This is a classic Coasean-style problem. Should we blame the person who does something that offends somebody else, or should we blame the hypersensitive?
The usual approach is to condemn somebody who's offended people and to push for sensitivity training. This week's example, the Engineering Association at Canterbury does what it does every year: run a road trip where folks decorate their cars and dress up in costume, usually ones that provoke reaction.
Back circa 2006, I remember heading out to the Arts parking lot to see the costumes and the cars before they all headed out to Dunedin for their road trip. A guy dressed as a giant penis walked around the parking lot shooting white ribbons out of the top of his costume.
This year's Roundie 500 drew critique. Maybe it was really worse than prior years' iterations, but I've seen no evidence of it. A group calling themselves the "Taliband" dressed in bathrobes with turbans and had cardboard electric guitars. And the University issued a press release noting that it "strongly disapproves". The association of professional engineers didn't like it either.
I recommend instead Bryan Caplan's excellent proposed hypersensitivity training course. He has 7 recommended exercises. Here are the first few:
Hypersensitivity is a grave social ill. It leads to needless conflict, lingering fear,suppression of important truths, and even, as the Astor Place Riot shows, violence and death. Learning from the success of sensitivity training, I suggest we combat hypersensitivity with Hypersensitivity Training Workshops. Small groups of students or co-workers, under the guidance of a certified Hypersensitivity Coordinator, must come together to explore the dangers of hypersensitivity. This evil will always be with us, but by raising awareness we can hopefully make the problem more manageable.Completion of the course should be mandatory for signing up for a Twitter account.
Hypersensitivity Training is still in its infancy. At the moment, I'm the world's only certified Hypersensitivity Training Coordinator, and even my experience is limited. But I here propose the following exercises to start a dialog about proper program design.
Exercise #1: The Wall of Hypersensitivity. Find a partner. You start talking. His job is to take visceral offense at everything you say. After five minutes, reverse roles. Then we have a class discussion about how your partner's hypersensitivity made you feel.
Exercise #2: In General. Write down five groups that you identify with, then find a partner and swap lists. Take turns going down the list telling each other, "In general, group X is Y." Y can be anything you sincerely believe.
Exercise #3: An Awkward Moment. Stand before the group and tells a story about a time you inadvertently gave offense. After each story, the group chants, "It was no big deal!"
Exercise #3 sounds really great. I bet there isn't an economist alive who doesn't have at least a dozen. If you don't think you do, ask your spouse.