Stop telling people they’re being “too sensitive” or “over-reacting”

Being the editor of a publication like TheVine, I read a lot of comments. Some make me truly love our readers, while others can sometimes make my teeth grind.

For every witty, thoughtful, challenging point-of-view that a story is met with, when it comes to contentious issues, there will always be at least one person who dismisses another person’s argument (whether it’s the author of the article, or another commentator) for being “too sensitive” to how the real world operates, being too caught up in political correctness, or simply play down their opinion as an over-reaction.

Usually it’s over subjects relating to gender or sexuality or race where these cries are heard the most, and at their loudest. At TheVine, we try to encourage healthy cultural conversation, and personally I find my own ideas challenged daily.

My theory of where these responses stem from (even from the most well-meaning people) is a lack of understanding and a stubbornness inside of us that says “the opinion I currently hold is right, and it’s the rightest opinion around. No one could possibly be more right than me.”

We don’t walk out of the womb with all the answers, but for some reason we reach a point where we build a wall around our own ideas, and don’t let any others get in. I think it also comes from a form of idealism that sees the world as a very equal place – where opportunities are available to everyone, and the scales are never tipped in favour of those more fortunate.

On women being photographed without consent at Comic-Con.

At the risk of being told myself after writing this article that I’m too sensitive, over-reacting, or on a politically correct power trip, I wanted to point out why these kinds of responses are null and void when it comes to important social issues.

Response 1: “Well, it’s in bad taste but I don’t think it’s [insert your choice of prejudice-based discrimination]”

Do you have trouble out-rightly saying something isn’t discriminatory? Does the answer change depending on the situation? Is it not a straight yes or no answer? Chances are it’s still discrimination, no matter how you spin it.

What’s weird is how people seem to want to reserve calling something out as being prejudiced. For example, if something is racist, call it out as racist. You don’t have a limited number of tokens that you have to use sparingly during your lifetime in case something “more racist” happens.

Jake Cleland said it best in his response to commenters on his piece Why you shouldn’t accept the Beyond The Valley’s “apology”:

“Calling someone ‘racist’ IS a harsh accusation, and one we should all be using more often. Racism is still prevalent and frankly I’m more concerned with calling out people for their racism than I am about them getting their feelings a little hurt. If I have to ruin someone’s day a little bit so they’ll go home and think about their role as an oppressor in the world, I can live with that. Call more people racist. It’ll make the world better.”

Response 2: “People are too sensitive/ over-reacting / can’t take a joke/ it’s just having fun”

These phrases remind me of the white-guy phrase “I don’t see colour”, that they see everyone as equal regardless of the colour of their skin. “Colourblindness” doesn’t mean you’re seeing things in a racially neutral way, it means you’re actually choosing to ignore and be “blind” to the very real societal issues that come with being a person of colour, and their identity in general. This is also an issue for women who have had to come up against Women Against Feminism, as well as LGBTQ and disabled people, who are basically just ignored or invisible in wider society.

Saying someone is “being too sensitive”, “can’t take a joke” or that they’re “over-reacting” is a form of gaslighting – a psychologically manipulative tactic that makes people doubt their own perception of events or situations, even if they’re right. Someone may be having an entirely reasonable response to a situation – say for example, the fiance in the movie Twister, who after after a truck flying through the sky almost crushes her, screams as she scrambles out of the car unscathed. Everyone around her is acting as if she’s crazy (all of the storm-chasers are unreasonably super chill about it), downplaying her near-death experience, and making her screams seem ridiculous.

In the same way, responding with these phrases dismisses someone’s feelings* and opinions about issues that matter to them. It delegitimises their thoughts and feelings, and can not only make people feel stupid and make them feel like their opinion doesn’t matter, but silence them on a topic that needs their voice. Discrimination doesn’t go away by not talking about it, or by not calling people out when they do or say something that is inherently discriminatory. Phrases like these stop the conversation before it can lead to any kind of positive change or change someone’s point-of-view for the better, so high five!

*Some people will try to discredit feelings as not worthy of acknowledgement. Having feelings is entirely okay! They’re possibly even better than opinions, because even if you can’t formulate exactly what you want to say about topic, that pit in your stomach is telling you exactly how you feel about it.

Response 3: “It’s political correctness gone mad!”

Aside from the fact that whenever I read this type of comment I tend to envisage a white-haired old Colonial British man (not unlike the Monopoly man, and possibly brandishing a cane), the term itself was hijacked in the ’90s by right-wing US conservatives to demonise and discredit their ideological enemies – you know, like the pro-lifers, gay people, etc – so you’re in good company there!

In 2009 (five years ago!), journalist and author Polly Toynbee nailed it when she wrote in The Guardian, “The phrase ‘political correctness’ was born as a coded cover for all who still want to say Paki, spastic or queer, all those who still want to pick on anyone not like them, playground bullies who never grew up. The politically correct society is the civilised society, however much some may squirm at the more inelegant official circumlocutions designed to avoid offence. Inelegance is better than bile.”

It’s not even really about being politically correct, it’s about not being an arsehole. Try it out! You might find you really enjoy respecting and being considerate of other people and their backgrounds.

If you see someone as having an over-sensitive reaction, perhaps rather than levelling those claims at them, you should try adopting a little more sensitivity on your part. You don’t have to adopt a bullshit “new age” persona, it’s just a way to approach the world and people around with you with a little more conscientiousness than Godzilla.

Being challenged is hard, but that’s the point of being challenged. We have infinite potential to learn all the time, and we benefit most when our bedrock beliefs are shaken. YOU WILL REBUILD!, and I can promise you the foundations will be that much stronger. The ability to change and grow and adapt is something to be admired and what makes us human.

We learn, grow, and get better, and from there so does the rest of the world.

Originally published 29 August 2014 on TheVine.com.au

4 thoughts on “Stop telling people they’re being “too sensitive” or “over-reacting”

  1. This isn’t a good advice. Far too often, people overreact and are oversensitobe towards things that aren’t actually a real threat to them or they are but not as much as they think. feelings do not always matter cause feelings are subjective and can not be a good source for truth and can skew perception of reality . also that pit in ur stomach ur talking about is called a gut instinct and isn’t the same as emotions.

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    1. The situations I bring up in this article are issues that affect people’s day to day lives. Racism, sexism, homophobia – they can all be enacted in very subtle and unsubtle ways, and we should err on the side of people who face this kind of discrimination daily. Feelings are totally valid and shouldn’t be dismissed – they might not be the source of all truth but they can certainly guide it.

      Like

  2. I love this Article. It really touches on some great ways to broaden ones own perspective and understanding when faced with the urge to shut another’s opinions down rather then engage with them.

    Liked by 1 person

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