Political Correctness and the response to sensitivity training

The development of sensitivity training has led many critics to claim that such training is not really designed to help people be more sensitive to other people’s ideas and feelings, but it is really crafted to change one’s attitudes, standards and beliefs. These critics argue that sensitivity training merely wears people down until they conform to the mentality of the group, and agree that views of the group are acceptable, regardless of the value of the group idea or belief. These critics further assert that sensitivity training is often misused to force people into complying with community directives to conform to standards of political correctness. Political correctness has been defined as “avoidance of expressions or actions that can be perceived to exclude or marginalize or insult people who are socially disadvantaged or discriminated against” or the “alteration of language to redress real or alleged injustices and discrimination or to avoid offense.” For example, the politically correct (PC) word for someone who is crippled would be disabled, and the PC word for someone who is blind would be visually impaired. While political correctness seems like a good thing, opponents of the political correctness movement argue that it represents a totalitarian movement toward an ideological state in which citizens will be terrorized into conforming with the PC movement or risk punishment by the State.

This friction between advocates for sensitivity training and opponents of the PC movement has resulted in an emotional reaction to sensitivity training the workplace. In spring, 2000, the Environmental Protection Agency announced to its Washington-area employees that it was planning a series of sensitivity training seminars to “create understanding, sensitivity and awareness of diversity issues and provide a forum for exchanging information and ideas.” The course failed miserably. The EPA employees complained the course literature was condescending and one-sided. Many employees seemingly felt that only certain ones of them were being asked to be sensitive to the others.

Proponents of the PC movement assert that it merely makes each of us a bit more sensitive to the challenges that our fellow citizens may face on a day-by-day basis. Clearly, the debate will continue. Sensitivity training will continue, and employers and other organizations will continue to assess whether its effectiveness warrants the costs.

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