Why Are Some People Oversensitive to PC Culture?

So, which one is it? Is PC culture ruining discourse, or is the backlash against it a defense mechanism of oppressors who are feeling their power being taken away from them? As with most dichotomies, the answer is that it’s a lot more nuanced than a simple either-or.

To explore this, I’d like to first take a look at a similar phenomenon in a totally different context.

Faces

Interpreting the emotions of faces is something everyone does, but there are different ways to do it. Certain facial expressions have particular cues that signal to us the underlying emotion. However, in everyday life, people’s faces often have very slight or ambiguous emotions, and it is crucial to our survival that we recognize threat, even when it is subtle. How do our brains deal with these grey areas?

It turns out that much of this process has to do with our sensitivity to threat. Not surprisingly, younger children and socially anxious people are more likely to see negativity more easily in ambiguous faces. Women tend to have this negativity effect when evaluating other women’s (but not men’s) faces, and it is even more pronounced for women who are sexually desirable and thus more likely to experience aggression from other women.

Taken together, this means that an important function of the facial recognition system is to detect threat, and its sensitivity gets tuned according to our experiences, so that people who are more likely to experience threat are more sensitive to it. And this is just at the level of perception; I don’t mean sensitive as in their feelings are more easily hurt. Their sensors are tuned differently because of their experiences.

Expanded Model

Okay, so let’s apply what we’ve learned beyond faces. Some interactions are unambiguously positive or negative, but the vast majority are ambiguous. These ambiguities are interpreted differently based on the experience of the interpreter; those that have experienced more negative interactions in a particular context or domain are more likely to perceive future such interactions negatively.

Although this is technically a “bias” it’s important to realize that the average does not represent the “correct” or “objective” tuning; people’s sensors get tuned according to what they need to navigate the world they are part of.

So when someone with the average tuning has an ambiguous interaction with someone who is more sensitively tuned, it’s no wonder they perceive it so differently, and the response of each seems unthinkable to the other.

Meta

This loops in on itself quickly, as we react to each others’ reactions and begin to get caught up in how we discuss discussions about how discussions ought to go.

Someone who is highly aware of the mechanisms of systemic injustices naturally has a much higher sensitivity to these injustices in everyday life. Nowhere is this more clear than in the slogan: “The personal is political”. Tiny instances are no longer isolated moments, they are part of a larger system of oppression. In fact, oppression is necessarily emergent: it is made up of a system of these pieces, any one of which is not in itself oppression. So someone who is not sensitive to perceiving these larger systems may see each instance as nothing to get worked up over, but the process of heightening awareness includes heightening sensitivity by seeing connections. (This is where the debate about microaggressions comes in).

So people become sensitive about each other’s sensitivities. The discussion becomes about the discussion. And it spirals:

There is a grey area of dialogue, between the obviously right and obviously wrong and it is largely dependent on our perception of the intentions of our interlocutor. All the way at the obviously right end is one’s experience of one’s feelings; this is never the wrong thing to do (though we must be careful to not trick ourselves into framing things as feelings which are not actually feelings). There are other things that are rarely if ever wrong, such as asking permission for something. Then there are things that are usually fine (even healthy!) such as communicating one’s feelings, and communicating one’s thoughts. Somewhere on the other end but still in the grey area there is convincing; this is highly context dependent, with both context and personality being important factors. Finally, it is never okay for people who are meant to be equals to force one another to do anything. Where a given interaction falls on this spectrum depends on the sensitivity of the people.

For example, if the two people have a strong rapport and are committed to the value of debate, arguments can be seen as a positive interaction. We can consider these people in this relationship to be less sensitively tuned. Viewed from the outside by someone with a higher sensitivity (even if it’s average) tuning, this can come off as a negative encounter, even if it is experienced positively by the participating parties.

The same thing happens in the other direction. An interaction in which one person lets the other person know that their tone is negatively affecting the discussion might be completely reasonable, even productive in certain cases. But what tends to happen is that someone who is less sensitively tuned says this to someone who is more sensitively tuned, and this action in itself is perceived as an attempt to force one to change the other’s behavior.

This happens so often that it itself has become one of the things that is an instance of the larger system of oppression, and has been named tone policing.

So what?

My goal with this model is to provide a tool that would help everyone to zoom out beyond their own perspective when it’s necessary. Perhaps if we are able to remember in the moment that our interpretations are subjective and not more or less correct than others’, we will be able to temporarily play by each others’ rules and rebuild the capacity to have difficult discussions.

I hope this can somehow help counteract the current polarization which is only bulking up the extreme worldviews and making it harder and harder to connect, understand, and heal.