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Last week on my tumblr feed, I shared a web video from the awesome Jay Smooth of Ill Doctrine on the political use of the word “sensitivity” in recent weeks. The next day, while I was doing metadata entry at work, I heard this commentary on Fresh Air by linguist Geoff Nunberg about the modern evolution of the work in our political vocabulary.

A full transcript can be found on the NPR website.

Nunberg observes (emphasis mine):

At the outset, the approach seemed to have a lot to recommend it. For one thing, it was easier to persuade people to modify their language than to get them to root out their deep-seated attitudes about race, gender and the rest. And the hope was that if you changed behavior, attitudes would eventually follow. It’s cognitively more efficient to believe the words you’re obliged to say rather than always surrounding them with mental air quotes.

But over the long run, the stress on sensitivities probably set back cultural understanding as much as it advanced it. For one thing, it permits people to blur the distinctions between mere thoughtlessness and antipathies that run deeper in the heart. It’s only insensitive when Michael Steele uses the phrase “honest injun” he probably never gave the expression any thought before. But there’s a moral obtuseness in talking about the insensitivity of carrying a sign that depicts Barack Obama as a witch doctor with a bone through his nose. A lack of sensitivity is the least of that person’s problems.

And while most people are raised to be polite, it turned out not to be such a good idea for institutions to try to impose deference to the sensitivities of certain groups. In response, a lot of people took to pronouncing sensitivity with that mocking tone and derided it under the heading of political correctness.

Points for the turn-of-phrase “moral obtuseness,” which I’m now going to have to find opportunities to use! Meanwhile, I don’t think I have anything super intelligent to say as a response, beyond the fact that it sure as hell is complicated to foster empathy and understanding between people who are divided by fear. I’m always grateful to have NPR out there sharing this sort of long-range perspective, even if they can’t offer any solutions.