Cultural Oversensitivity Stifles Cultural Understanding

Cultural Oversensitivity Stifles Cultural Understanding

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To improve discourse around the issues they face, Stanford’s activist groups need to stop silencing everyone else.

From day one of New Student Orientation, Stanford students are immersed in a world of cultural multiplicity that encourages them to explore new social perspectives. However, we are often warned to be cautious about how we approach new cultural perspectives, for fear of causing offence through misunderstanding. Such cautions are sensible when they encourage people to understand what they are discussing before they venture to comment or criticise. However, it is clear that on-campus student groups are growing increasingly militant over their definitions of inappropriate statements and viewpoints. The rise in insular cultural discourse – where individual groups monopolistically decide what they deem appropriate, and do so with increasing frequency – ultimately hurts the progression and integration of that culture into on- and off-campus life, by stifling discourse on critical issues relevant to the group.

The context behind this article is one of on-campus groups criticising external discourse, claiming that others have no right to comment on their issues, or using their powers to ban it outright. Last quarter, for example, Stanford’s American Indian Organisation pressured an on-campus theatre group not to produce a show they deemed offensive. Meanwhile, Stanford Daily opinions writers have openly declared that particular discussions are closed to people of privilege, granting a monopoly over discourse to the groups who perceive themselves as directly affected by issues of social inequality. Across the pond at Oxford, controversy erupted after two student activists accused their classmates of wearing racist clothing at a social event.

Oversensitivity toward cultural issues discourages cultural discussion. More specifically, when people are repeatedly jumped on, called out and criticised, a general chilling effect around cultural issues of this nature is created. This chilling effect is especially strong when, just as with Stanford’s theatre group, those looking to comment on cultural difference make active efforts to talk with the groups affected, and still find themselves under attack. As a result, cultural and minority issues are not discussed at all outside the individual group affected, as people fear they will be lambasted or humiliated for their unintentional insensitivity.

Of course, a tradeoff should exist between enabling discourse on these issues and ensuring a proper understanding of the issues at stake before people open their mouths, but recent campus precedent suggests a dangerous lurch away from the former. A narrow and controlled series of issues, on which only a limited number are deemed fit to comment, does not ensure a fair and full understanding of the issues minority groups face. If such groups genuinely want to increase awareness and discussion, shutting off discourse seems a poor course of action. Moreover, given the high startup costs of theatre projects, opinion pieces and other forms of social commentary – whether these costs take the form of money, time, or just individuals’ will – the risk that such commentary will be crushed before having a fair hearing will make people reluctant ever to put pen to paper. This cuts off the sources from which people gain perspectives and opinions which they can internalise and discuss further with their peers. It also allows the ignorance of minority issues – ignorance that inevitably stems from a lack of discourse, and that has so harmed these movements in the past – fester and grow.

More harmful than ignorance, however, is pure otherisation: when people perceive another culture as sufficiently alien that they never dare engage in it at all. Such an attitude is hardly discouraged by op-eds that are titled “This ain’t for you”, and create a hostile atmosphere where people from other cultures or backgrounds feel they can never fairly or safely comment on the situations of others. The harms of this behaviour are twofold. First, cultures can rarely meaningfully assimilate when they actively deny the rights of others to comment on their situations; they condemn themselves to being perpetually seen as different when they cut off all discourse from outside their communities. Such an action denies members of their own community the right to become part of a broader, more homogenous culture by upholding a relentless line of insularity.

Second, and more harmfully, it becomes significantly harder to point out those aspects of certain cultures that are unjust, or that need more careful examination. A fear of offending indigenous groups, for example, means that the often patriarchal structures that exist within their communities are never commented on, regardless of whether one thinks such structures are justified. It is unclear why debate on such issues should be marginalised. In a similar vein, British politicians delicately tiptoe around the issue of female genital mutilation and the religious and cultural precedents that contribute to its continued existence. Again, the issue here is not that cultural minorities should be ignored entirely, but rather that an overly militant reaction to any discussion of their cultures stifles the sorts of discourse most important to their advancement.

Minority groups have suffered historic oppression that has eroded their modern-day social, political and economic capital. This is an important reality, and one that Stanford students should acknowledge and act on. Past oppression, however, does not grant groups a monopoly over discourse, especially when that monopoly acts against the interests of their own members. The recent trend of relentless pressure, criticism and shaming only acts against those people curious and willing to learn and explore more, and stifles the long-term advancement and assimilation of the very cultural groups who have spearheaded it. A different balance between discourse and sensitivity for these groups – one that allows more broad discussion and commentary over the issues they face, in their own communities and in wider society – should be considered.

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