Why is society so sensitive now?

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From cancel culture to political correctness “gone mad”, are people too sensitive these days?

We all have a right to free speech (albeit with limits). But it seems that problems start to arise whenever that free speech is exercised to say something unpopular.

In a bid to create an increasingly tolerant society, are we in some ways becoming less tolerant to divergent voices? And is this really a bad thing?

Is society becoming too sensitive?

The unpopularity of political correctness

If it feels like political correctness is an ever-expanding concept, then it might also be a deeply unpopular one.

That’s according to a survey conducted by an international research initiative which found some 80 percent of people in the US see P.C. excess as a problem. As reported in the Atlantic:

“Among the general population, a full 80 percent believe that “political correctness is a problem in our country.” Even young people are uncomfortable with it, including 74 percent ages 24 to 29, and 79 percent under age 24. On this particular issue, the woke are in a clear minority across all ages.

Youth isn’t a good proxy for support of political correctness—and it turns out race isn’t, either. Whites are ever so slightly less likely than average to believe that political correctness is a problem in the country: 79 percent of them share this sentiment. Instead, it is Asians (82 percent), Hispanics (87 percent), and American Indians (88 percent) who are most likely to oppose political correctness.”

Meanwhile, in poll by the Pew Research Center, the difficulty in striking a balance between freedom of speech and being mindful of others was also highlighted.

People from the US, UK, Germany, and France were asked whether people today are too easily offended by what others say or whether people should be careful what they say to avoid offending others. Opinions appeared to be largely split:

  • US — 57% ‘people today are too easily offended by what others say’, 40% ‘people should be careful what they say to avoid offending others’.
  • Germany 45% ‘people today are too easily offended by what others say’, 40% ‘people should be careful what they say to avoid offending others’.
  • France 52% ‘people today are too easily offended by what others say’, 46% ‘people should be careful what they say to avoid offending others’.
  • UK — 53% ‘people today are too easily offended by what others say’, 44% ‘people should be careful what they say to avoid offending others’.

What the research does seem to suggest is that generally speaking, the majority of people do have some concerns that society could be becoming overly sensitive.

When did society become so sensitive?

“Snowflake” is by no means a new term. This idea of an easily offended, overly sensitive person who believes the world revolves around them and their feelings is a derogatory label often attached to younger generations.

Claire Fox, the author of ‘I Find That Offensive!’, suggests the reason for overly sensitive individuals lies in children who were mollycoddled.

It’s an idea that goes hand in hand with author and speaker Simon Sinek’s somewhat scathing take on self-entitled Millenials born at a time where “every child wins a prize”.

But let’s face it, it’s always easy to point the finger at younger generations as being to blame. Something poked fun at in a meme I recently stumbled across:

“Let’s play a game of millennial monopoly. The rules are simple, you start with no money, you can’t afford anything, the board is on fire for some reason and everything is your fault.”

Whether assumptions about the so-called snowflake generation are warranted or not, there is evidence that younger generations are indeed more sensitive than their predecessors.

The data shows that those in Generation Z (the youngest adult generation now in college) are more likely to be offended and sensitive to speech.

Why is everyone so sensitive?

Perhaps one of the simplest explanations to account for increased sensitivity in society could be our improving living conditions.

When faced with practical hardships (war, hunger, illness, etc) putting food on the table and staying safe is understandably the main priority.

It leaves little time to dwell on your own feelings and emotions, or those of others. As people within society become better off than was once the case, this may explain the shift of focus from physical wellbeing to emotional wellbeing.

The world we live in has also changed dramatically in the last 20-30 years thanks to the internet. Suddenly corners of the globe we had never been exposed to before have been thrust into our living room.

Writing in the New Statesman, Amelia Tate argues that the internet is one of the biggest contributing factors in greater sensitivity towards others.

“I grew up in a town of 6,000 people. As I was never confronted with anyone remotely different from myself, I spent my teenage years thinking that being offensive was the highest form of wit. I didn’t meet a single person who changed my mind – I met thousands. And I met them all online. Having instant access to millions of different viewpoints at once changed everything. Blogs opened my eyes to experiences outside my own, YouTube videos allowed access to the lives of strangers, and tweets flooded my narrow world with opinions”.

Concept creep

Another contributing factor in society’s sensitivity could be that what we view as harmful these days appears to be ever-increasing.

In a paper titled “Concept Creep: Psychology’s Expanding Concepts of Harm and Pathology,” professor Nick Haslam from Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences argues that the concepts of abuse, bullying, trauma, mental disorder, addiction, and prejudice have all had their boundaries stretched over recent years.

He refers to this as “concept creep”, and hypothesizes that it could be responsible for our increased sensitivity as a society.

“The expansion primarily reflects an ever-increasing sensitivity to harm, reflecting a liberal moral agenda…Although conceptual change is inevitable and often well-motivated, concept creep runs the risk of pathologizing everyday experience and encouraging a sense of virtuous but impotent victimhood.”

Basically, what we view as unacceptable or what we consider as abusive keeps expanding and incorporating more behaviors over time. As this happens, it raises legitimate questions that are perhaps not so simple to answer.

Is any form of spanking physical abuse? Where does abuse begin and simply being unkind end? What counts as bullying?

Far from theoretical, these questions and answers have real-life implications. For example, for the honor student who found herself suspended with a cyberbullying mark on her record after complaining about a teacher to her friends online.

As reported in the New York Times:

“Katherine Evans said she was frustrated with her English teacher for ignoring her pleas for help with assignments and a brusque reproach when she missed class to attend a school blood drive. So Ms. Evans, who was then a high school senior and honor student, logged onto the networking site Facebook and wrote a rant against the teacher. “To those select students who have had the displeasure of having Ms. Sarah Phelps, or simply knowing her and her insane antics: Here is the place to express your feelings of hatred,” she wrote. Her posting drew a handful of responses, some of which were in support of the teacher and critical of Ms. Evans. “Whatever your reasons for hating her are, they’re probably very immature,” a former student of Ms. Phelps wrote in her defense.

A few days later, Ms. Evans removed the post from her Facebook page and went about the business of preparing for graduation and studying journalism in the fall. But two months after her online venting, Ms. Evans was called into the principal’s office and was told she was being suspended for “cyberbullying,” a blemish on her record that she said she feared could keep her from getting into graduate schools or landing her dream job.”

Is society getting too sensitive?

We may feel that insisting upon an increasingly politically correct society is a good way of protecting those who have historically been oppressed or subject to greater disadvantage, but according to research, this may not always be the reality.

In fact, diversity experts writing in Harvard Business Review noted that political correctness, in reality, can be a double-edged sword and needs to be rethought in order to support the very people it is intended to protect.

“We have found that political correctness does not only pose problems for those in the “majority.” When majority members cannot speak candidly, members of under-represented groups also suffer: “Minorities” can’t discuss their concerns about fairness and fears about feeding into negative stereotypes, and that adds to an atmosphere in which people tiptoe around the issues and one another. These dynamics breed misunderstanding, conflict, and mistrust, corroding both managerial and team effectiveness.”

Instead, their proposed solution is to hold ourselves increasingly accountable regardless of whether it is us that is offended by another or others that are offended by us.

“When others accuse us of holding prejudicial attitudes, we should interrogate ourselves; when we believe others are treating us unfairly, we should reach out to understand their actions…When people treat their cultural differences—and the conflicts and tensions that arise from them—as opportunities to seek a more accurate view of themselves, each other, and the situation, trust builds and relationships become stronger.”

People exposed to sexist humor are more likely to view the tolerance of sexism as a norm

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Even if we concede that increased sensitivity isn’t always helpful within society, it’s important to recognize that its absence can also have a detrimental effect.

Comedy and the use of offense have long been a hot topic of contention, with the likes of Chris Rock, Jennifer Saunders, and more arguing that ‘wokeness’ is stifling comedy.

Yet research has found that disparagement humor for example (jokes that come at the expense of a particular social group) can have some less than funny consequences.

A study by the European Journal of Social Psychology concluded that people exposed to sexist humor were more likely to view the tolerance of sexism as a norm.

Professor of Social Psychology, Western Carolina University, Thomas E. Ford says that sexist, racist or any jokes that make a punchline out of a marginalized group often disguise expressions of prejudice in a cloak of fun and frivolity.

“Psychology research suggests that disparagement humor is far more than “just a joke.” Regardless of its intent, when prejudiced people interpret disparagement humor as “just a joke” intended to make fun of its target and not prejudice itself, it can have serious social consequences as a releaser of prejudice.”

Why is everyone so easily offended?

“It’s now very common to hear people say, ‘I’m rather offended by that.’ As if that gives them certain rights. It’s actually nothing more… than a whine. ‘I find that offensive.’ It has no meaning; it has no purpose; it has no reason to be respected as a phrase. ‘I am offended by that.’ Well, so f**ckng what.”

— Stephen Fry

Society is undoubtedly more sensitive than it once was, but whether that is ultimately a good, bad or indifferent thing is more open to debate.

On the one hand, you might argue that people fall too easily into victimhood, and are unable to detach their own thoughts and beliefs from their sense of self.

In certain circumstances this may well lead to overly sensitive and easily offended attitudes, concerned more with blocking their ears to differing opinions than taking the opportunity to learn and grow from them.

On the other hand, increased sensitivity could be seen as a form of social evolution.

In many ways, our world is bigger than it has ever been before and as this happens we are exposed to more diversity.

In this way, it could be said that society has been insensitive for so long and people nowadays are simply more educated about it.

At the end of the day, we are all sensitive (to different degrees) about partiucular things. Whether we view someone else as being overly sensitive or justifiably outraged often depends simply on whether it is an issue that directly affects or triggers us.

Louise Jackson

My passion in life is communication in all its many forms. I enjoy nothing more than deep chats about life, love and the Universe. With a masters degree in Journalism, I’m a former BBC news reporter and newsreader. But around 8 years ago I swapped the studio for a life on the open road. Lisbon, Portugal is currently where I call home. My personal development articles have featured in Huffington Post, Elite Daily, Thought Catalog, Thrive Global and more.

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