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Artillery Row

Caution is killing compassion

If we go looking for problematic speech, we’ll probably find it

A friend of mine who works on a university campus spends the start of every year meeting students. This year she reported that — to her disappointment — no one asked her where she’s from.

She said this was a first. Did it mean that 15 years after immigrating, her accent had softened to the point no one noticed it? Or didn’t people care where she was from?

Meanwhile, a friend with literary ambitions had a short story published. He shared it with some family, some friends. One or two responded with their thoughts — his father said he liked it, and stopped there — but most did not say anything at all.

Why not get back to him? Did they not like it, or not read it, did they not have time to say? He wondered, but of course he didn’t ask.

In both cases, I had another theory: that people were afraid they might offend, or come across as ignorant somehow; that people felt unqualified to speak.

Surely it was easier to take no risk — to say nothing — at all

I’m sure that at least some of the students on campus noticed an accent they simply couldn’t place, and would have liked to ask, “where are you from?” — then stopped themselves.

Perhaps they feared it would be heard as, “I can tell you don’t belong here”; the reply might be “what accent?” and a scowl (like when you ask a bulging woman when she’s due — when she is not).

As for the story, I’m sure some of those who read it found it interesting, had thoughts they could have shared — or questions about meaning and intent — but didn’t dare. What if they said something that showed they didn’t really understand the themes, the plot? What if their feedback was unwelcome? Surely it was easier to take no risk — to say nothing — at all.

The problem is, of course, and often is, that avoiding one set of risks can give rise to another. The fear of sounding ignorant can lead to ignorance while fear of causing offence, can cause offence.

In a passing comment on a post, I mentioned plans to write this piece. One lady said I should and told me why: a student — from a school that’s very ethnically diverse — recently told her that asking where another student’s from is “very racist”, the “worst” insult.

I can only imagine the damage this causes, the opportunities it crushes — to express and embrace diversity, to build friendship and understanding and belonging — and the silence it creates.

It’s a (very) good thing that we see the risk of hurting other people with our words, it’s a (very) good thing that we care, but silence can do harm as well as good. Sometimes we must do the work of finding different ways to speak, so we can learn.

If she can see a person cares, is showing love, why take offence?

In the conversation about accents, we discussed alternatives. One friend suggested asking about a person’s “origin story” instead of where they’re from. The question is open-ended, could apply to any colour, any race, and it’s less likely to imply “you don’t belong”. Another suggestion was to say, “what accent am I hearing?” with a smile. I loved the smile, loved the reminder our expression, and our tone, could show the good intentions of our words.

The smile reminded me of a conversation at a family lunch, about how some people champion the phrase “person with disability” (because a disability shouldn’t define who you are), while others prefer “disabled person” (because “disabled” shouldn’t be considered pejorative), and how some, about to speak, but unsure which is “right”, simply abort.

My sister-in-law, whose daughter has Down syndrome, said what matters most to her is not a person’s words (Down’s child? Child with Down syndrome? Disabled child?) but their intent. If she can see a person cares, is showing love, why take offence?

Sometimes tone is hard to interpret, especially if a comment is typed, especially if the context isn’t clear. But there’s another way that we can show we care.

As someone who interviews people for her work, who has lost count of how many people she’s quizzed or questions she’s asked, I’m embarrassed to admit that I forget this all the time: if we do not know, then we can ask.

“I’m not quite sure what words to use, can you please help me out?”

“Which questions upset you? Do you mind if I ask why?”

“And which ones do you wish someone would ask?”

The challenge — in using this approach, in saying something over nothing — is that it makes us vulnerable. This is a benefit as well. It opens up a door a little more.

Then there are the times when people are looking to take offence, when they care nothing about context or intent. Some people are even paid to take offence.

In their defence, the sensitivity readers were paid to take offence

“Sensitivity readers” are people tasked with detecting cultural inaccuracies, bias and stereotypes in manuscripts. The manuscripts are usually unpublished, but in the case of Kate Clanchy’s memoir, Some Kids I Taught, and What They Taught Me, it was a published — and award-winning — book.

Clanchy’s publisher engaged sensitivity readers following significant online criticism, with a view to updating future editions. Issues raised in a subsequent report included her use of the word “disfigure” in relation to a landscape, and her use of the word “handicap” to mean “impede”.

There were also concerns she’d invoked the “straight white saviour trope” when talking about a (gay) student she was close to. Further, her concern he would get AIDS (it was 1992) came across as “homophobic” and “reductive”. The readers suggested ways she could update the manuscript. She thought about them all but in the end, dismissed the lot.

In their defence, the sensitivity readers were paid to take offence. I can only hope the rest of us would take a broader view, a much more generous approach.

Why? Because if we go looking for problematic speech, we’ll probably find it, even if it was never intended. We might critique a person’s words without bothering to look up at their face. Who knows what we will see there if we do?

What if it’s someone who is using awkward words, but with a smile that says they mean no harm at all? Someone who seems a little hesitant to speak? Someone who, wanting to be kind, is trying to be brave.

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