In defense of hypersensitivity
Duke students certainly have their values. We emphasize the importance of a strong work ethic, we highlight our progressivism by continuously looking for new ways to fix our campus and we prioritize unity through our esteemed team spirit (well, for the male sports teams at least). While these form just a few of the stepping-stones that help us to traverse Duke culture, certain social stigmas also exist that tend to hold us back, both as individuals and as a cohesive student body. Students cannot easily talk to one another about their shockingly existent imperfections, for example, since doing so is often perceived as “hypersensitive.” The trend to delegitimize others’ experiences and opinions due to so-called hypersensitivity is disturbing and detrimental to the ability of Duke students to understand one another fully.
The issues surrounding the classification of a perspective as hypersensitive begin with the negative connotations surrounding the word itself, which lacks a concrete definition. Merriam-Webster defines it as someone who is “excessively or abnormally sensitive” or who has “feelings that are easily hurt.” This definition makes it ironically obvious that a conception of hypersensitivity depends wholly on the experiences and long-held perceptions of each individual. Generally, hypersensitivity is nothing more than a consideration of the challenges faced by other students here. But, at Duke, students often seem less willing to talk about the ease of an exam that a friend might have done poorly on than to say, “Man, that exam was retarded.”
Comments like these occur frequently but those who perpetuate these offensive dialogues are never referred to as hyper-inconsiderate. As an RA, I try to open up my room up as a hub of discussion for residents. I am frequently accused of being hypersensitive for calling people out for insensitive phrasing. It shocks me how often I hear friends and acquaintances alike throw around words like “gay,” “faggot,” “rape,” and “retard” whenever they lack the originality to think of adjectives and verbs that actually signify whatever they mean to refer to. I am usually then left disappointed when people choose to ignore the effects their words can have by instead invalidating the sensitivities of those around them. One person responded to my request to not use “gay” as a derogatory adjective by suggesting that, if I felt uncomfortable by the societal link between homosexuality and inferiority, I (and all gay individuals) should simply identify as something other than “gay.” Most people do not consciously have homophobic intentions when they call something or someone “gay,” so why be offended?
This response was honest, and it painfully shed light on the widespread misconceptions of the negative origins of many words’ connotations. “Gay” did not enter the lexicon as an offensive adjective but became one after many decades of outward and suppressed homophobia. I imagine that if the LGBT community did invent a new word to signify homosexuality, it would not be long before “gay” was an insult of the past. Societal linguistic trends do not just magically begin out of happenstance. While not everybody might not consciously use words as a negative reflection of their actual meanings, their continued reluctances to change so much as a few words of their fluid vocabularies reflects a very conscious ignorance of the difficulties some of their peers have faced or continue to face on a daily basis.
Critics of hypersensitivity often question why words have such dramatic effects on certain people. They will never be satisfied with an answer because certain words—triggers and micro-aggressions alike—have different effects on different people for different reasons. And usually these effects cannot be fully understood regardless due to unconscious privilege—I could not begin to imagine how it must feel for a victim of sexual assault to hear a group of friends talking about raping a test, just as I do not expect straight individuals to understand what it is like to be constantly reminded of the ways a crucial part of my identity is so frequently attacked. However, while no one can fully understand the effects their words can have, they can attempt to.
I often wonder what an appropriate level of sensitivity is—where sensitivity ends and hypersensitivity begins seems to be a distinction that “hyper-insensitive” students can tailor as they see fit. For me, this artificial barrier of sensitivity simply does not exist. If someone told me that they felt uncomfortable by any word or action that I had the ability to control with ease, it would not matter how valid I perceived that concern to be. As a student body and as a subset of humanity, our goal in social interactions should be to understand, not persecute, one another.
The distinction between levels of sensitivity is arbitrary and entirely unnecessary. I have found that there are no “hypersensitive” students at Duke—just sensitive ones—and that sensitivity is nothing to be ashamed of.
Brendan McCartney is a Trinity sophomore. His column runs every other Tuesday.