A sensitive topic

Mbabane, Swaziland | 11 Dec 2013
Bill Snaddon

Dad has always told me that I am “too sensitive”. For the longest time I thought he was implying something else – which is a bit rich coming from a man fond of wearing pink shirts to formal occasions. He argues the colour is actually “subtle peach”, not pink. Whatever the case, he believes it “brings out his feminine side” while showing he is “secure in his masculinity”. I usually leave the argument there.

One day I asked: “Dad, what do you mean? What do you mean I’m ‘too sensitive’?”

With a gruff look on his moustached face he replied: “Well, son, you’re too much like your mother.”

I took that as a compliment, little did he know. But I pretended to look upset. I didn’t want to hurt the Old Man’s feelings. And it was at that moment it dawned on me. He’s right. Dad’s right.

I am too sensitive. I pretended to look upset because I didn’t want to hurt his feelings. And in doing so I proved his point that I am, indeed, too sensitive.

How best was a young man to reconcile all this?

Whether by accident or by design I started working in the non-governmental sector, where, I would discover, sensitivity is held as a virtue – a prerequisite, even.

Nearly everything needs to be sensitised. Gender rights; human rights; children’s rights; seniors’ rights; disability rights; animal rights. I’m quietly waiting for the United Nations Charter outlining the global guidelines on the Rights of Car Owners.

Let’s not beat around the bush, though. All of these rights are worthy things to pursue and claim. But by overly sensitising people to any right we can think of, are we not discounting our capacity to discuss things at a deeper level?

For if we’re forever sensitising issues – possibly skating over the tougher topics of more substance – is it not difficult to get to the heart of the subject at hand?

For instance, if I’m being “sensitive” I may struggle to tell black friends about the racist jokes I heard as a child.

Jokes, by the way, that can fester into a subtle form of prejudice and, for some, a more sinister form of racism.

But if I remove the sensitivity and replace it with sincerity, then we are freer (but maybe not always so comfortable) to discuss many of these unpalatable things, if we so wish. It also adds the possibility of injecting some humour into these unfunny topics, thereby diffusing the tension and, perhaps, allowing bridges to be built.

So, I’m asking myself: Is sensitisation a way to avoid saying what we really think? Or perhaps a way to avoid causing offence?

If so, would it not be better to hazard an attempt at honesty (and run the risk of causing minor offence) rather than cause no offence while speaking with two tongues?

Or has sensitisation come to mean “to educate”? As in, to sensitise people on gender rights means to educate people on gender rights.

I suspect that in the West sensitising is a subtle form of censorship, peddled by some people who don’t wish to be exposed to competing views.

I once joked about being a male rights activist at a gender rights conference. I wasn’t invited back.

So, in the interests of sensitisation, and with Dad’s words (not to mention his pink/peach shirt) ringing in my mind, I best leave it there.

This column was originally published in the Times of Swaziland

A sensitive topic

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