Political hypersensitivity can be counterproductive

A columnist from Brown University shares his opinion on political hypersensitivity:

The fear of being perceived as politically incorrect can make us hyper-aware of the ways in which we are different from those around us. Not only that, but our hesitancy to ask questions about people’s experiences and unreservedly interact with each other can make it harder to bridge this gap and connect.

We shouldn’t take these ideals to such an extreme that they become counterproductive and detract from our ability to learn from others, broaden our perspectives and form genuine connections.

Since coming to Brown, I’ve been exposed to an array of views that I had never thoughtfully explored before arriving on campus. I grew up in a small suburb of New Haven, Connecticut and went to the regional high school there, which was predominantly white. My school and community felt socially liberal, but I hadn’t engaged with many of the ideas important to social justice before arriving at Brown. One of the most important elements of my newfound social justice education was the rules of politically correct behavior.

Through conversations with conscientious friends and my Residential Peer Leaders, I’ve come to understand that sensitivity toward different backgrounds and social positions should be at the forefront of our consciousness when socializing. I understand the imperative to keep assumptions to a minimum and avoid invasive questions — it aims to ensure that we will not offend or commit unintentional aggressions. These early conversations shaped my view of political sensitivity, and I embraced the mindset.

But recently I had an experience in an Uber that revealed an unintended consequence of this emphasis on political correctness: The fear of being perceived as politically incorrect can make us hyper-aware of the ways in which we are different from those around us. Not only that, but our hesitancy to ask questions about people’s experiences and unreservedly interact with each other can make it harder to bridge this gap and connect. Political sensitivity is important, especially on a diverse campus like Brown’s, but we shouldn’t take these ideals to such an extreme that they become counterproductive and detract from our ability to learn from others, broaden our perspectives and form genuine connections.

I was on my way to Providence Place Mall for a movie and sitting in the front passenger seat of an Uber. I figured proximity was reason enough to try to connect with the 30-something African-American man driving the car. When he mentioned that he had been living in Providence for a few years, I was motivated by a natural desire to connect and asked: “Where did you live before moving?”

“New York City — the Bronx,” he replied.

I was curious about his experience growing up in the Bronx, but I was wary of asking questions about his background, particularly since it was so different from my own. The conversation was forced to tread on shallow, somewhat awkward small talk.

Then an “in” dawned on me: My father drove a cab in the Bronx for five years. I mentioned this, and the conversation started to flow more smoothly. He told me about growing up in the Bronx in the ’80s. He had to join a gang in high school to make it through. Could I ask him about what that experience was like, or would that be misinterpreted as condescending or ignorant? I didn’t know.

But then he started elaborating on the reality of his adolescence, explaining that he was in a rival gang to the Black Spades. He could tell I was curious and seemed eager to help me understand. As he divulged more, it became clear that sharing his story was the priority in the conversation.

Once I realized that my hypersensitivity and fear of appearing politically incorrect were impeding my ability to ask genuine questions and understand his experience, I let this mindset loosen its hold. I asked him questions that came from a place of both respect and curiosity toward a person with an array of experiences different from my own. For the first time in months, I made a conscious effort to stop scrutinizing my thoughts for signs of assumptions and to stop filtering them through a hypersensitive lens. As I caught glimpses of his perspective, I felt like I connected with him more.

The conversation was mediocre when I was overthinking my questions and how they might be misconstrued. But isn’t that the opposite of the goal at Brown? We want instead to share perspectives, talk about our diversity and connect to people with different backgrounds.

Being sensitive is important for ensuring comfort and not offending, but this conversation in the Uber showed me that being hypersensitive to our differences can inordinately magnify them in our consciousness, so even genuine questions feel politically incorrect. The 15-minute journey showed me the necessity of balancing the fear of appearing politically incorrect with the desire to learn from others and connect with them.

In all our conversations about being progressive, we very rarely build on the idea of political correctness to talk about actively bridging gaps and forging connections. I do not suggest we abandon political sensitivity, merely that we clarify our dialogue on the topic so that it is an easier space to navigate. If we can reduce the trepidation that people feel when they first encounter the rules of political correctness, we can pave the way for deeper conversations and connections.

Of course, the economics of my conversation with the Uber driver were imbalanced in that I was paying him, and I have no idea whether he found our conversation to be as fruitful as I found it. Nonetheless, a foundational principle of progress is solidarity, and therefore getting to know someone, seeing their perspective and understanding them is critical to our ability to move forward.

Even though the culture of political correctness can feel intimidating at first, it is important that we participate in it. If we truly aspire to be part of the progressive movement, being politically sensitive might be the first step. But if we’re aiming for tangible progress, we can’t just be content with a politically sensitive mindset. We need to do something active: engage with diversity. One way to do so is by forming connections through conversation. For this, we need to be willing to relax our apprehensions and caution so we don’t miss out on genuine relationships.

Eli Silvert is an undergraduate studying engineering at Brown University. Mr. Silvert contributes regularly to The Brown Daily Herald.

This article appeared originally in the December 7, 2016 edition of The Brown Daily Herald.

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