thought.
Let’s consider a situation in which an artist is chastised for using “Indian” in a work of fiction, as in a book or a film. For instance, you’re writing a story with a Native American character and you use a piece of dialogue in which another character shouts, “Get that freakin’ Indian off my land.”
Should you or I be prohibited from using this line because it might offend a Native American? If, as a writer, I agree not to use “Indian,” am I being sensitive? Or am I harming the cause of freedom by caving in to unwarranted censorship?
Am I wrong to trust the intelligence of my audience, especially if it is clear the speaker in my work is an idiot and a villain? I still find it hard to believe that “Huckleberry Finn,” arguably the greatest of all American novels, is censored in some schools because Huck and others use the “N” word; especially when it is clear that through irony, Mark Twain’s aim is to expose and deride bigotry.
Sometimes, alleged sensitivity is just another word for cowardice, ignorance and surrender to repression.
It’s dumbing down and just plain uncommon sense.
Just recently, I have been reading protests about the use of the word “retard” in “Tropic Thunder.” Now I, too, find the term offensive when it is deliberately used in a pejorative way in casual conversation.
But in a movie in which certain actors are being accused of pandering to critics and general audiences by playing impaired characters (Hoffman in “Rain Man,” Penn in “I am Sam,” and Ben Stiller’s actor in “Tropic Thunder”), is it insensitive to have a fictional character use this term?
I can hear an answer now: “Can’t the writer use another term like ‘mentally challenged’?” Not if it’s some creepy, money-mongering Hollywood studio head speaking.
Fiction, especially realistic fiction, often presents life not as it should be, but as it is. If, as a creator, I choose to depict a person as crass, I reserve the right to use any term I choose to cement this depiction.
There’s no clear, black-and-white answer to a lot of these situations, but it is clear that in an attempt to be sensitive, some of us can lose sight of sense and reality.
That is, pervert common sense.
Just last week, a woman chastised me for saying “This is crazy,” a term I used to describe what I thought was an outlandish idea. Before I could get in a word, she informed me that her mother had been institutionalized, her sister was bipolar, and she was deeply hurt and offended when anyone — anyone! — used the term “crazy.” I was further advised that I should not, under any circumstances, call any person or idea “nuts.”
Both terms, she insisted, should be banned from depictions in movies and on TV. When I informed her that I was on the board of a mental health foundation and that I considered myself sensitive to the welfare of the mentally ill, she took me further to task. As a member of the board, she argued, I had succeeded in proving that I was not only insensitive but hypocritical.
I asked her whether she thought I should resign.
“If you keep on using words like ‘crazy?,’ Yes you should,” she said.
I was talking to a decent person who was sure she was exhibiting sensible sensitivity.
I had another word to describe her position. I refrained from using it.