Archive for Wednesday, January 7, 2009

‘Sensitivity’ often related to lack of trust

January 7, 2009


Clint Eastwood has had it up to here with sensitivity.

“A lot of people are bored of all the political correctness,” he recently told the New York Times. “... The country has come a long way in race relations, but the pendulum swings so far back. Everyone wants to be so” ... and here, he gave a make-my-day grimace ... “sensitive.”

As it happens, Eastwood was talking about a fellow for whom sensitivity is not a problem: Walt Kowalski, the retired Detroit auto worker he portrays in his latest film, “Gran Torino.” Kowalski is the unlikely hero of a tale of redemption and sacrifice ... unlikely because he is a cantankerous cuss with a mouth full of bigotry and invective, a guy who has it in for the “dagos,” the “micks,” the “hillbillies” and, most pointedly, the “slopes” ... i.e., the Hmong refugees, an influx of which has left his once white, working-class neighborhood unrecognizable.

In the years since he stopped acting opposite orangutans, Eastwood has become a fascinating filmmaker, willing like few others to confront the nettlesome gray areas of human existence. “Gran Torino” is a worthy addition to that canon, but for all the nettlesome grays it illuminates, the most nettlesome might be one it suggests only obliquely: the notion that we are drowning in our own sensitivity.

Here in the United States of the Aggrieved, there is no malady, mark, mannerism, mindset or malformation too miscellaneous to have its own support group, along with a cadre of lobbyists and lawyers hyper-vigilant for any suggestion of mistreatment or actionable discrimination. Largely as a result, American English has become a morass of compound constructions and newly invented terminologies designed to leave no one out, give no one cause for offense. Sometimes you wonder if, in so radically revising the way we communicate, we have not compromised our ability to do so.

A few years ago, I showed one of my college classes an episode of “All in the Family.” The students were offended. Nor were they persuaded by my protestations that the show was: (a) hilarious; and (b) a satire that condemned bigotry by making it ridiculous. They are children of a different era where you simply cannot say the things Archie Bunker did, even to ridicule them.

Sometimes, I think that’s progress. Sometimes, I call it something else entirely.

Archie Bunker and Walt Kowalski are icons of a white America that is fading away ... meaning not simply one that was freer with ethnic insult, but one where it was possible, among friends, to speak those insults in good humor, with no malice intended or imputed.

Indeed, Kowalski gets as good as he gives from his barber, an Italian, each slurring the other’s ancestry with good-natured brio. Yet when Kowalski confronts a group of black street punks, the script has him calling them “spooks” ... not the more obvious epithet that rhymes with “trigger.” Eastwood doubtless knew using that word would have rendered the character irredeemable.

That the script allowed Eastwood to fire at will at his Italian friend but required him to pull up short in dealing with black thugs is telling. It speaks not simply to script dynamics, but to dynamics of American history and culture, to the question of who has assimilated enough that we deem them fair game and who has not.

It’s not difficult to appreciate the nostalgia Eastwood ... and, likely, many white Americans of his generation ... feel for the easy banter between Kowalski and his barber. It bespeaks a less touchy time where friendly insults helped pass the time of day.

But for there to be friendly insults, there must first be friendships, with all the reserves of trust and affection that term implies. The “sensitivity” Eastwood deplores is stark evidence that all too often, there is not.

— Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald. He chats with readers from noon to 1 p.m. CST each Wednesday on


Leslie Swearingen 9 years, 2 months ago

Has much of political correctness is simply good manners? I loathe in when people say a letter but not the word, and even though we are supposed to know what word they mean, and think the word, as long as we don't say it - what?Apparently, a common word used to describe blacks is not permitted in this post. I could put in the first letter and the last and a row of asterisks, but I will not give in to that kind of thinking.I protest heartily as the word I was going to write is not obscene and it is not profane and I was not using it in a way to denigrate anyone, but to illustrate.I hate it much more when white liberals assure me that are comfortable with interracial families, and look everywhere but at me while they are talking. As long as liberals cannot look me in the eye when they are talking to me, I will not believe them.Much of this public political correctness is simply a wish to take the easy way out and avoid a good, strong, healthy discussion of differences, what some might call an argument.When I was growing up, argument still had the definition of presenting your side of an issue.

Paul R Getto 9 years, 2 months ago

Good point, Cleo: Sadly, 'argument' now means who can yell the loudest. Television 'news' isn't helping. Dan Rather was right; when the networks told the news wings they had to be profit centers like the inane shows later in the evening, they became entertainers too. We are paying a price for this in the body politic. It's certainly not necessary to point out the Internet, despite its speed and depth has not contributed much to real discussion.

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