Making Policy by Hurt Feelings

Randall Kennedy, a law professor at Harvard, puts it this way in an email to Thomas Edsall of the New York Times. “Authorities… need to become much more skeptical and tough-minded when encountering the language of hurt.”

Why? Here’s how Professor Kennedy sees it. “‘Woke’ folk making wrongful demands march under the banner of “EQUALITY” which is a powerful and attractive emblem.” Yes it is. Yes they do.

“At the same time,” Kennedy continued, “many of the people demanding the diminution of…essential freedoms have learned how to … deploy skillfully the language of “hurt” — as in ‘I don’t care what the speaker’s intentions were, what the speaker said has hurt my feelings and ought therefore to be prohibited.’ ”

Yes they do deploy that language skillfully.

And that is why the people against whom this language is being deployed—Kennedy has university administrators principally in mind—need to become tougher and more skeptical. And if they don’t?

Then, “they will continue to offer incentives to those who deploy the specters of bigotry, privilege and trauma to further diminish vital academic, intellectual and aesthetic freedoms.”

To me, that sounds like an outcome worth preventing.

Kennedy says that administrators will need to be more skeptical. In a time when our language has been redefined so that feelings are “true,” it is asking a lot of the administrators. They can’t say, “No, your feelings are actually not hurt.” I think whether one’s feelings are hurt or not is often a moot point. If you need for your opponent to have committed an error and if feeling offended is the proof that an error has been committed, it is the simplest thing in the world to consult your inner feelings and discover that they have been hurt. So the question of whether they are actually hurt or not cannot be the question to be decided.

Two questions are better. The first is: “Do these ‘hurt feelings’ actually cause any damage? The second is: “What other values will have to be put in jeopardy in order to prevent your feelings from being hurt.”

Kennedy says “vital academic, intellectual, and aesthetic freedoms are at risk.” If he is right about that, and it sounds right to me, then the case would have to be made that so much damage is being done to the “woke” students making the complaint that it is worth damaging these freedoms. I know that is a harder case to make, but I really don’t think anything less than that meets the standard of public policy.

I think it is crucially important that truth continue to matter. It may be hard to arrive at and it is always perilous to measure adequately, but the alternative is simply that one group can yell louder or cause more damage than another. So keeping truth as a standard is really important. It is so important that it is worth hurting some feelings, if that is what it requires.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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