Social Sensitivity and its Dangers
It may surprise some people to learn this, but I have an intense aversion to social awkwardness, breach of social etiquette, and to other people’s social discomfort. If someone treads on my toe, I will instinctively apologize for the presence of my foot. I am still autopsying social events from years ago, replaying my actions and people’s responses and wondering how I came across, worried lest I thoughtlessly said something inconsiderate. Watching deeply socially awkward or fraught scenes on TV shows can be like torture for me. I can go to great lengths to smooth over unpleasant social relations and to avoid ‘scenes’.
I might flatter myself that this is about my hatred for seeing people being genuinely emotionally hurt. However, examining myself closer, it is clear to me that this instinctive hatred can be concentrated a lot more on my seeing than on the other’s actual hurting. Rather than a primarily compassionate instinct, this instinct is more about my hatred of a ‘scene’: when people’s troubles are well submerged beneath the tranquil surface of well-managed and pleasant social appearances I probably don’t have the same degree of instinctive concern about them.
Culture always tends to loom large in this sort of area. I am a stereotypical Englishman in many of these respects, with a characteristically acute sense of social propriety, politeness, and submission to social norms, albeit I suspect I feel these cultural instincts more strongly than many people around me. One should not draw unnecessary attention to oneself, one shouldn’t make a scene, one shouldn’t impose upon others, one shouldn’t be ‘loud’, one shouldn’t be impolite, one should avoid social awkwardness at all costs.
Living in a ‘guess culture’, if one needs a favour, for instance, one must undertake a subtle dance, indirectly indicating one’s need in a manner that gives one’s interlocutor plausible deniability of having recognized it, politely declining their offers of help a couple of times until they insist that you accept. People who come from ‘ask cultures’ have a far less delicate social fabric when it comes to many interactions. They can make or turn down requests directly. They can also deal with differences more openly and forthrightly.
While retaining my acute aversion to social awkwardness, I’ve often struggled with the stifling effects of contexts where so many social interactions are deeply awkward or uncomfortable, as the contexts are accommodated to very different personal sensitivities than my own. My favourite contexts are animated, forthright in communication, with lots of mutual interruption, some roughness, and plenty of competition, sparring, and playful teasing. These contexts, have always been liberating for me. They allow for lots of stimulating and robust interaction, with a minimal amount of social awkwardness. They aren’t awkward because one is afforded a lot more freedom in one’s interactions without violating the underlying social rules and damaging the social fabric. For people with low personal sensitivities but high social sensitivities, such contexts can be wonderful. Most differences can generally be dealt with and explored openly in such a setting, without provoking ill-will. This isn’t to say that there aren’t issues that can be socially awkward in such a setting, but they are considerably fewer in number.
As I’ve examined my own social sensitivity, I’ve become less inclined to presume that it is a virtue and more aware of its profound potential for vice. The strong instinct to preserve the social fabric undamaged and strictly observe the norms of comfortable social interactions has often been the very force that has buried unwelcome truth, individual suffering and need, sin and abuse.
Over the years, I’ve also come to be a lot more appreciative of people who are prepared to violate social sensitivities and etiquette on appropriate occasions, especially when they uphold and strengthen the social fabric the rest of the time. There can be a laudable courage in the person who is prepared to provoke social discomfort in themselves and others for the sake of the truth and righteousness, who is willing to tear the social fabric when and where it needs to be torn.
People who do this won’t often be appreciated. They hurt people’s feelings and they make the social environment unpleasant. They can provoke conflict in situations where compromise is an option.
Paul Griffiths and Duke
I was recently caused to think about all of this when following the controversy surrounding Paul Griffiths at Duke Divinity School, a situation which Rod Dreher has catalogued at some length on his blog. Griffiths faced disciplinary procedures following his challenging of a racial equity initiative in the Divinity School.
When Anathea Portier-Young, one of Griffiths’ colleagues, sent an email recommending the two-day course of racial equity training to the faculty (a course, which, incidentally, ran from 8:30am to 5pm on a Saturday and a Sunday), Griffiths sent a general response to the recipients of Portier-Young’s email:
I’m responding to Thea’s exhortation that we should attend the Racial Equity Institute Phase 1 Training scheduled for 4-5 March. In her message she made her ideological commitments clear. I’ll do the same, in the interests of free exchange.
I exhort you not to attend this training. Don’t lay waste your time by doing so. It’ll be, I predict with confidence, intellectually flaccid: there’ll be bromides, clichés, and amen-corner rah-rahs in plenty. When (if) it gets beyond that, its illiberal roots and totalitarian tendencies will show. Events of this sort are definitively anti-intellectual. (Re)trainings of intellectuals by bureaucrats and apparatchiks have a long and ignoble history; I hope you’ll keep that history in mind as you think about this instance.
We here at Duke Divinity have a mission. Such things as this training are at best a distraction from it and at worst inimical to it. Our mission is to thnk, read, write, and teach about the triune Lord of Christian confession. This is a hard thing. Each of us should be tense with the effort of it, thrumming like a tautly triple-woven steel thread with the work of it, consumed by the fire of it, ever eager for more of it. We have neither time nor resources to waste. This training is a waste. Please, ignore it. Keep your eyes on the prize.
Making apparent reference to Griffiths’ letter, Elaine Heath, the Dean of the Divinity School, wrote:
It is certainly appropriate to use mass emails to share announcements or information that is helpful to the larger community, such as information about the REI training opportunity. It is inappropriate and unprofessional to use mass emails to make disparaging statements—including arguments ad hominem—in order to humiliate or undermine individual colleagues or groups of colleagues with whom we disagree. The use of mass emails to express racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry is offensive and unacceptable, especially in a Christian institution.
This email exchange led to a crisis in which Griffiths was subjected to two disciplinary procedures: one initiated by Heath and another for harassment initiated by Portier-Young (for using racist or sexist speech in a manner that would create a hostile workplace).
Griffiths was not without his supporters. Thomas Pfau observed that the racial equity training programme was merely the latest of many burdensome impositions placed upon the faculty by the administration and that the suggestion that Griffiths’ message could be said to constitute an expression of ‘racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry’ was ‘either gravely imperceptive or as intellectually dishonest.’
It is important to bear in mind that all of this occurs within a context of heightened sensitivities surrounding race in Duke University and Divinity School. The following video is from the Dean of Trinity College at Duke University, Valerie Ashby:
In an open letter to Rod Dreher, Daniel LaVenture also writes:
…as a member of the DDS community myself, I am not automatically aware of all sides of the issue, but my membership forces me to be open to them. I have seen firsthand the issues in the Office of Black Church Studies which led to the policies now being discussed. I have seen the impact the loss of Black faculty has had on my fellow seminarians, especially those of color. And I cannot ignore their plight. I’ve seen the nuanced rationales for these policies, and I cannot deny them. Whether or not I support the decisions of DDS administration is indifferent; by virtue of being a part of the DDS community, I am able to assent or dissent to them with a personal kind of knowledge that someone from without simply cannot have.
This, of course, opens up into a wider set of implications. The present issues at DDS are far more than a debate over liberal and conservative principles of policy. They are about navigating the complex life of a community, and a particularly diverse one at that. And because this is not merely a political battle, an episode in the greater so-called culture war, your commentary really doesn’t help us in the slightest. Bringing in the opinions of the American Conservosphere only serves to further polarize an already polarized situation that doesn’t really concern them. This is an issue not simply of politics, but of two ancient Christian principles: koinonia and oikonomia—communal life and “household management.”
Such concerns are by no means baseless or unreasonable. I discussed the issue of social sensitivity above. However, I didn’t sufficiently highlight what can be at stake in social sensitivity. While it may often merely be a matter of minimizing people’s discomfort in potentially awkward situations or interactions, there are many times when we are struggling to shore up a group of people’s precarious sense of belonging within our community. Our practice or non-practice of sensitivity can serve to draw the lines of community, with people on the margins either being placed inside or out by our behaviour. In many such cases, insensitivity can fracture the group, causing some people to feel like outsiders. Navigating such fraught communal relationships can be jeopardized when people without the community interject themselves into its struggles.
Communities and their Missions
Diverse communities are often extremely fragile, and unable to sustain the same sort of pressures and stresses that less diverse communities can. For instance, the more diverse a community is, the weaker it may be when it comes to the task of rigorous stress-testing of ideas or enquiry. The fragility of the social bonds can mean that many subjects must be avoided and many punches must be pulled. Diversity can exact heavy costs and, indeed, in many instances communities and societies may need to place limits upon diversity, for the sake of their missions or other ends. The notion that diversity is an unalloyed good in itself is a dangerous error, no matter how attractive this claim can be in situations where diversity is simply a fact on the ground to which we must accommodate ourselves.
In this area, we will often face direct trade-offs between the diverse community as an end in itself and the other ends towards which such a community may be ordered, trade-offs about which we should be more honest. It should be noted that this is an issue underlying much contemporary discourse about the university and free speech. There is a conflict between those whose interest is primarily the maintenance of vulnerable people’s precarious sense of belonging in the fragile diverse community of the university and those whose interest is primarily the university’s serving of its academic ends as a realm and agency of free, open, and challenging enquiry.
As universities have become more diverse places, they have often been at risk of subordinating their academic ends to their increasingly demanding communal ends. We should notice the way that values of community and belonging are at the heart of so many of the protests against controversial speakers on campuses, for instance. The social fabric is fragile and so the open expression of sharp conflicts of belief can’t easily be sustained.
‘Political correctness’ is the diverse society’s regime of politeness, which prevents people from being hurt and alienated from the community, but which also prevents certain truths, often profoundly necessary truths, from being spoken (one such truth being that diversity has many costly trade-offs and that there may be many occasions when it is more a regrettable necessity than a healthy ideal).
Political correctness is typically maligned by conservatives, but it is important to recognize both the fundamentally well-intentioned instincts from which it often arises and the many wilful violations of the social fabric that it prevents. It is also important to recognize the way that many purposefully provocative movements against political correctness ‘burn the commons’ of society, rather than seeking to create a healthier and more robust society with a more sustainable commons.
Preference Falsification, Exit Masks and Voice Masks
Sustaining diverse communities and the political correctness that tends to accompany them isn’t easy. They can place a heavy burden of ‘preference falsification’, as Sarah Perry has discussed: people must disguise their private preferences if they want to enjoy status, belonging, and security. Political correctness is the ‘sacredness’ that preserves the current social order. A politically correct position, such as the goodness of same-sex marriage, is sacred, something that is ‘so important that we agree not to examine it too closely, and to only speak of it in respectful, ideologically correct terms.’ Over time, preference falsification can have the effect of ‘preference husbandry’, as people’s interior beliefs are slowly conformed to the sacred public ones.
Venkatesh Rao explores these dynamics further, introducing the concepts of ‘voice masks’ and ‘exit masks’. He describes them as follows:
Consider first the difference between two masks: putting on a brave face (say when you’re in adult trapped in a dangerous situation with a child, where you cannot admit you’re scared or worried) and political correctness (say you’re at an office party where you cannot be completely candid). Both are voice masks; masks you put on when you have to pretend to agree with a sentiment you actively disagree with. You relieve the strain of voice masks by moving to a social context where you can speak more freely, and express your real emotions more completely. In the former case, it would be nice to have another adult around—making it a larger group—to share fears and anxieties with after the child goes to bed. In the latter case, it would be nice to retreat for drinks with a couple of trusted friends—a smaller group—to have a more candid chat about current workplace politics.
Now consider two other kinds of masks: pretending to enjoy yourself (say at a family gathering or a graduation ceremony where people who care a lot more are deeply immersed in the proceedings) and pretending to be interested (such as when listening to a boring but influential person drone on in a situation where leaving would cause offense and repercussions). These are exit masks: masks you put on when you have to pretend to care. You relieve the strain by moving to a social context where you don’t have to speak or fake an emotional intensity you don’t feel. Again, in the first case, you might relieve the stress by moving to a larger group that affords greater anonymity (such as a big city) and in the former case by retreating to a smaller group (perhaps going for a walk alone to unwind and get the bullshit out of your head).
These are opposed drives: moving in social space to speak and emote more versus moving in social space to speak and emote less. Of the two, exit masks are more basic: it is only hard to pretend to agree when you care. If you don’t care to begin with, pretending to agree adds no additional strain. You’ll nod along to whatever. Pretending to care is emotional bullshitting. Pretending to agree is emotional lying.
Societies that depend upon extensive preference falsification can put a lot of strain on their members, a strain that is intensified where contexts within which we can remove our masks are denied us.
Freddie deBoer’s recent post on the ‘backchannel’ highlights some of this problem. Official ideology, the stifling effect of diverse and/or dense society, and the imperative of the cause leads people to falsify their opinions in public, when many of them voice different opinions in those private settings where they are safe to remove their masks. The high social sensitivity of the public group prevents criticism from being voiced there: people must wear ‘voice masks’. However, the pressure of wearing a voice mask leads people to seek private outlets where they can be relieved of the burden of their masks and speak their minds on issues they care about. What becomes apparent as a result is that the public orthodoxy owes much of its strength to preference falsification, to the fact that it is protected from challenge on account of its sacredness, or the sacredness of those advancing it.
Diversity and Politeness as Ideology
In discussing the Duke Divinity School situation, Dreher quotes at great length from Václav Havel’s “The Power of the Powerless” essay on the issue of conformity, ideology, and power. Havel explores the way in which ideology sustains and advances the interests of power, causing people to conform and step in line through the fear, paranoia, and mutual policing that subscription to the official ideology enables people to dissemble.
This is definitely a powerful analogy to the way that ‘social justice’ ideology functions in society today, and is an analogy that I myself have recently drawn. However, there are differences to which we should also attend here. The strength of Havel’s totalitarian society is chiefly operative on a vertical plane, from the rulers of society downwards. This contrasts with our society, where its strength is primarily in horizontal relations, in the power of the group to reward those who conform and discipline those who don’t with social sanctions of ostracization or acceptance and inclusion.
The growth of social justice ideology arises in no small measure from the fact that it is an advanced and highly developed system of etiquette for diverse society. People want to conform to it in order both to feel like good and decent people and to belong to the in-group, defined by its high cultivation of manners. Diversity conveys legitimacy and political correctness and social justice ideology are mechanisms by which this is sustained. In turn, political correctness upholds diversity itself as a great ideal to be pursued. However, the socially enforced etiquette is a powerful vehicle of ideological oppression, pressing people into a conformity that can squeeze out truth and genuine difference.
This whole situation is intensified by the Internet, which collapses groups into poorly differentiated yet diverse and socially saturated contexts. In such large and diverse contexts, the horizontal mechanisms of social conformity are greatly empowered. The increased diversity and social saturation produces a more intense policing of ourselves and others when it comes to socially discomforting speech. I want to speak my mind openly, yet I know that several of the people who follow me on Twitter or elsewhere would be hurt by my expression of my beliefs: do I keep silent, or do I speak my mind? Likewise, whenever I speak, other people will be mindful of vulnerable and highly sensitive people they know who could be hurt by my words and might strike out against me in defence of the social fabric.
Those with generally high personal sensitivity or with specific sensitivities are always near at hand, and we must always be on our guard lest we offend them. It is no longer so possible to shield them from exposure to unsettling conversations, ensuring both the protection of the vulnerable and the possibility of pursuing challenging conversations. We must choose one or the other. Our own social sensitivity and that of others around us will make discussion of challenging issues difficult, and make it increasingly likely that such discussions will be either smothered or devolve into conflict.
Modes of Society and Sensibilities
I have already suggested that social sensibility operates differently in different kinds of society. There are rougher, more open, and less intimate communities where the burden of preference falsification is relatively low and there isn’t the same expectation to wear voice and exit masks. These are the sort of communities that advocates of free speech tend to value. Within these communities you can speak your mind, without having to worry so much about other people’s feelings. The strength of such communities often derives from the shared sense of liberation that those within them feel when relieved of the preference falsifications and masks of polite society in their common activity of acting and speaking openly with each other.
On the other hand, there are other sorts of communities, which are either much more socially saturated, intimate, and personal, or considerably more diverse. In both such cases, high personal sensitivities produce a situation where the burden of preference falsifications and masks can be quite intense. In the first case, the social fabric is so closely woven that there isn’t much room for movement without tearing it. In such contexts, disagreement swiftly devolves into personal attacks and consolidations of the social fabric (for an example of this, see the recent Tuvel controversy). In the second case, the social fabric is so weak that one can’t easily challenge others without tearing it. Once again, disagreement can be highly personal in such an environment, albeit for slightly different reasons. In both of these environments persons tend to eclipse issues: the reception of what you say is radically dependent upon who you are.
I’ve commented on these dynamics before in relation to the sexes: more female-typical society tends to be considerably more dense than more male-typical society and much less accommodating of difference and disagreement. Within such a context, the need to maintain a tight knit social fabric tends to require that conflict be handled indirectly. In many (not all) respects, such a context may also be much more demanding of preference falsification and mask-wearing (and of corresponding highly intimate private contexts where the masks can be removed with a very close friend).
A great many of our arguments today are about the conflicts of interest between societies with either very weak or dense social fabrics and societies with loose and accommodating social fabrics. As our contexts become less segregated by gender and more diverse, open and challenging speech is increasingly experienced as an assault upon the social fabric itself. For instance, it is incredibly difficult to have a theological argument with a woman on social media as a man (and often even as a woman too), as the social fabric cannot easily sustain it: the woman may feel personally attacked and men may rush to her defence and the defence of the social fabric. While the defence of the social fabric may protect and enhance the woman’s sense of belonging, it doesn’t do much for the service of the truth.
We must recognize the degree to which diversity and inclusion have been engines for the propagation of error within the Church and society over the last few decades. Our not inappropriate social sensitivity towards precarious members of society and towards women has led us to exempt such persons and their ideas from much of the challenging stress-testing to which we expose ideas voiced by men. Unfortunately, where the generally healthy social norm of not treating women as combatants and protecting them from conflict has held sway, all sorts of pernicious falsehoods have been allowed to develop unchecked in the academy and Church.
Polite men who are unpersuaded by feminist ideology, for instance, just keep their mouths shut so as not to make women feel threatened. Other men with a strong sense of duty towards women will rush to their aid against the supposed misogynist men who challenge them. Patently erroneous feminist and queer ideologies have been greatly protected by the way that decent and socially sensitive men are trained to act towards women. In Christian contexts, certain women, protected from direct and forceful challenge by social etiquette and a ‘palace guard’ of men who will rush to their defence if they appear to be attacked, have been able to advance error while smearing those who would challenge them as misogynists.
People with high personal sensitivity can gain a great deal of social control on account of the many people with high social sensitivity, who are deeply concerned for the protection and strengthening of the social fabric. This creates a dangerous incentive, however. If one gains power through high personal sensitivity, becoming more sensitive is the route to more power. Vulnerability and weakness can be weaponized to get one’s way in society.
While a healthy society might steadily push people towards the development of thicker skins, encouraging growth in strength, a society with powerful etiquette and intense social sensitivity is easily held hostage by those who are the quickest to take offence, be emotionally wounded, or make a scene. This problem is heightened by our glorification of inclusion and diversity, which can all too easily prevent us from exercising the necessary discrimination in forming communities that are apt for the pursuit of truth and genuine justice. This discrimination may not be a binary choice between inclusion and exclusion, but may be more a matter of forming differentiated and diversified communities, where conflict occurs in more clearly defined and protected contexts, for instance, contexts set apart from other contexts where different social norms prevail.
Returning to the Duke Divinity situation, some have argued that Griffiths was exceedingly rude in the way he handled things. I don’t think this claim should be dismissed: he was rude. He violated etiquette, openly and forcefully challenged a female colleague before other faculty members, created conflict in a situation where compromise was relatively easy, struck the sacred cow of race theory, and generally made himself unpleasant.
However, where I differ from Griffiths’ critics is in my conviction that such rudeness may be increasingly necessary in some situations. The power of the new illiberalism often isn’t fear of direct coercion so much as our fear of the stick of social ostracization or judgment and our deep desire for the carrot of being considered ‘nice’ people. It is the power of social sensitivity, a power which social media has considerably amplified.
Griffiths broke with etiquette by forcefully and openly challenging a female colleague in a way that made her feel harassed. As I’ve already suggested, male and female groups tend to handle conflict differently. Griffiths broke with general social norms by initiating a conflictual situation with a woman, treating her in the sort of way that men are more likely to treat each other when they have strong disagreements. He was arguably a bit of an asshole.
Likewise, Griffiths attacked the sacred cow of race equity ideology. Once again this is an area where a great deal of falsehood has been sheltered by our healthy concern not to appear racist or to side with forces of oppression and to ensure that people of colour are treated with justice and fairness. Prevailing race equity ideology is a sacred ideology that establishes the form of preference falsification that undergirds diverse society.
Decent and socially sensitive people know better than to question the discourses around race, even when we can see glaring holes in them. We quietly go along with things, not raising objections, attending the training programmes, rightly not wanting people of colour to feel that they are in a hostile environment. However, we are increasingly seeing the discourses surrounding race and sexuality making ever more unreasonable demands upon us and our society (for instance, in calling the faculty of a divinity school to spend the entirety of their Sunday attending a racial equity course, rather than prioritizing worship). The ideology of anti-racism, gender equality, and LGBT rights have become sacred ideologies, and, in many quarters, tantamount to an idol. We don’t feel able to resist: we don’t want to be perceived as racists, misogynists, or homophobes. Yet the masks are weighing heavily upon us.
The problem is that when the oppressive and destructive power of the ideologies being advanced is, to a very significant degree, employing the vehicle of politeness, niceness, etiquette, due process and procedure, considerateness, collegiality, etc., we will need to be prepared to act in rude and impolite ways if we are to push back against it. Social sensitivity has become pathological in a great many contexts. It is almost impossible to present any serious challenge to the ideology without stepping on toes, breaking social norms, moving out of your own lane, disregarding proper procedure, or coming across as rude and inconsiderate. We will probably need to develop a greater tolerance for other people’s discomfort and for our own discomfort at the breaking of social etiquette.
Without people who are prepared to be rude and tear the social fabric on appropriate occasions, the preference falsifications expand beyond all control and force us to double down on socially obliging falsehoods to keep the social peace. People who are prepared to be rude or impolite on appropriate occasions, without just being obnoxious in character or for the sake of it, can perform a crucial cultural role in protecting us from the pathologies of politeness, forcing us to face up to the dysfunctions of ‘polite society’.
The person who is capable of being prudently rude and unpleasant has a gift that we need, but seldom adequately appreciate. We are increasingly in need of people with the nerve and the wisdom to violate norms of politeness when they have become pathological, without simply rejecting politeness altogether. People who are the slaves of politeness irrespective of whether it is functioning in a healthy or unhealthy fashion lack an important ability.
While rudeness has its appropriate occasions, it doesn’t really provide a sustainable solution to the problems that now face us. Rudeness can all too easily attack the oppressive preference falsifications that bind us, while failing to address itself to the task of securing social cohesion, the task that, however imperfectly, the preference falsifications currently serve. Rudeness is primarily a destructive force. It can tear the social fabric at points where it needs to be torn, but it cannot provide a healthier social fabric in its place.
It seems to me that the alternative requires considerable prudence, but should fundamentally be pursued along three lines:
First, we need to push people towards the cultivation of strength and beware of incentivizing or facilitating the weaponizing of high sensitivity.
Second, on the other hand, we must recognize the often healthy intent of social sensitivity and be considerably more mindful of the integrity of the social fabric when pursuing the good of open and challenging speech in service of the truth. Protecting, strengthening, and wisely ordering the social fabric is essential to the task of pursuing free and open discourse. A well-ordered social fabric sustains and empowers speech and persuasion. No genuine solution to our problems can be arrived at by pitting the one against the other.
Third, we need to create diversified societies and social institutions, which preserve heterogeneous forms of sociality, while being ordered towards the pursuit of truth in community. Different people will find different niches within such societies and communities, rather than being treated interchangeably. Such societies will require structures of representation and advocacy. They will also require well-defined realms and social norms applicable to them. Upholding the boundaries between realms of discourse will be necessary, so that no form of discourse overruns others. Undifferentiated inclusion of all parties in all realms should be resisted—we must give space to each other. However, we must also encourage consistent intervolvement between groups within our communities.
All of this requires a movement beyond the reactive struggle between the political correctness pursued by the highly socially sensitive and the free speech pursued by those with much lower personal and social sensitivity. The task facing us is less of a culture war than a social construction project. Within this project we should seek to collaborate to the degree that we can, aiming to produce a society that works for everyone.