An episode of Penn & Teller: Bullshit! from a couple of seasons back dealt with “Sensitivity Training“.
They laid into those office seminars and such, which expect participants to make awkward conversation in circumstances contrived to help everyone understand the difficulties faced by minorities in everyday life. It’s well intentioned stuff designed to counteract prejudice and discrimination, primarily in the workplace.
It’s true that insensitivity and cruelty can be a real problem, and that even someone who doesn’t hold any actively discriminatory views might have a few things to learn about moderating their behaviour in order to avoid making things uncomfortable or difficult for the people they interact with. But this kind of “training” rarely seems like a good way to achieve any worthwhile goals.
The main problem is that, rather than helping people see past their superficial differences, these sessions tend to focus on the aspects of a person that makes them part of a “minority”. If I talk to a black person for the purposes of sensitivity training, I’m talking to them as a black person, not just as a person. If I’m talking to someone Asian, the implicit message is that the sensitive thing to do is to talk to them exclusively about Asian-y things.
Our chances of interacting as fellow humans, with a rich variety of thoughts and feelings and passions that don’t depend on our background or genetic make-up, is actually diminished by this fixation on our differences.
Here’s something which came to mind while I was watching Penn and Teller talk about this.
I know very little about, say, Sikhs. Almost nothing, in fact. I just barely know how to spell them. I’m aware that Sikhism is a significant global religion, I’d guess it’s been around a good few centuries, and that it’s probably mostly something you’d find in Asia. I may have met a Sikh, but I honestly couldn’t tell you.
Here’s something I’m pretty sure I know about Sikhs though, at least at a basic-to-moderate level, and don’t need any training in sensitivity to learn:
I know how not to be a dick to someone just because they’re a Sikh.
I don’t need to understand anyone’s cultural background, or be intimately acquainted with their historical hardships and travails, to know that. Not being a dick is quite an adaptable approach.
So perhaps, while in conversation with my new Sikh friend, it comes up that they don’t want to join me in my puppy-kicking afternoon in the park, because puppies are sacred to their religion. I can then learn about this at the time, and bring into play my moderate skills of not being a dick to someone just because they have some different ideas from me. I can respect that, once they’ve explained it.
And maybe I can also extend this to, say, not being a dick to someone just because they’re black, or a woman. It’s the same basic skill. Ideally, I’d put it into blanket effect and have it active all the time, but part of the knack involves listening when someone suggests that you’re not employing it as thoroughly as perhaps you should.
If any Sikhs are reading this, let me know if you were offended by the crass Western assumptions this article makes about the role that gratuitous violence to small animals plays in your faith.