Is Hypersensitivity the New Fascism?

It’s always been part of the web — but we’re seeing more of it than ever. What does it mean to live in this environment of constant social inflammation, and how does it affect what we bring to our web content?

This session offers more questions than answers, but I’ll talk about some of the approaches and practices that I use to manage the balance between self-censorship and respect for others.

In this 19-minute episode, I talk about:

  • Why we all seem to be getting on each other’s nerves lately
  • The way in which words don’t always mean what we want them to mean
  • How to handle individual sensitivities as we grow a larger audience
  • How to handle that “hot button” feeling — in yourself and others
  • A question to consider if you find yourself triggering a lot of sensitivity in others

One of the things that Americans have a whole lot of trouble with — actually, that people in developed societies with written languages have trouble with — is that words never keep their meanings over time. A word is a thing on the move. A word is a process. And that’s what’s so confusing about the N-word. And that’s what’s so confusing now about this word, thug. Any discussion where we pretend that it only means one thing is just going to lead to dissension and confusion. ~John McWhorter

The Show Notes

Is Hypersensitivity the New Fascism?

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Sonia Simone: Greetings, superfriends! My name’s Sonia Simone, and these are the Confessions of a Pink-Haired Marketer. For those who don’t know me yet, I am a co-founder and the chief content officer for Copyblogger Media.

I’m also a champion of running your business and your life according to your own rules. As long as you don’t lie and you don’t hurt people, this podcast is your official pink permission slip to run your business or your career exactly the way you think you should.

Today, I want to talk about something that has been coming up a lot in my social media sphere, and I think it’s been coming up a lot for more people than me. That is this question of ‘hypersensitivity.’ A friend of mine asked on Twitter recently, “Is hypersensitivity the new fascism?”

Now, this question of hypersensitivity has always been a big factor on the web. It’s coming up more often, so I have some thoughts on why that might be and some of the ways that we can handle it. It’s a real factor when we’re talking about creating content and putting our voice out onto the web.

First things first, the fascists actually murdered millions of people, so, no, hypersensitivity is not the new fascism. To me, that really does get kind of at the heart of things. We’re adding to this social inflammation by getting outraged over outrage. It’s more productive to try and cool things off and to try to cultivate a little more helpful discussion and a little less what I’m calling ‘social inflammation.’

Why We All Seem to Be Getting on Each Other’s Nerves Lately

Sonia Simone: I think that this is why we’re really looking at a lot of this right now. We are, as human beings, rubbing up against each other’s hot buttons a lot more often than we used to. Why? Because Internet, right? On social media especially, we see friends of friends, so we get into a lot more contact with people who are not actually people we know socially.

Lots of those people have very different values than our values. Or we see people who might comment on a page that we follow with a very, very different set of values and assumptions than we have. The public commons, if you will, has a lot more detailed speech attached to it than it used to. To put it another way, what used to be private speech is now public. Because of that, we’re living in this constant state of social inflammation.

You might have heard me say in an earlier podcast that outrage is like meth. It’s cheap, it’s energizing, and it’s incredibly toxic. Outrage really is the methamphetamine of social media. It’s everywhere. It’s seductive and dangerous at the same time. But here’s the thing, we don’t live in a perfect world. We don’t live in a world where everything is working well and all people are treated as they should be treated. There’s still stuff going on to get legitimately outraged about. How do we strike that balance?

This conversation today is going to be a lot more questions than answers. It’s something that anybody who’s on the web — especially if you’re going to put yourself out there and be someone who has an audience, be someone who tries to communicate your values, and pull an audience towards you — this is going to come up. So I thought I would talk about some of the questions and some of the techniques that I use to try and work with this in a helpful way.

The Way in Which Words Don’t Always Mean What We Want Them to Mean

Sonia Simone: I want to talk about two specific examples just to give you a sense of some of the things we might be talking about. The first one is a fitness blogger who I see occasionally on Facebook. I don’t know him personally. I’m not really closely connected to him. He wrote a post about somebody’s workout. He thought it was not a good workout, and he called it a ‘short buzz’ workout.

If you’re not familiar with the term, ‘short buzz’ is essentially a term that’s used to denigrate somebody with developmental disabilities. This blogger found out real quickly that the room was a lot bigger than he thought it was. To be more specific, he was writing like he was having a conversation with his buddies at the gym and giving each other crap in a way that’s acceptable in that environment, but his audience is a lot wider than that.

His audience includes quite a few people who are, for example, parents of children with developmental disabilities — who are busting their tails to raise their kids to be good people and to raise their kids in a world that maybe doesn’t respect them and doesn’t want to make room for them. These people were really hurt by his thoughtless choice of this term. He wasn’t trying to denigrate anybody except for this workout that he thought wasn’t very good.

When I say the room is bigger than he thought it was, his audience had folks in it that he just wasn’t thinking about being there. He’s accustomed to thinking about a certain kind of person when he prepares content, and then a wider audience than that showed up.

My rule of thumb is that I don’t use language that denigrates people for things they can’t control — skin color, disabilities. Anything that makes reference to that is, for me, just off the table. It’s a slur, and it’s a bad idea. Am I judging this person or saying he’s an evil human being for using this term? I’m not. I don’t think it was a good call on his part. I don’t think it’s a great idea to use that kind of language, but he used it. He’s going to have to make the decision about whether or not it’s important to him to keep using it.

Now, another term that is really fascinating right now is the word ‘thug.’ I’m enough of a word dork that I’m associating it with criminal gangs in 19th century India. That’s where I’m coming from. It’s a Victorian word, or even a ’30s and ’40s noir novel word meaning criminal. There was a really interesting NPR piece about this recently.

Language changes. That’s one of the really interesting things about language. A thing that has happened to this word is that it has become an unwitting dog whistle. A ‘dog whistle’ is a racial slur, usually, that is thinly disguised. The idea is that only the other people who think the way you do are going to perceive what you really mean by it. So when you say ‘thug,’ you mean a slur that is not used in polite company. Of course, it’s also used in the hip-hop community, and it has a different set of connotations in that community.

Here’s this word, and it has this really complex and fascinating history. It has baggage. It has baggage for different people depending on their context. It is still, just to make things really complicated, used by lots of well-meaning people just to mean what it used to mean, which was criminal. Should I, as a person who means no harm, use a word because I don’t personally attach a racial connotation to it? Or should I avoid it? Frankly, it’s not that important to what I have to say. It’s not a word that comes to the core of any of my values, and inclusion is important to my values. I don’t want to unintentionally use the slur that I don’t mean.

Words don’t only mean what we want them to mean. They carry their own charges. Those charges shift, and they blur. Sometimes they shift quite rapidly. Now, we can get angry at this and say, “Well, everybody’s just too sensitive,” or we can try and cultivate an attitude of curiosity and do our best to avoid insulting people we never meant to insult and, at the same time, try to cut people some slack for maybe not being familiar with all of the implications and shades that surround a particular term.

Like I said, more questions than answers. I don’t use ‘thug’ because it’s not that important for me to use thug. I don’t want someone to hear something I never meant to say, but in a world where the room is bigger than we think it is, where there are all kinds of folks tuning in to our message that we don’t realize are there, how do we handle this — this environment of sensitivity and social inflammation?

How to Handle Individual Sensitivities as We Grow a Larger Audience

Sonia Simone: Here are a couple of practices I try to put in place. I don’t always succeed, and they may be of use to you. The first, and this one is probably hardest for me, is if somebody is really hooked and outraged over something that you just don’t think is that big of deal, it’s helpful to try to remember what it feels like when you have your own buttons pushed.

Your first impulse is going to be the same as my first impulse, which is to say, “Well, but my thing I get outraged about is actually important.” I’m not saying that all outrages are equivalent, but I am saying that the feelings that people experience are remarkably similar. As much as you can, try and take that moment to cultivate some empathy for how somebody is feeling, and try and relate it to how you feel.

Do you have that tightness in your throat when someone says something that genuinely offends you, that genuinely you think is unjust and wrong? Do you get that tightness in your throat? Do you get the heat in your chest? Does your face flush? What does it feel like?

You might be having some trouble mustering sympathy for the gentlemen who feels victimized because the Mad Max movie was too feminist, to give you an example of something I have trouble mustering sympathy for, but you don’t have to buy the social wrong or the weight of the wrong to at least try and get some empathy for how that person is feeling. That person’s feeling the same way you feel when you get hooked or pulled into that feeling of anger.

How to Handle That ‘Hot Button’ Feeling — In Yourself and Others

Sonia Simone: Outrage comes from feeling threatened. Right or wrong, if you can empathize with the emotional state, it will just help you come at the situation with a little bit of a more useful frame of reference. That’s when you see somebody else getting hooked or ‘triggered,’ to use a term that comes out of trauma therapy. Unfortunately, people now think of ‘triggered’ as being something out of Portlandia. That’s kind of trivial, so that’s a whole other conversation.

But if you are the one who feels hooked, if you are the one whose buttons have just been leaned on in a big way, my advice is to do everything you can to give yourself some time to process the most volatile emotional state. When you do speak and act, do so with some calm and some control.

I’m not saying never get angry on the Internet or never be outraged. Our anger or our response to an injustice or something that we feel is just wrong, that’s part of our passion. That’s part of who we are. That’s part of our values. It’s an important part of our values, and I think there’s dignity in it. How you define justice is a core part of what you believe, and what you believe is a core part of your connection with your audience.

I’m not saying don’t have beliefs or be some kind of morally bankrupt individual who has no values and doesn’t care about anything. All I’m saying is that, if you can muster your calm, and your logic, and your gravitas, you’re just going to be more convincing. You’re just going to do more good when you can speak when your physiology has calmed down, when your voice is not tight so that it’s getting high, squeaky, and fast, when your heart is not pounding.

If you can calm yourself as much as possible so that you can speak from conviction without speaking from a shrill sense of outrage, you’re going to be more convincing. You’re going to be able to muster more support for your belief and your vision of what the world should be. This is the case for right or left, or red, blue, yellow, green. It’s not something that only applies to one side of the political spectrum, or one set of facial features, or skin tone.

I really think that this is something that any person who believes passionately about something, if you can speak from a position of calm passion and well-reasoned passion, you’re going to convince more people than if you fly off the handle. We see a lot of flying off the handle. We don’t see enough of that reasoned, thoughtful passion. That’s what I am arguing for.

A Question to Consider If You Find Yourself Triggering a Lot of Sensitivity in Others

Sonia Simone: The third thing is, and trust me I do this myself, not infrequently, if you are bumping into a lot of other people’s sensitivity, if you are making a lot of people unhappy with you for a word choice or something that you’re doing is bugging people, you have to take a little bit of time and try and be thoughtful.

Ask yourself if it is possible that you are being an ass. It’s really difficult to do. Of course, we all think, “No, I’m the good guy. My side is the good guys. Their side is the bad guys,” but sometimes we have been offensive or insensitive without meaning to be. There’s a lot of stuff in our common culture that doesn’t really serve us well. A lot of casual racism or casual attitudes about people that, if we really sat down and thought about them, we might realize they don’t really serve us.

When you’re thinking about how you are bugging other people, ask yourself, “Does it serve the core values of the audience? Is this a real expression of your values?” If it is, then speak your truth. If you are bugging people and making people angry with a reasoned, calmed, measured statement of what’s really true for you, then speak your truth. I am not about censoring what you really believe in to make everybody happy. That’s just dopey. It doesn’t work. It turns you into this bland cream of wheat that nobody cares about.

If it’s important to you, say it — and say it clearly — but it’s also great to be able to make a little room to ask yourself, “Am I just not wanting to look at this closely because I’m a bit embarrassed. I don’t think of myself as a person with prejudices and am I covering up that embarrassment by saying, ‘Oh, everyone is too sensitive, and I don’t know why everybody flies off the handle over these innocent little things.'”

You have to realize it doesn’t make you an awful person. It makes you a normal person. We never, ever evolved to be in social interaction with as many people as we are right now on social media. We evolved in groups where the social norms were well-understood, not that hard to figure out. You just figured them out, and you went about your business.

Now, everybody’s got different issues, different hot buttons, different things that they legitimately get really, really hooked by. It’s okay to stop and say, “You know, I’ve always used this term. I don’t mean anything ill by it. I’m not trying to denigrate anybody, but it seems to be offending people. And, frankly, it doesn’t matter to me. It’s not core to my values at all. It’s just something I’ve said for a long time without really thinking about it.”

If you’re just hitting people’s hot buttons and you don’t really have any core belief or intention behind it, you could adjust it. That’s not being a PC mindless idiot. It’s really just having good manners.

That’s how I see it. As I said, I’m not here on this one to give you some kind of all-knowing advice from the mountaintop. It’s more a conversation about how I try and think about some of these issues. I definitely do come up against them. You guys can probably figure out I am on what you might call the PC side of the spectrum. I try to be respectful. I try not to denigrate people when I can. Do I make fun of people over certain things? Yes. Do I make fun of people sometimes about certain belief systems that I don’t think are correct? Sure, yes. Human being, right?

I would love to hear your thoughts on it. I would love to hear maybe times that you have come up against this and where you decided to go on it. I don’t think there’s a right and a wrong. I don’t think that you should say, “Oh, I’m always going to adjust my speech, so I never offend anyone.” That would not be the right takeaway.

The right takeaway would be to be thoughtful, cultivate that sense of curiosity, a little bit of a sense of humor about yourself, and a little bit of trying to understand how people are wired and how they’re thinking instead of just dismissing people who have different hot buttons than your hot buttons as being oversensitive. Whereas, of course, your hot buttons are all totally morally justified because they’re right. That is the normal way we think. I’m just encouraging a little curiosity around it.

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