The Intersection of Language and Sensitivity

userpic=schmuckOne of my favorite adages is: “Never ascribe to malice what one can to stupidity.” Today, that applied to me.

Perhaps I should explain. Perhaps I shouldn’t — explain that is. Let me tell a story.

We have our lead character, let’s call him Edward J. Littlehazy. Ed is Jewish, caucasian, male, and does his best to be socially aware. He’s hip to terms like microagression. He supports #BlackLivesMatter, because he understands the implicit privilege that exists today in society, and that people like him have benefited from over time. He attempts to be sensitive in all his writings, and strives to listen and understand first, and not to resort to name calling or attacking the individual in discussions.

He is also, being Jewish, sensitized to antisemitism (and writes it as one word, to distinguish it from hatred of Semites in general). He has studied the subject, and is well aware of the terminology often used and abused in discussions. He is politically active on the liberal side of the spectrum (no surprise there), and is also sensitized to the growing desire of segments of the population to reinvent history to support their views. He’s a factual person.

This person made one mistake. He has a friend who is hypersensitized to privilege, agreession, and marginalization issues from a different aspect. That’s not the mistake — although he doesn’t always agree with this friend, he has learned from the discussions this friend has and the posts this friend makes. The mistake, was commenting on one of this friend’s posts, expressing how he interpreted the post slightly differently because of the words used; in fact, he saw the words excluding many dimensions of the issue, and using potential trigger terms.

For this, he was accused of a particularly bad behavior (“splain” is part of the accusation), and was said to be abusing his white privilege in commenting. When he asked to clarify what he had done wrong, more accusations arose related to privilege and belittling the original author.

Here’s where that adage comes in: Never ascribe to malice what one can to stupidity.

The author could have simply responded: “My intent was specifically not to be broad in the way you see it; I intended (describe narrow focus) for particular reason.” That, quite likely, would have ended the discussion by clarifying that the misreading was wrong. No malice. Just a stupid misreading.

But a particular intent was presumed. Again, mishandled by ascribing malice. Instead of saying someone had done some bad behavior and assuming it was obvious that it was intentional, there could have been an attempt to teach and clarify: By the way, were you aware that by wording your comment as xxx, it could come off as bad behavior because it could be interpreted as zzz. After a long back and forth, that particular explanation came out. The back and forth was unnecessary.

What’s the takeaway here? What can I learn from this? (and perhaps you, but I won’t explain how)

First, remember, never ascribe to malice what you can to stupidity.

Second, go into discussions to understand and discuss ideas; don’t attack the person. They may not know better. If someone mispeaks, gently educate them on how to say things better, not just how they were wrong. Remember the only useful thing from TQM: plusses and deltas. Let people know where they did good, and where they can improve.

Third, be aware not only of your own hypersensitivities, but of other’s sensitivities, when you talk to them.

Lastly, think twice before taking your dog for a walk in a minefield.


2 Replies to “The Intersection of Language and Sensitivity”

  1. All that stuff you’re asking for is unreasonable to ask from the victims of injustice who are already using up more energy than you are while dealing with the injustice. Compounding your fail (generic you, not you personally) by asking victims to take the time and energy to educate you, in this age of knowledge availability via the internet, library books, social groups, etc., is selfish and makes you part of the problem instead of the ally you perhaps desires to be.

    1. Then why do the “victims of injustice”, as you put it, expend more energy on the response and namecalling. Have a stock response. Point such people to a standard educational resource.

      The “age of knowledge available on the internet” is a mistaken believe, because we all know that you’ll get loads of differing opinions on any subject if you search, varying in quality and accuracy. It is much easier to simply say: It is your use of term xxx that is a problem — look here to see why.”

      Why do we presume people are out to hurt each other? When we go on that assumption, we’ll find hurt in everything. I know there are people like that — that have been hurt so much that every discussion is fiberglass in the skin — but we need to figure out how to heal.

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