We all remember the story of the Little Boy Who Cried Wolf. The shepherd boy who as a joke keeps running to his fellow shepherds yelling, “Help! There’s a wolf after my sheep!” and then laughing as they come running and find that there is no wolf. He has tricked them. He does this again and again, until one day the wolves come for real. He runs for his fellows and yells, “Help! There are wolves after my sheep!”, but instead of rushing to his aid, they all shrug and say “Oh hell, it’s him again.” The boy’s sheep are slaughtered by the wolves; and the boy has lost everything because nobody was willing to help him when he really needed it.
Robert Jamieson, Jr., writing in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer newspaper, wrote an article that discusses a (white) high school teacher who has been put on administrative leave for having used “racially inappropriate” language in a (mostly or all black) class. Apparently the teacher made a sarcastic remark, and the kids took offense.
Jamieson states: “What you say is not always what people hear. That statement is a key element of diversity training.” Further along, “The freedom to say what one believes — even if the words are sarcastic or smarmy — comes with the risk of being misinterpreted.”
I believe that these two arguments clearly illustrate everything that is wrong with modern “sensitivity” issues; whereby if a person misinterprets someone else’s statement, it is the speaker who is assumed to be at fault. If you say something that offends someone else, even unintentionally, you have in the eyes of the self-appointed Guardians of Delicate Egos, commited a crime.
No matter what people do, someone somewhere is going to be offended by the words of another. This is doubly true when they seek out offense. Jesse Jackson and his ilk (not the only offenders in this) will always be able to find offense in something, because they actively look for things to be offended by. If nobody insults them directly, then they will be offended on behalf of someone else.
There are really only two ways to approach the issue in daily life. Either:
- People need to consider, every time that they speak, every possible way that anybody might interpret anything that they say. OR
- People need to consider, every time that they are offended by someone else’s words, the possibilities that a) the offense was unintentional, or b) that they have simply misheard or misinterpreted what it was they found offensive.
The first option has an enormous stifling effect on the free exchange of ideas, which this country is already experiencing. People who might have added to the social discourse say nothing, to avoid possible accusations — whether baseless or not. Accusations of this type have destroyed careers. (Jamieson points out a few examples of this in his article). When the onus is entirely on the speaker, it is literally impossible to avoid offending anyone, short of never saying anything ever.
The second option puts the onus on the listener, but it is a far smaller responsibility, and one that is possible to fulfill. The biggest manner that this could be implemented would be to quit punishing people for “offensive” actions when the offense is clearly not intended; along with putting a stigma on people who make accusations without considering the intent of the speaker.
The article, upon citing two other teachers who have been blamed in similar incidents, then states:
Cleveland High isn’t the easiest teaching post in the Seattle district.
Some of the students aren’t enthused about learning and some parents don’t exactly knock down the door to get involved in the education of their kids. The school’s budget — like the rest of the beleaguered Seattle Public Schools — is tight. A teacher must possess tenacity and humanity to inspire Cleveland’s students — even if it is a tough environment, where some students feel “the man” is out to get them and are quick to blame outsiders for the school’s woes.
I agree that being a teacher in a poor public school can not be easy; but this is precisely why the district should not be so eager to shoot down their best and brightest. These teachers have a dedication to teaching these kids (or they wouldn’t be there), and the schools are throwing further obstacles in their path — all the while scratching their heads and wondering aloud why it’s so hard to give these kids an education that’s worth anything.
I am reminded of the recent case in which a white Southwest Airlines flight attendant recited a variation on a children’s nursery rhyme: “Eenie, meenie, minie, moe; pick a seat, we gotta go.” Two black sisters took offense at this, deciding that it was targeted at them, because once upon a time there was a a racist version of that same rhyme. Never mind that the flight attendant had never heard of that variation (nor had I before reading this story); the women are suing the airline for discrimination and demanding that the flight attendants be sent to Sensitivity Training to avoid such a thing happening again. This pretty much falls under the category of offenses that, from the speaker’s side, could only have been avoided by never saying anything to anyone, ever. If she’d never heard the racist version of the rhyme, she could not possibly have known that it might offend. On those grounds alone the case should have been thrown out of court at the first hearing. The only racists here are the women flinging the accusations.
So what does all this have to do with the shepherd boy? I’m referring to the huge damage that the Jesses Jackson, Al Sharpton, and the like have done to the cause that they supposedly hold dear. The national environment wherein it is impossible for blacks and whites to have a frank discussion of race, because too many blacks have been trained to take offense at nothing. The environment wherein a person can point a finger and cry “Help! Help! A Racist!” and destroy a reputation. An environment wherein a book such as Huckleberry Finn can be banned from libraries because it contains the word “nigger”; and Disney neglects the release of one of its most famous movies, Song of the South, because the Black Community™ takes offense at the accurate portrayal of black speech patterns in the Old South.
This is not limited to racial issues. I can also point to the atheists who run around suing towns for putting up Christmas displays, or the Ten Commandments. “Church and State! Church and State!” they cry, sounding not so much like the shepherd boy as Chicken Little, and down come the displays; (and lest you’ve forgotten, Chicken Little was eaten for his trouble).
The high school teacher made a sarcastic remark in a way that commented in race relations, in a manner that might in other circumstances have opened a useful discussion among the students about just that topic. Instead, the powers that be have thrown the book at him and closed off any such possibility now or in his future career (assuming he still has one). Some day when racial or religious discrimination rears its head for real, people are going to think of the “Southwest Sisters”, or the atheist troublemakers, or their counterparts in whatever the injured group is, and turn away; and genuine injustices will occur. It will be allowed to happen because the general public just won’t give a damn anymore. In the meantime, any honest attempt to address the social issues these groups are ostensibly trying to fix will be stillborn under the weight of self-serving lawsuits and accusations.
Before you accuse someone of insensitivity, be sure that an offense has actually been committed. In other words, be sensitive to their meaning and intent.
[28 April 2004: This entry has been edited (mostly in the second half) in response to some reader comments, in order to smooth some rough edges and clarify things a bit. The original can be found here.]
UPDATE: Fox News has an interesting article that touches on some of the issues I discussed here.