How do you know when you’re being insensitive? How do you know when you’re funny?

Cultural Sensitivity, Cultural Insensitivity, and the ‘Big Bootie’ Problem in Grant Writing” is the rare Grant Writing Confidential post likely to interest Story’s Story readers too, and it concerns a question allegedly given by a high school biology teacher on a high school test about genetics:

“LaShamanda has a heterozygous big bootie, the dominant trait. Her man Fontavius has a small bootie which is recessive. They get married and have a baby named LaPrincess” the biology assignment prompts students.

The assignment then continues to ask, “What is the probability that LaPrincess will inherit her mama’s big bootie?”

As I go on to say in the post, this question comes from media accounts, and we should be skeptical of what we read in the media. But, with that in mind:

Let’s attempt to imagine what might have been going through the teacher’s mind: first off, the teacher said the worksheet “had been passed down to her by other teachers,” which indicates that she might not have looked closely at it. Since I’ve taught plenty of college classes, I can vouch for an instructor’s desire to use what’s been tested and teach efficiently. Secondly, though, she’s probably been hearing discourse and through mandated professional development about cultural sensitivity and incorporating non-dominant or non-Anglo cultures into her teaching for her entire career.

We’re not trying to defend the teacher, but we are saying that her thinking may be understandable, even if the execution is misplaced. Her conundrum, if it exists, can be stated simply: Where does cultural sensitivity end and cultural appropriation or cultural insensitivity begin?

A friend saw the post and he called the big bootie incident a “reverse Poe’s Law,” and while I’d never heard of Poe’s Law it’s brilliant: “Without a clear indication of the author’s intent, it is difficult or impossible to tell the difference between an expression of sincere extremism and a parody of extremism.”

The teacher in question, however, might not have been trying to deliberately parody excessive cultural awareness. Being a teacher has taught me a lot, and one thing it’s taught me is that if people have to make thousands of micro decisions in a given year, as teachers do, some are going to end up being wrong. That’s true of me and it’s like true of you in your own life and occupation.

In class, for example, I usually try to err on the side of being entertaining rather than boring, but that has the side effect of being potentially offensive. I’m sure that if someone had a mic on me every time I teach, that person could take something out of context and throw it in an article and make me look bad. Yet I’ve had to sit through insufferably dull classes, which is totally inexcusable in many literature classes, and I don’t want to inflict insufferable dullness on captive students to the extent I can avoid doing so.

Nonetheless in the current media climate, and in a climate in which it’s impossible to tell in advance what’s going to be acceptable to everyone, the risks of being interesting and real are real. The friend who linked to Poe’s law says that the dangerous class on his campus is “The Biology of Sex.” As he says,

If you teach it straight, you end up giving a plumbing lesson. My favored approach is to treat it more like a stand-up routine, but then you run the risk of offending someone. You can usually get away with a lot if you have built up a rapport with your class.

But, on the other hand, he says that no one knows anything about the subject and that students study hard because no one wants to fail sex (the phrase “study hard” may be an expression of my friend’s sense of humor).

I’m inclined toward the benefit of the doubt where possible because we’re now living in a world where a small number of hypersensitive or humorless activists can cause a disproportionate amount of grief. Academic novels have largely traced this development—Philip Roth’s The Human Stain is one good example; Francine Prose’s Blue Angel is another—but they seem to have had little impact. Too bad. Paglia’s descriptions of shrinking violet students is distressingly apt.

As “being reasonably sensitive” transitions towards “being unable to function in a reasonable way” for a small but noisy number of people, we’re going to see more stories like “The Trouble with Teaching Rape Law:”

Imagine a medical student who is training to be a surgeon but who fears that he’ll become distressed if he sees or handles blood. What should his instructors do? Criminal-law teachers face a similar question with law students who are afraid to study rape law.

Much of this issue is academic, because when people hit the real world they’ll often find that clients and customers are indifferent to their feelings or comfort and want their problems solved, whether that problem is rape prosecution or human sexuality or writing or whatever.* Some big companies are intensely bureaucratized and can still have a large institutional feel, but the majority are small and just trying to make it however they can. In which case an excess of sensitivity can be an excessive liability.

EDIT: See also “The race to the bottom of victimhood and ‘social justice’ culture.”

* This is one reason it’s often not worth arguing with academics.

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