The Cult of Oversensitivity

Young people today are oversensitive. Everyone knows it. It’s just obvious, right?

Yeah, I know, I can’t fool you. You know I’m about to pick so many holes in this “common knowledge” you could catch fish with it.

I recently made a couple of videos (which you can check out here and here) where I talked about trigger warnings and why they were important, and the immediate reaction to these ideas was “real life doesn’t come with trigger warnings”, “it’s a miracle your brain has exploded, you oversensitive blankity blank”, and so on. This wasn’t unexpected. It’s a sentiment I’ve seen time and again, even from people with whom I usually agree. There seems to be this idea that we’re all a bunch of whining millennials, complaining about how life isn’t fair, and frantically trying to avoid ever feeling anything remotely unpleasant. And while, in some cases, there may be an element of truth to that, it’s definitely not the whole truth—and not the truth for the majority of young people.

The first problem with this “common knowledge” is that it’s been “common knowledge” for at least the last four or five generations. Every new generations has been labelled “the laziest” or “the most entitled” or “the most oversensitive” by the one before it. It seems to be Just The Thing To Do, a kind of socially acceptable version of “get off my lawn, you young whippersnapper!”. These accusations weren’t true for the generations before us—at least, not for the majority of them—and they’re not true for ours. Just because a group of people have a different idea of what’s appropriate, doesn’t make them entitled or oversensitive. But we still accept this as conventional wisdom without questioning it.

The second problem with this is that it’s actually a very convenient narrative, a simple way to gloss over the genuine concerns of particular groups—especially marginalised groups—and to paint those fighting for their rights as a bunch of whiny malcontents just looking to cause trouble. And again, this is not a new technique. But what about our generation specifically do people point to as “oversensitive” and “entitled”?

Well, one of the most obvious is the rise in diagnoses of mental illnesses. The response is often something along the lines of “in my day we didn’t have all this depression nonsense, we just got on with things”. And the obvious answer to that is, no Karen, people killed themselves and you didn’t talk about it. People were locked up in “asylums” and you didn’t talk about it. People were ostracised from your community and you didn’t talk about it. And there’s also the point that your generation had a completely different culture and social context. Life is different now, and comes with different challenges, as well as certain privileges, like access to better mental healthcare (although it’s still far from adequate). Are there people diagnosed with depression who probably would do better if they “just got on with it”? Sure. That’s the case with a lot of illnesses, though, and they’re the majority. Nobody wants to have depression. Nobody likes being judged for being ill, having to try out five different treatments before they find one that sort of works, struggling to work or parent or hell, struggling to get out of bed in the morning. This isn’t oversensitivity, it’s a fucking illness. And a similar principle applies to a variety of other mental illnesses that are now being diagnosed at far higher rates than ever before. This isn’t a cult of oversensitivity. We’re finally recognising that there’s a problem with the way we’ve treated mental illness in the past, and we’re doing something to address it. We might not have it quite right yet, but we’re working on it. And that’s a hell of a lot better than just pretending it didn’t exist, the way previous generations tended to.

Another example that’s often raised in these discussions of oversensitivity is the rise of “politically correct” language, and the idea that people are “too easily offended”. What people fail to recognise here is that people were always “offended” by casual racism, sexism, misogyny, classism, and ableism. Those people just have more access to public spaces now, and some privileged people are finally starting to recognise that these things are real problems and making room for marginalised people to speak for themselves. Just like with mental illness, these problems aren’t new. Racism has always been a problem. Sexism has always been a problem. But we’re finally recognising that, and trying to do something about it. And one of the ways we’re trying to address our harmful attitudes is by changing the way we use language. Language forms our thoughts, our attitudes, our ways of viewing the world. What words we use have significant impact, not only on those we’re speaking to and about, but on ourselves as well. When we make a conscious effort to change our language, it inevitably leads to a greater awareness of those around us, and of our own attitudes. What people who complain about “easily offended” millennials don’t realise is that we’re not really worried about being offended, although that’s still the go-to term. We’re finally recognising that this “offensive”, or rather oppressive language has real life, harmful impacts on marginalised people. And we’re no longer willing to accept that.

These are just two common examples of the way people misrepresent certain groups as “oversensitive”. It’s been a silencing technique used on mostly-marginalised groups since, well, forever really, and the problem is, it works. The irony is, of course, that the people yelling about oversensitive millennials are often very easily offended themselves. They screech about free speech and entitlement culture, but see what happens when you call one of them racist or sexist. Oversensitive doesn’t even begin to cover it. And they still fail to recognise that being called racist is not harmful, or even intended as an insult, while actually being racist causes real harm to real people.

So the next time you’re tempted to scoff at a bunch of “easily offended millennials”, stop and ask yourself: is there something I’m missing? What are they seeing here that I’m not? Because “common sense” isn’t always right. And young people aren’t always wrong.

Text: All Rights Reserved to Cambrey Payne 2017

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