The Opportunity Cost of Sensitivity

Outrage as an argumentative deterrent has become so commonplace that it is in many instances left unquestioned. Across campuses in the United States, speech and course material are being constrained in the name of sensitivity. There seems to be a mounting pressure on intellectuals to conform to conventional wisdom, even in the face of data. This, of course, comes at a loss to anyone who would like to pursue rational thought and values integrity over pleasantry–and to society as a whole. What we are losing is not immediately visible, thus I have dubbed it the “opportunity cost of sensitivity”.

Over the weekend, two particular events occurred which inspired me to write this essay. One involving a Fox News guest, Gavin McInnes, and the other involving Jerry Hough, a professor at Duke University.

Gavin McInnes’ comments on why women earn less than men were certainly…inspiring. That they have been met with indignation is no surprise to me. However, while I understand the public aversion to his rather simplistic assertion, I am reminded of an unfortunate pattern that I observe all too frequently in contemporary American politics/media; this being the tendency to focus on the aspects of a statement that are offensive and using them to justify disregarding the entire spirit of the comment.

McInnes’ stated:

“The big picture here is, women do earn less in America because they choose to. They would rather go to their daughter’s piano recital than stay all night at work, working on a proposal so they end up earning less. They’re less ambitious, and I think this is sort of God’s way, this is nature’s way of saying women should be at home with the kids — they’re happier there.”

His comment is laden with exasperating generalizations bordering on simple ignorance. The idea that women are less ambitious than men purports that there are respective levels of ambition that vary between the sexes (ie a male level of ambition and a female level of ambition). This is the sad consequence of trying to generalize a quality that is by its very nature, intangible. Ambition can manifest itself in many ways, it is not exclusively linked to career aspirations. It could very easily be argued that raising a family is more ambitious than punching a clock 40 hours a week.

However, McInnes’ proposal threatens to broach on a more cerebral hypothesis: That men and women prioritize differently and that this is reflected in their income. This could be an interesting conversation—it could be observed, tested, proven or disproven. We could have a very worthwhile national discourse on this, were we able to substitute some emotion for critical thought.

Similarly, earlier this week Jerry Hough, a professor of political science at Duke University, began receiving severely negative feedback due to a six-paragraph comment he left on a New York Times editorial. This has so far culminated in him being put on leave by the university. By far the most inflammatory excerpt:

“I am a professor at Duke University. Every Asian student has a very simple old American first name that symbolizes their desire for integration. Virtually every black has a strange new name that symbolizes their lack of desire for integration. The amount of Asian-white dating is enormous and so surely will be the intermarriage. Black-white dating is almost [non-existent] because of the ostracism by blacks of anyone who dates a white.”

Again, it is easy to see why people were put off by such writing. The use of “black”, “white” and “a Chinese” as nouns describing [groups of] people connotes a particularly archaic view on race relations, as does the explicit suggestion that uniquely black names exemplify a lack of desire to “integrate”. Given the nature of the New York Times’ online community, this comment was destined to fail.

However, this is only one paragraph of what is otherwise an analytical opinion of the causes of problems plaguing the black community en masse. In the rest of his five paragraphs, Hough is critical of moneyed democrats’ manipulation of inner-city blacks, the practical inefficiency of Baltimore’s mayor, and the general narrative that racism alone is holding back black progress. He evidences the latter by pointing out that Asian Americans were similarly discriminated against in the 60s and juxtaposing their respective modern socio-economic standing.

There is no hate in his comment. On the contrary, his tone is one of an observer bemoaning what he sees as a misstep in causal analysis. When we strip away a very minor amount of unintentionally offensive material, we are left with an (admittedly subjective) opinion supported by observation.

Once again, there is a hypothesis present (actually there are several) that is at least worth our consideration. Relative specifically to the remark regarding first names of black students, it is acknowledged by many that uniquely black first names are usually not correlated with economic success. Though this knowledge is commonplace, uniquely black names are still very prolific in our society. This is obviously very interesting, because it means that some parents are prioritizing anti-assimilation over the financial future of their children. Whether or not we find this to be fair or exemplary of the world we’d like to live in, we should not shy away from discussing it in the name of sensitivity.

But such is the nature of the beast. In the age of the Internet, we seem to trip over our own feet rushing to be outraged by the first comment that portends on insensitivity. It makes no difference if it is supported by observation or logic; dissenting statements are quickly vilified by an eager community of censors.

Per the title of this essay, I believe that doing so comes at a high cultural cost that is not readily apparent to us. Throwing water on the spark of an idea that we find upsetting cannot possibly be the knee-jerk reaction of an intellectual society.

That personal outrage is accepted as a valid tool by which to debunk arguments is extremely troublesome. When it is so used, it stymies discussion based solely on emotion, a subjective value, while leaving no room for objective analysis. The fact that hypotheses are being created means that a solution is not present. By forgoing an argument because we find its premise offensive, we are implicitly stating that the problem it addresses is less offensive, because we would rather it remain unchanged than tolerate the unpopular view. Is Hough’s argument that resistance to assimilation is handicapping blacks more offensive than black suffering? It would take someone very far-removed from the real world to make such an argument.

Hopefully, people will remember that they don’t know everything and that even initially offensive theories can better our understanding of the world we live in—ultimately leading to solutions. The question we must ask ourselves is: Do we gain more by stifling these conversations than we could by having them? That is the true nature of a high opportunity cost. The answer will usually be a resounding no.