That’s “So Insensitive”

The Wilmington News-Journal reports on a controversy at the University of Delaware involving what may or may not be an attack motivated by sexual orientation:

A University of Delaware student charged with a hate crime [and battery] after allegedly shoving a gay student to the floor at a house party in Newark earlier this month insists that he has been “falsely accused.”

Speaking to The News Journal on Sunday, Derek DiDonato, 21, a junior studying criminal justice, denied allegations that he made derogatory statements about 19-year-old Zachary Baum’s sexual orientation during an early-morning altercation on April 15 inside the East Cleveland Avenue home that DiDonato rents with several roommates.

Now I don’t know who’s telling the truth here, but the following passage struck me as noteworthy, because it shows how a focus on “sensitivity” often distracts people from what really matters:

Wilmington criminal-defense lawyer Eugene Maurer, who is representing DiDonato, accused Baum of using the incident to seek attention.

“We feel this may have been an opportunity that was seized upon by the young man whereby he could politicize this situation, to draw attention to it,” Maurer said. “I think we’re going to be able to demonstrate in part that may have been part of his motivation.”

Baum called that criticism “terribly offensive.”

“I was a victim of an attack,” Baum said. “I didn’t ask to be attacked. To make that kind of allegation is so insensitive.”

Either Maurer’s theory is correct or it’s not. If it’s correct, the incident wasn’t motivated by sexual orientation, and Baum was making up the claim about DiDonato’s motivation for political purposes — indeed, if DiDonato is correct in saying that Baum started it and DiDonato was defending himself and trying to eject an unruly guest — then Maurer’s assertion is perfectly legitimate. If the incident wasn’t motivated by sexual orientation, but Baum sincerely believed that it was so motivated, then Maurer might be mistaken but is making a plausible assertion in defending his client.

On the other hand, if the incident was motivated by sexual orientation, and Baum is telling the truth, then the problem with Maurer’s response is that it’s incorrect. Maybe it’s innocently incorrect, if Maurer thinks his theory is right but it’s not. Maybe it’s deliberately false. But in any event, if it’s incorrect it should rightly labeled be as such — but quite regardless of whether Maurer’s statement is “so insensitive.”

Now Baum is a 19-year-old student, and may not be as precise or articulate as he ought to be; and all of us are imprecise or inarticulate on some occasions. Perhaps he meant “insensitive” just as loose shorthand for “wrong” or some such. I don’t mean to fault him personally for a poor choice of words. Rather, the problem, I think, is with a cultural norm that turns too many factual questions into questions of sensitivity and offensiveness, and that leads people to talk about whether an allegation was “insensitive” and “terribly offensive” when the real issue is whether it was true or false.