Bryan Caplan  

Welcome to My Hypersensitivity Training Workshop

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In 1849 the British actor Charles Maccready started a riot by saying Americans were vulgar.  A mob stormed the Astor Place Opera House, where Maccready was playing Macbeth, police opened fire, and 22 rioters were killed.
             -New York (Eyewitness Travel Guides)
Hypersensitivity is a grave social ill.  It leads to needless conflict, lingering fear, suppression of important truths, and even, as the Astor Place Riot shows, violence and death.  Learning from the success of sensitivity training, I suggest we combat hypersensitivity with Hypersensitivity Training Workshops.  Small groups of students or co-workers, under the guidance of a certified Hypersensitivity Coordinator, must come together to explore the dangers of hypersensitivity.  This evil will always be with us, but by raising awareness we can hopefully make the problem more manageable.

Hypersensitivity Training is still in its infancy.  At the moment, I'm the world's only certified Hypersensitivity Training Coordinator, and even my experience is limited.  But I here propose the following exercises to start a dialog about proper program design.

Exercise #1: The Wall of Hypersensitivity.  Find a partner.  You start talking.  His job is to take visceral offense at everything you say.  After five minutes, reverse roles.  Then we have a class discussion about how your partner's hypersensitivity made you feel.

Exercise #2: In General.  Write down five groups that you identify with, then find a partner and swap lists.  Take turns going down the list telling each other, "In general, group X is Y."  Y can be anything you sincerely believe.

Exercise #3: An Awkward Moment.  Stand before the group and tells a story about a time you inadvertently gave offense.  After each story, the group chants, "It was no big deal!"

Exercise #4: Traitor.  Pick one of your group identities from Exercise #2.  Stand before the group and share a negative generalization about your group that you secretly agree with.  The Coordinator then asks for a show of hands to see how many people accept your negative generalization.  One by one, everyone who raised his hand gives you a sheepish grin.

Exercise #5: Not Like the Others.  Pick a partner and discuss your lives for five minutes.  Then take turns telling each other, "Most people like you are X, but you're different."

Exercise #6: Pronoun Purgatory.  Each attendee writes a paragraph using at least ten traditional gendered pronouns.  Pass your paragraph to the person on your right.  Then stand before the group and read your neighbor's paragraph aloud, replacing the gendered language with "he or she," "his or hers", etc.  Anytime you fail to correctly revise the original paragraph, the Coordinator interrupts you and asks the whole class to make faux enraged faces at you.  

Exercise #7: Tone It Down.  Get before the group and share something you heard that deeply offended you.  The Coordinator then calls upon attendees to "tone it down" - to marginally rephrase or qualify the original offensive statement.  Once the revised version no longer offends you, sit down and give the next person his turn.

If you've got other exercises, please share them in the comments.  If they're good enough, I'll fast track you for Hypersensitivity Training Coordinator certification.  But remember: The point of the exercise should never be to give offense, but rather to discourage the inappropriate taking of offense.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (23 to date)
Troy Camplin writes:

Start off each session with "Taking offense is a choice. You choose whether or not to take offense. Nothing is offensive except you make it so."

I recommend Lou Marinoff's "The Middle Way" on offense.

David C writes:

What a bizarre post.

David R. Henderson writes:

This is FANTASTIC. LOL. I don't have much to add but I will think about it.

Dan Weber writes:

I am offended.

Ryan writes:

I could get on board with this. How much does a certified Hypersensitivity Coordinator make?

John Fast writes:

1. Sensitivity training is designed to make people *more* sensitive. Logically, shouldn't your program be called "desensitivity training" or "stability training" or "courage training"?

2. I've been in workshops where we did exercises like the ones you describe, although they were generally about personal rather than group traits.


4. I also recommend Self-Discipline and Emotional Control: Remaining Calm and Productive Under Pressure by Tom Miller.

Carl Jakobsson writes:

Pick a partner. His job is to try and upset you. For each insults he hurls at you, you should describe a scenario where someone could say that but still regret it after a while.

Adam writes:

Hypersensitivity is a grave social ill.

Aren't you being a little hypersensitive about this?

Jehu writes:

The problem is, being easily offended and/or hypersensitive WORKS, in the social status and legal battlespaces. The only way it would cease to work is if the other groups in society collectively decided to ostracize any group that played a card from this deck (e.g., the race card). The hostility they'd have to display to extinguish the behavior would have to be intense and visceral, and would probably also require them to break the legs of the legal establishment through flagrant and widespread jury nullification in civil and sometimes criminal cases. Nice dream, but I'm afraid there's no easy way out of our present impasse.

NZ writes:

Is it ever appropriate to take offense?

I can think of times when it's appropriate to get angry, or scared, or concerned, or disillusioned, or even grossed out, but I can't think of a time when it would be appropriate to get offended.

I guess I just don't understand getting offended.

rapscallion writes:

I think the marketing problem is that to sell this idea you've got to be willing to make the argument not just in the abstract, but when even really awful people are saying really awful things.

Are you willing to get up in a crowded room of angry people and tell everyone to just calm down over Holocaust denial? Child porn? Racial Slurs? Pauly Shore movies?

jc writes:


Getting offended is getting angry. So you do get it. It's getting angry because of what somebody else said or did even though no physical or property harm came to you.

twv writes:

Taking offense is (often) to get angry about a contrary expression of your values. Sometimes this is a result of your own inability to maintain your values in the face of disagreement. It's probably a result of fear, fear of being disproved, fear of losing purchase on one's own personal methods of coping with life.

Sometimes expressions of divergent values amounts to an attack on one's character. This is more serious, and can be seriously disruptive of normal social relationships.

I can think of one example from my own life, where I was tempted to take offense at something a friend said. I had played a piece of music by Paul Hindemith, one of the great German composer's gnarlier efforts. It was a piece I loved. Truly. Deeply. A friend responded, saying, "people only like that kind of music so that they can pretend to be better than other people, to pretend they're smart."

That statement struck me as quite a personal attack. He was saying that I, who loved the music, loved it for superficial reasons. The truth, as I felt it (anyway), was that I loved it because I understood it and it excited me on several levels.

My reaction to his thoughtless charge was, itself, secretive and complex - and slightly disturbing. Rather than express offense, I instead adopted a cushion to my values, a calm knowledge that my friend was, on several levels just demonstrated (lack of understanding, narrow receptivity to beauty, and in general paranoia), my inferior.

To protect myself from giving offense to him, too often, I try to remind myself that, on other matters, I am his inferior.

Most relationships are not expressions of equality, but rough parity; people exist as friends and neighbors often trading according to comparative advantage. Lack of respect for value differences leads to giving offense and taking offense, both.

Jeffrey Horn writes:

Exercise #8. Chamber of Horrors. Each attendee presents an original idea. Everyone in the room tells the person presenting that their idea is terrible and will never be published. Everyone submits their idea to a one-off journal anyway.

Tracy W writes:

Is it ever appropriate to take offense?

Let's see, someone groundlessly insults you, or your husband, or an ethnic group, or some other group? And not because they mistakenly thought that they were speaking the truth, but for some other reason.
I remember once someone on the Internet, in a debate, when I pointed out the expert he had used as a reference contradicted what he was saying, he replied that I had cherrypicked quotes. I wasn't scared, some random bloke on the internet isn't threatening. I already was too experienced to be disillusioned. I wasn't grossed out, it was a debate about mathematics. I wasn't concerned. I was angry, but not red-hot angry, he was too much of an idiot for that. But I was offended.

lemmy caution writes:

This is a good Nassim Nicholas Taleb quote:

Charm is the ability to insult people without offending them; nerdiness the reverse.

Joey Donuts writes:

I'm going armed. I'll want everyone to know I'm armed.

I bet I'll never hear anything offensive.

Eric Crampton writes:

Did Corina take you to an office Christmas party, Bryan? Doesn't she know better? Susan knows that I'm not suitable for polite company....

Carly S writes:

This is dumb. "Hypersensitivity" is usually only applied to a minority of people who choose to understand (and point out) how much of common and accepted behavior is, in fact, insensitive to historicized stereotypes that propagate every-day discrimination.

Jared writes:

I have to disagree, Carly. This is brilliant!

Nate writes:

Participants will be seated, restrained and forced to watch, on rotation, every video clip that has resulted in an FCC fine until their galvanic skin response returns to normal levels.

noematic writes:

Brainstorm ways in which off-handed comments from co-workers and other acquaintances do not in fact affect one's self-actualization. Choose one and, together with a partner, explain it to the group through a short role play.

wreaver writes:

Have you seen Steve Hughes' comedy bit on being offended? :-)

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