Every couple of days it seems somebody falls apart due to “insensitivity.” The problem has been buzzing around in our headlines for years. We all remember back in January 1999 when a group of Professionally Aggrieved Grievance Professionals came unglued after David Howard, a white aide to Anthony Williams, the black mayor of Washington, D.C., used the word “niggardly” in reference to a budget. It mattered not one iota that the word has absolutely no etymological relationship with “nigger.” (It’s of Scandinavian origin and means “miserly” or “stingy.”) Letters were written; protests were mounted. Howard himself bowed and scraped in abject remorse like a Stalinist show-trial witness confessing to crimes against the regime. Ten days later, Howard was sacked in a rite of sacrificial appeasement to outraged sensitivity gods. Only his own membership in an Approved Victim Group saved him: It turned out that, as a homosexual, Howard was himself backed up by an entire community of Professionally Aggrieved Grievance Professionals with their own deeply rooted sensitivities that likewise demanded appeasement. The mayor therefore offered Howard a chance to return to his position. Howard refused but accepted another position with the mayor instead.
Such tales are not isolated in our culture. One can go on and on, if for no other reason than the sheer amusement of the thing. A couple of years ago, for instance, Southwest Airlines was hit with a lawsuit for racial harassment. Their crime? They do not assign seats. You simply pick a seat, and the plane takes off. So, in the final prep for take-off, one of the flight attendants came on the intercom and said, “Eenie meenie minie mo, pick a seat, we gotta go.” Two African-American passengers naturally could not endure this horrific assault on their exquisite sensitivities. Lawsuit city.
Speaking of cities, Los Angeles issued a request to all manufacturers of computers to cease referring to “master” and “slave” units on their equipment after a hurt soul filed a complaint. Numerous computer manufacturers slavishly complied.
Fortunately, the hypersensitivity industry has also pinpointed the deep wells of pain opened by the Cleveland Indians and the Atlanta Braves. Particularly offensive is the heart-breaking use of the “tomahawk chop” by Braves fans. In other sensitivity news, Notre Dame had to fend off charges from Irish Americans doubled over in anguish by the torment they feel at the label “Fighting Irish” and the Notre Dame mascot (a leprechaun with his dukes up). The Notre Dame Observer (March 23, 2006) had to answer these charges by reaffirming offended Irish people in their okayness and assuring them that the plucky little leprechaun is “a celebration of the resiliency and strength of the Irish people,” symbolizing how “the Irish have suffered through numerous hardships in their history — occupation by a foreign power, religious discrimination, famine and overt racism here in the United States have all been faced by the Irish people, and yet they persevered to become one of the most influential peoples in history.” (Let me say that, as a member of America’s suffering Irish-American community, I thank Notre Dame for drying my tears of outrage. On behalf of the groaning legions of agonized Irish in America, I forgive you, Notre Dame.)
Not everyone is similarly inclined to mercy, however. Sometimes the tinder-dry sense of outrage caused by our culture’s gross insensitivity to practically everything threatens to erupt in a conflagration of hurt feelings. For instance, a couple of years ago a proposed picnic to honor baseball Hall-of-Famer Jackie Robinson led some 40 students at the University of Albany, State University of New York, to protest that the word “picnic” originally referred to the lynching of blacks. It turned out the protestors were what the dominant Europhallocentric Hegemony calls “wrong,” since “picnic” actually comes from a 17th-century French word for “social gathering in which each person brings a different food.” But the sensitivity professionals at SUNY did not let stultifying categories of “right,” “wrong,” “ignorant,” or “informed” get in the way of their festival of emotional incontinence. The strained feelings of offended black students were in such a pitch that the university instead put out a memo asking all student leaders to refrain from any use of the word “picnic.” Explained the Campus Affirmative Action office, “Whether the claims are true or not, the point is the word offended.” Therefore, in publicity for the event, the word “picnic” was changed to “outing.”
However, the use of the word “outing” offended — wait for it — the gay community, so the event formerly known as a picnic was ultimately publicized with no noun to describe it.
Meanwhile, in the sphere of gender and sex, terrible battles are being fought by another gathering of the extremely sensitive. From the feminist musicologist who recently announced that Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was an expression of rape, to the courageous Euro-feminists who suffer “because a man standing up to urinate is deemed to be triumphing in his masculinity, and by extension, degrading women,” great strides are being made. A feminist group at Stockholm University recently sought to ban all urinals from campus, following their removal from a Swedish elementary school. Likewise, the word “history” was banned a while back at Stockport College in Manchester, England, because it contains the sharply wounding syllable “his.” And few can but admire the Oscar-winning performance of Dr. Nancy Hopkins of MIT who told the Boston Globe that she had to leave the room or else she would have “either blacked out or thrown up” after then-president of Harvard, Larry Summers, suggested that there might be differences between men and women in aptitude to the hard sciences. Summers paid for this mild observation with his professional life, of course.
Every once in a while, there are collisions between various aggrieved peoples, which make the suffering they must endure all the more terrible. For instance, a few years ago Native Americans in Washington State (members of one of the highest-ranking Approved Victim Groups) decided they wanted to revive the ancient sacred mystical ancestral tradition of going out in a power boat with echo locators and lots of high-tech gear to kill a whale.
This presented the sensitive people in western Washington with an apparently insoluble conundrum: If the local media complained about the murder of our cetacean brethren suckling at the breast of Gaia, they would be imposing their Dead White European Male Cultural Hegemony on the bleeding wounds of suffering Native Americans! The depths of pain that could well up in the Native American community made strong editorial writers and TV pundits blanch with terror. But if the Manufacturers of Culture in Seattle media didn’t complain, they would be letting Free Willy die at the hands of evil predatory Homo sapiens who have been raping Gaia for eons. The high-pitched cry of pain from the Green Community would be audible to our mammalian animal companions for miles. We would once again have failed to act while our Mother Earth was taken one step closer to extinction by the defiling disease that is humanity!
At last, after much deliberation in closed-door sessions, the hierarchy of values was clarified by the arbiters of correct sensitivity: Native Americans trump Euro-Americans, but whales trump all humans. Accordingly, media reports were filled with cries of anguish from the Green Community on behalf of outraged whales, but there was a moratorium on reports about Native Americans outraged over chardonnay-sipping Euro-American TV pundits telling Native Americans how to run their lives. Instead, Euro-American critics of Native American environmental destruction would only be reviled for their cultural imperialism and insensitivity when they were white sports fishermen complaining that Indian gill netters were indiscriminately denuding the rivers of all fish. For as everyone knows, people who hunt and fish for sport are a form of life lower than Neanderthals, murdering Mother Earth for the sheer pleasure of killing. No one cares what they think. Problem solved.
Of course, religion is also a rich field for the terminally sensitive. On a Beliefnet blog, for instance, a reader complained about the horrors of insensitivity that he must endure as a non-Christian in a religious American culture:
Sure, I can tell people I’m not interested. But what if I sit in my cubicle and have to read Bible verses all day long because they are posted on my co-workers [sic] cubicle? Or if every email I get at work is encouraging me to accept Jesus? Or if people come up to me on the street because I “look Jewish (or Hindi or Muslim)” and [tell me] I should accept Jesus?
Indeed, we have all known the nightmare of having to look at a Bible verse on a coworker’s desk. And who among us can walk to the store or cinema without being battered by a torrent of clamorous evangelists body-blocking us on the sidewalks, e-mailing our Blackberries and text-messaging us with threats of hell? One can scarcely think for the din of Christianist agitprop in which we swim, morning, noon, and night, 24/7. We can only admire this man for his ability to keep his sanity despite the non-stop assault on his extremely sensitive nature.
This is not to say it doesn’t cut both ways. Christians are also capable of receiving non-existent insults as blows to the solar plexus. In 2005, for instance, the Bush White House sent out cards to thousands of people wishing them a happy “holiday season.” Oh the humanity! Reaction from the pained in the Christian community was swift and terrible, because, of course, if a president of a secular nation — acting in his office as president — doesn’t single out Christians for greetings during the holiday season, that can only mean that he has joined the war on Christmas. It can’t possibly mean that he is president of all Americans and being respectful to all Americans. In short, it can’t mean that he meant well. No, he was, with malice aforethought, delivering a slap to the face of every Christian in the Republic. The only response any true follower of the Prince of Peace should have to this crushing blow to our crucified feelings is a howl of outrage!
But American Christians and Jews — heck, even American unbelievers — are still pikers in matters of thin-skinned religious sensitivity. When it comes to sheer childish inability to cope with a world not to their liking, nobody does it like Muslims. As the Cartoon Riots demonstrated, millions of Muslims combine a wondrous inability to face the slightest criticism with a completely un-ironic blindness to their own brutal tendency to bully.
Oversensitive Christians and Jews have light years to go before they can achieve the feats that the Muslim world excels in on an almost daily basis. The death toll from wandering mobs of enraged Christians after the release of the Church-bashing Da Vinci Code currently stands at a very disappointing zero. The Passion of the Christ was likewise a miserable failure, both in its inability to whip Christian mobs into a frenzy of Jew-hating pogroms and its inability to engender a murderous underclass of embittered Jews burning down theaters or pinning Jewish tracts to the dead body of Mel Gibson with a knife. Likewise, the riots that did not break out and the charred cities and dead bodies that did not trail in the wake of Iran’s display of Holocaust-mocking cartoons stand as a testament to the inability of those darn perfidious Jews to freak out every time somebody looks at them with less-than-respectful eyes.
Not that Islam’s pioneering chutzpah in offensitivity hasn’t yielded real benefits for Muslims. For instance, a couple of years ago, Burger King cringed with lickspittle apologies and withdrew an ice cream confection from its menu after the lid of the dessert offended a British Muslim. The man claimed the design resembled the Arabic inscription for Allah, and branded it sacrilegious, threatening a jihad. The Muslim Council of Great Britain, instead of telling the man to “get a life,” patted Burger King on the head for acting in obedience to the threat. Meanwhile, in America, the New York Times (which would not run the Danish cartoons “out of respect for Muslim sensitivity”) runs images of Piss Christ and lectures Christians on art appreciation.
Likewise, the British press tried recently to ban images of pigs, lest Muslims be offended; while some British schools also removed or restricted such “anti-Muslim” children’s books as The Three Little Pigs, Charlotte’s Web, Babe: The Sheep-pig, Cars and Trucks and Things That Go, Olivia Saves the Circus, and Animal Farm. This, while Arab television was running a series based on the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion. And, of course, there were recent paroxysms of outraged sensitivity over the presence of the cross on the British flag: a cruel reminder of the sufferings of Muslims during the Crusades (which the Muslims both started and won).
Here in the United States, this peculiar willingness to scrape before the sensitivities of the Professionally Aggrieved has created a rich mulch of bureaucrats, pundits, and various members of the Chattering Classes who have shown themselves singularly well-disposed to lick the hand of violent Muslim thugs in spaniel-like obsequies even as they piddle on the floor in outrage over the imminent imposition of theocracy at the hands of some bogeyman compact of damp-handed bishops, Evangelical soccer moms, gun-toting members of the Hallelujah Bible Church of NASCAR, and a couple of Republican Jews. Andrew Sullivan has made a second career of seeing in “Christianists” precisely the same danger to the Republic as that posed by Osama bin Laden. Some Evangelical politician sends a letter to his fellow believers asking for prayers for his campaign? That is exactly the same thing as bin Laden’s conviction that God is on his side in his murderous war on every American man, woman, and child.
This peculiar conviction that, “If you’ve seen one Abrahamic religion, you’ve seen ’em all,” also apparently governs much of our policy in transportation safety. Alloyed with our peculiar fear and shame over the possibility of giving offense, it has yielded the wondrous policy of acting as though absolutely everybody is at equal risk of being a terrorist, just as, 20 years ago, grievance activists in the homosexual community persuaded everyone we were all at equal risk for AIDS.
This logic, however, turned out to be flawed since, in actual fact, the AIDS virus is not a mugger or serial killer, striking victims completely at random. Indeed, it turns out that AIDS follows perfectly predictable and knowable transmission vectors having to do with certain behaviors. If you are a human being who does not choose to swap bodily fluids indiscriminately, your chances of getting AIDS are essentially zero. If you do engage in that kind of behavior, you are at extremely high risk for AIDS.
In much the same way, it turns out that not everybody is at equal risk for being an Islamic terrorist. Studies are well on the way to showing a strong correlation between Muslim terrorists and a condition known as “being Muslim.” Though the data are still being analyzed, it’s probably not rash to say that every Islamic terrorist is a Muslim, though of course not all or even most Muslims are terrorists. But given that the Muslim community does seem to be the locus of the problem of Muslim terrorism, it would seem prudent for security officials to focus their efforts there and not spend a great deal of time scrutinizing nuns, six-year-old farm boys, and Lutheran Bridge Club members for their ties to al-Qaeda or similar Islamic organizations.
Naturally, this suggestion is met with sharp cries of pain from sensitive Muslims who protest the bitter injustice of seeing the Muslim community as the source of every act of Islamic terror in the world. Surely the Amish, Model Railroading, or Origami communities can share some of the blame for these monsters. Must the focus be entirely on the Muslim community, merely because 100 percent of all Muslim terrorists hail from it? If this is not a shattering tragedy of profiling, then what is?
Personally, I don’t know how the Feds are going to resolve the problems of searching high and low in order to avoid looking where the problem is. But in the interest of everybody being a lot less miserable, I think it would be good if we all studied a few tips on how to become more insensitive.
1. Ask yourself, “Am I an idiot?” There are three basic kinds of idiots: intellectual, emotional, and moral. An intellectual idiot is too stupid to know or find out what a word means. An emotional idiot is too stupid to care what a word means if it stands between him and a good temper tantrum. A moral idiot may be intellectually and emotionally sound, yet still be willing to sacrifice the happiness of others simply to file a lawsuit on behalf of intellectual or emotional idiots who don’t know what, say, “picnic” or “niggardly” mean. If you are any of these kinds of idiot, proceed immediately to step two.
2. Consider the possibility that you just need to get a life. Signs of this need include spending all day in a sweat of irritation because religious people exist, hallucinations that you are being raped by classical music, constant convulsive outrage over words like “history” and “master/slave” or “outing,” and a gasping sense of oppression at the thought of urinals. Wigging out over leprechauns and tomahawk chops is another “get a life” indicator. Still other signs include loss of sleep and anger-management issues over presidential greeting cards, cartoons, ice cream lids, and books with pigs in them. If these symptoms persist, proceed to step three.
3. Grow up. Failure to grow up could result in becoming a human toothache and constituting a transmission vector for ulcers, psychological and physiological ailments, and a whole host of complex societal disorders including an overburdened diaper-laundering industry.
4. Finally, find something useful to do with your time, such as learning to laugh, particularly at yourself. You’ll be happier. So will the rest of us.