Clarence Thomas: We’re too sensitive

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas stirred up a hornet’s nest yesterday when he said Americans today are too sensitive.

Speaking to college students at Palm Beach Atlantic University in West Palm Beach, Fla., the court’s second black justice said:

Clarence Thomas

“My sadness is that we are probably today more race and difference-conscious than I was in the 1960s when I went to school. To my knowledge, I was the first black kid in Savannah, Georgia, to go to a white school. Rarely did the issue of race come up. Now, name a day it doesn’t come up. Differences in race, differences in sex, somebody doesn’t look at you right, somebody says something. Everybody is sensitive. If I had been as sensitive as that in the 1960s, I’d still be in Savannah. Every person in this room has endured a slight. Every person. Somebody has said something that has hurt their feelings or did something to them — left them out.”

I’ve never been a fan of Clarence Thomas, and there’s a world of difference between the life experience of a black man and a suburban white woman. But I agree with his observation. We’ve become an overly sensitive society.

Of course, the outraged reaction to his comments — whether genuine outrage or the faux outrage required when one wants to appear politically correct — just proves how right he is. These days no one can say anything even remotely controversial about anything without being instantly attacked as a racist, a bigoted, insensitive, politically incorrect hatemonger. And not just where race is concerned. It’s gotten so bad that you risk being attacked for declaring the sky is blue. On Halloween, if you dress as a silly chipmunk, chipmunk lovers are likely to come after you for demeaning chipmunks. It’s ridiculous.

Thomas will be pilloried for his statements about race, of course, because it’s expected. And people will probably ignore or forget that he also mentioned “… differences in sex, somebody doesn’t look at you right, somebody says something.” There was a time when people didn’t take offense and overreact at every opportunity. There was a time when people felt some constraint, when they didn’t feel so free to react with anger, or even violence, to every perceived slight.

I don’t know how we got here. I don’t know how we devolved to the point where so many people now think it is acceptable to attack someone, verbally and often physically, for a word, a look, a slight, imagined or otherwise. These days we run cyclists off the road for not moving over, or chase down and assault someone for honking at us on the highway, or shoot someone for throwing popcorn in a movie theater or playing loud music in a parking lot. We’ve enacted Stand Your Ground laws that actually encourage such behavior.

Justice Thomas is right. We have become far too sensitive, too politically correct, in part because it’s convenient. It’s a convenient excuse to indulge our worst impulses. It’s convenient to be the victim. It puts the blame on the other guy for hurting or offending and relieves us of responsibility for our reactions.

That needs to change.

6 thoughts on “Clarence Thomas: We’re too sensitive

  1. While I agree with what he said (and with what you wrote), I’m a little suspect about his childhood memories. I lived a few years in NC, and I remember being terrified over the racial conflicts. And I was living in a transient, metro area.

    1. A lot of sources are questioning his childhood memories, and I can’t imagine Georgia in those days was any picnic. I grew up in an all-white neighborhood with all-white public schools in Okla. City, effectively insulated from racial tensions. “Colored town” was literally on the other side of the tracks, and Clara Luper’s drugstore sit-ins occurred downtown.

  2. It is true, society does seem too sensitive these days, and particularly compared to the old days, say, the ’40’s and ’50’s. I see many examples of political and social correctness that seem over the top, one of them being the cancellation of school at merely the hint of inclement weather. It has been cancelled so often already this winter that it seems they might as well cancel it for the season.

    But, there is another side to this issue, that being the degree to which government authority ought to be applied to public behavior. Take bullying for example. When I was in seventh grade another boy threatened for no apparent reason to “beat the s**t” out of me. He was much stronger than I, I being a skinny and bookish kid and I took him seriously. I remained terrified for more than a year. (He eventually became the town sheriff and was involved in controversial cases of prisoner abuse.)

    Nowadays, schools have anti-bullying programs. Do these constitute excess intrusion into private matters? I don’t think so, but I can see that such efforts might be run either well or poorly. Same thing goes for things like the voting rights act issue, for example. Localized administrative manipulations to discourage minority voting hours and locations were egregious in many locations in 2010 and 2012 and in my opinion can be corrected only by such laws.

    Thomas is too extreme in my opinion. He is an unusual (black) man, to say the least. I looked up his Wiki bio and found that he had a remarkable track record rising from poverty to judicial success, but there was one interesting consistency in his progress. In school he was almost always one of the few or even the only black among white students and, being exceptionally bright and ambitious, was naturally admired for rising above the barriers that confronted his lesser-talented black contemporaries. I’m not pointing this out to diminish his achievements, but just to recognize that his personal route to success was not available to everyone. Thomas was more than a survivor, he was an icon that seemed to justify conservative policies that denigrated those who did not, and could not, similarly succeed.

    Thomas boot-strapped himself not just academically but socially. This statement, toward the end of the bio, is telling, I think:

    Thomas has a reputation as an affable, good-humored man who is extremely personally popular with his friends and colleagues. According to writer Jeffrey Toobin, “Fellow justices, law clerks, police officers, cafeteria workers, janitors – all basked in Thomas’s effusive good nature. His rolling basso laughter frequently pierced the silence of the Court’s hushed corridors.”

    Thomas is not an everyman, he is the exception, but his opinions seem to imply that anyone can follow the same path that he did. Is this true? Well, that would be nice but personally, I don’t think it’s realistic. Talent, intelligence and physical health all follow a bell curve. I would prefer a society that intervenes, even if sometimes it veers a bit too far, a society that helps and protects not just the exceptional but the average as well. This seems to be the main philosophical divide between the parties these days and how the body politic votes on it will have a significant effect on what our future society looks and feels like.

    1. Society/government should intervene to help and protect those who need it. That’s one of government’s primary functions. But yes, there is widespread disagreement about when and how it should occur. However, I think we’re talking past each other on the issue of hypersensitivity. With the exception of the TSA’s short-sighted refusal to profile terrorists at airports because profiling is not politically correct, I wasn’t thinking of government activities. I was referring to a society that, in the face of a perceived slight (which could be almost anything these days), used to shrug and walk away but now, for some reason, feels free to lash out, often in wholly inappropriate ways. Restraint, manners, proper upbringing, respect for others — something that used to exist is disappearing. Not every word or action is a deliberate insult or affront, with motive and intent. But for too many people it becomes an excuse to indulge themselves and strike back — because, after all, they are now victims and are entitled to defend themselves.

  3. I agree. We are too sensitive about everything. And what’s worse is that we are encouraged to feel and act that way. From entertainment outlets to politicians we’re told in one way or another we have some inherent right to be offended. Shown that those not like us are racist, bigots, bullies or some other form of opposition. I think a large part of it comes from the political correctness approach to anything. You simply aren’t allowed to offend anyone. Even though we are supposed to have free speech rights, that is now tempered with ‘as long as it doesn’t offend anyone.’

    Competition is bad because it makes less able people feel bad about themselves. Self esteem, whether deserved or not is the only thing that we’re focused on. We’re taught that the world is all about us. That we are the center of the universe and God forbid anyone should come along and tell us otherwise. God forbid someone should have the nerve to criticize us or call us out on our shortcomings, failures or flat out stupidity. See, it’s so much easier to call someone a racist, or question their integrity than to admit to our own failures and shortcomings. Far easier to blame than to take responsibility. And so it goes.

    When people once again begin to understand they are not the center of the universe and that there are actually other people in the world who also have rights, we’ll do better.

    Until then, I guess we have to expect people to get offended no matter what we say or do.


    1. I’d like to split one hair here: I think we have a right to feel offended; our feelings are our feelings, after all. What we don’t have an inherent right to do is react inappropriately or violently when those feelings occur. We can’t always control our feelings — anger, hurt, embarrassment, etc. What we can and should control is what we do with those feelings.

      And I agree about political correctness. By definition it assumes there are victims, and that encourages people to be victims. “My feelings are hurt and it’s his fault.”

... and that's my two cents