Intent: Just How Magic Is It?

There’s a saying in the progressive community that intent isn’t fucking magic. It comes from this fabulously snarky post about how not intending to hurt someone doesn’t magically keep them from being hurt.

“Intent is not magic” is one of those simple, catchy phrases we use to get a point across, kind of like “consent is sexy” or “the personal is political.” Like all simple, catchy phrases, it does a great job of creating and perpetuating a meme, but not so great a job of explaining a concept or situation in its full complexity. Luckily, for that we have blog posts!

There is, obviously, lots of truth to the claim that intent is not magic. If something harmful you do accidentally–such as the example used in the blog post, outing a trans person–has consequences for the person you did it to, that person has to deal with those consequences whether you meant to do the thing or not.

But where “intent is not magic” really comes into play with regard to social justice is when people try to use intent as a get-out-of-bigotry-free card. That is, they think that because they didn’t mean that joke to be sexist, it magically isn’t anymore. Because they didn’t mean to be homophobic when they referred to a crappy party as “gay,” then they magically weren’t being homophobic.

When it comes to bigotry, intent doesn’t really factor into it very much. There are Twitter accounts that collect tweets of people literally going “I’m not racist but I just don’t like black people” or “I’m not sexist but women are stupid.” Racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry are more about which ideas you believe in and which structures you support than they are about how you would personally classify your beliefs and actions.

When you say or do something bigoted (intentionally or otherwise) and hurt someone, they’re often hurt not because they think you meant to hurt them, but because what you’ve said or done is just another in a long series of reminders of their place in the world–some more malicious or severe than others, but all microaggressions that research shows have tangible health consequences.

But doesn’t intent make a difference sometimes? After all, I’d feel much better if my friend forgot to come to my birthday party by mistake or because they were taking a sick friend to the hospital rather than because they didn’t want to come but didn’t care enough to change their RSVP. I’d be much more okay with a friend borrowing a dress and ripping it by accident as opposed to on purpose. Saying something that triggers me because you don’t realize it’s a trigger for me is different from triggering me on purpose.

Intent matters a lot for one particular thing: judging someone’s character. Yes, a person who is deliberately, unabashedly racist is probably a “worse” person (whoever you measure that) than someone who says something racist because they’ve never learned that it’s racist. It’s much worse to trigger someone on purpose than to do it accidentally.

The thing is, though, that your character is rarely what’s up for discussion in these situations, and making the discussion all about you and your character is counterproductive, not to mention egotistical.

When someone says something bigoted, what I want to discuss is why it was hurtful, how it props up bigotry, and how you can learn enough not to do something like that in the future. I don’t want to discuss your character or what’s in your heart of hearts. Unless someone proves themselves to be a crappy person–say, by calling me a cunt or telling me that I’m probably a feminist because I’m too ugly to get laid–I generally assume that most people are decent people. That happens to be one of my beliefs about the world. But it’s not really relevant. You can be a decent person and be wrong about gender or race, just like you can be a decent person and be wrong about how evolution works or why the sky is blue.

It’s definitely the case that many people will be less upset if you say something bigoted to them out of ignorance rather than out of malice. But it’s important to keep in mind that once the person is already upset, they’re already upset. At that point, the best thing to do is to apologize and seek understanding of what you did, not provide them with a complete audit of your intentions and how not-bad they were. You can, if you’d like, embed your not-bad intentions within your apology: “I had no idea that was so hurtful and didn’t mean to say something homophobic, but I understand why you’re hurt by it and I’m sorry.”

You know how they say that you can’t talk someone into loving you? You also can’t talk someone out of being upset with you, unless that talking includes some concrete steps on your part to make amends for what happened. “You shouldn’t be upset because I didn’t mean it that way” isn’t going to cut it.

Note, again, that not meaning to say something homophobic does not mean you haven’t said something homophobic. Just like not meaning to break a nice vase doesn’t mean it’s not broken.

On a similar note, not intending to hurt someone is different from intending not to hurt them. If someone accidentally breaks my nice vase, I might be glad in the back of my mind that they didn’t do it on purpose, but I might still be annoyed that they weren’t being careful around my nice vase, especially if they are often clumsy and break people’s things by accident. The analogy holds up for saying/doing bigoted things, too. People who say/do them rarely do so just once.

I’m not going to respect you just for not meaning to say hurtful things. That’s one of those bare-minimum-of-being-a-decent-human-being things. Actively seeking information on how not to be hurtful, on the other hand, is a rarer and more important habit to have.

Arguing about intent distracts from the more important conversation. Don’t turn these conversations into referendums on whether or not you are a good person. Personally, I think you are, or else I wouldn’t be trying to have those conversations with you to begin with.

Intent can make a difference sometimes, but it’s not magic.

[Guest Post] How I Was Indoctrinated into the Gay Agenda

My friend Seth writes about growing up with four gay uncles and how they’ve shaped his views on gay rights.

I never stood a chance.

I was indoctrinated at an impressionable young age—so young that I can’t even remember what age it was. I have four gay uncles; two related by blood, and two more because I don’t give a shit what the law says, they’re family. Regardless, it was these four who indoctrinated me, using the typical insidious and underhanded homosexual tactic of being kind, funny, upstanding and just all-around decent people. Before I knew it, I had been brainwashed into thinking that these four men were human beings just like any other, and just as deserving of my respect and love as any other member of my family.

One more poor soul lost to the gay agenda.

Of course, I can’t place all the blame on my uncles. Some must go to my father, who always loved them unconditionally, apparently considering the fact that they were his brothers more important than their sexual orientation. Still more must go to my grandparents, who failed to respond to the news that their sons were homosexual by disowning them, instead welcoming their chosen partners into the family with as much warmth and fondness as if they were heterosexual spouses. With such weak moral examples from my elders, how was I supposed to know that the proper response to having gay uncles was to shun them as abominations regardless of whether or not they had ever done anything to offend me personally?

All right. I should probably turn the snark off before it makes your computer explode.

In all seriousness, though, this is not a story of redemption, wherein the protagonist starts out thinking that all homosexuals are icky hedonistic perverts who are out to destroy our families, and then has a transformative personal experience that teaches them that, oh hey, homosexuals are actually living, complex people who are not defined by their sexuality. Those are great stories, and I’m all for them, but I was lucky. I never needed that experience. I had a chance to learn, at a young age, that the people who society considers “different” are actually…not so much. (Spoiler alert: growing up with all these gay men in the family also completely failed to turn me gay.)

Well, hooray for me and all that, but what does that mean for the big picture, the larger debate about gay rights? Not everybody is going to have the experiences I had. It would be nice if they did, but it’s understandable if your close relatives didn’t obligingly orient their sexuality in a manner that allowed you to learn an early lesson in equality. Nonetheless, my story and others like it are still a significant factor in the debate over gay rights.

Because here’s the thing: the people who want to deny homosexuals the right to get married, who want to live in a world where somebody can be fired because their employer doesn’t like their orientation, who want to “pray the gay away,” have made the debate very, very personal. This is against our religion, their arguments go. This is something that our God has told us is wrong. These are our traditional values under attack.

To which I say, if you think it’s personal for you, come spend Thanksgiving with my family sometime.

Anti-gay leaders sometimes seem honestly baffled as to why they’re losing ground in the so-called culture war, especially among the younger generations. Is it because the church’s image isn’t hip and cool enough? Is it all this media garbage, driving the young ones away from the one true faith? Is it because those godless Democrats are in office? Please. It’s a lot simpler than that.

It’s because people like me are becoming more and more common. When somebody talks to me about “the gays” or “homosexuals,” I don’t think about some flamboyant stereotype engaging in round-the-clock orgies. I think about the two uncles who run a car repair shop out in rural Colorado, with a house done up in the finest of 50s retro décor. I think of my cousin and her partner, who run a cafe that serves some of the most amazing pizza I’ve ever tasted. I think of the friend who’s a constant fixture at our college house’s game nights, dances, and movie events. I think of the uncle, not related by blood but my uncle nonetheless, who drove me home in his truck through a blizzard so that I could make it to school the next morning. (Spoiler alert: despite being alone in a truck with a young boy for nearly three hours, he utterly failed to molest me. Shocking, I know.)

These are the people I love and cherish. These are the people whose lives I want to improve. These people are my personal stake in the gay marriage debate. So if you were hoping you could win me over to the side of righteous discrimination, I’m afraid that I have to inform you that you’re too late.

I’ve been indoctrinated.

Seth Wenger is a senior neuroscience major at Earlham College and a practicing Buddhist. He can usually be found on Facebook, snarking about life, current events, and politics.

Outraged Beyond Your Understanding: On Listening to Minority Voices

This whole Tosh thing is making me think about how, in our culture, we discuss problems that disproportionately affect a certain group of people.

For example, one thing I noticed as I read as many articles about Toshgate (and their accompanying comments) as I could stomach is that the people defending Tosh were almost always men. There were a few women scattered in there, to be sure, but that number seemed almost negligible. In fact, there were many more men decrying Tosh than there were women defending him.

What I wonder is why this basic demographic disparity did not seem to give any of Tosh’s defenders any pause. Given that Tosh’s comment was targeted at a woman, and given that his “jokes” dealt with rape–which disproportionally affects women–shouldn’t women’s voices be given extra attention in this debate? Can men reasonably tell women how to feel about a terrible situation that they are much more likely than men to face?

Here are some more examples.

1. When the viral Kony2012 campaign sprung up this past spring, many people jumped on board despite strong criticisms from people who know what they’re talking about. Specifically, as I mentioned when I wrote about it back then, tons of African writers and activists were speaking out against the campaign and explaining how Invisible Children had misrepresented the conflict in Uganda. Yet the founders of the campaign and the people who donated to it seemed to think that they knew better how to solve the problem.

2. It would be difficult not to notice the fact that, in this country, men seem to dictate women’s reproductive rights. Most of the anti-abortion legislation being introduced all over the country is drafted by men and signed by men. The panel of witnesses testifying on the issue of mandating insurance coverage for birth control was almost entirely male. The journalists and commentators who discuss reproductive rights are overwhelmingly male. Men are obviously, ahem, part of the reproductive process and are entitled to have opinions on it. But shouldn’t the people who actually use the birth control, obtain the abortions, and birth the babies have the final say?

3. Embarrassingly enough given what century we’re living in, there are still people who insist that gay, lesbian, and bisexual folks are somehow out to “convert” everyone to homosexuality as if it were a religion, that they’re more promiscuous than straight people, that they make terrible parents, and that they’re asking for “extra” rights that others do not have (for instance, you know, hospital visitation rights–never heard of anyone who has those!). Aside from being appallingly bigoted, such people have clearly not spent any time interacting with–and, more importantly, listening to–actual LGB people.

4. And here’s an example from my own life. When I was a freshman in college, two students painted their faces black on Halloween and dressed up as African American celebrities. In other words, they wore blackface. The campus erupted in controversy, with some people decrying the costumes as racist and others wondering what all the fuss is about.

I was initially in the latter camp. I just didn’t think that this was racist. Yeah, it was kind of stupid and insensitive, but so what? People do stupid things all the time, etc. etc. Furthermore, it seemed to me that all of the students who were furious about the incident–including many African American students–were making a big deal out of nothing.

But then I realized that, to be blunt, my opinion doesn’t matter. It’s not my history that was being painfully brought up. It wasn’t my culture that was being mocked. Once I took the time to listen to the people who did have a personal stake in what happened, I understood why it was a big deal. I also realized that my ignorance about blackface and the fact that it didn’t personally offend me was not because I’m “stronger” than the people who were offended or because I’m more “rational” and “don’t take things personally.” It was simply because I’m white, and blackface wasn’t something I ever had to think about.

I’m not saying that you’re not allowed to have an opinion on an issue that doesn’t directly affect you, or that you shouldn’t share it. I’m saying that, before you solidify that opinion (and especially before you share it), you should listen to the people who are affected by the issue. You should try to figure out why they disagree with you and find out whether or not there’s anything you might be missing. Even if you don’t end up changing your mind, at least you’ve made your opinion more informed.

It’s also good to keep in mind that the members of a particular group are never a monolith. I certainly know African American students who didn’t think the blackface thing was a big deal. I read about women politicians who seek to limit their fellow women’s reproductive rights. There must’ve been Ugandans who liked the Kony2012 campaign. That’s why it’s good to familiarize yourself with all of the arguments about a particular issue before you choose what to think about it.

What seems to be lacking in our culture is the willingness to listen to the voices of people who are actually affected by the issues we’re discussing. We claim that people of color are just “playing the race card.” We claim that women just need to “learn how to take a joke.” We claim that LGBT folks just want “special rights.”

Why don’t we trust that people who belong to marginalized groups understand their own situation better than we do (or at least just as well)? Why do we assume that their interpretations are necessarily colored by a “victim mentality” or a desire to extort some sort of unearned benefits from the rest of us.

There probably are some people who think and act in ways that keep themselves feeling like victims. But they tend to be people who have been pushed down so much that they no longer know how to pick themselves up. The psychological term for that is “learned helplessness.” Experience teaches such people that none of their efforts make any difference, and even if they reach a point at which making an effort would help, they’re already convinced that it won’t. Incidentally, this acquired trait is correlated with depression. (And it is an acquired trait–people aren’t just born with it. Yes, not even women and minorities.)

In short, most people who have been dealt a fair hand in life have no reason to feel and act like victims. Those who do have probably not been dealt a fair hand. Such people don’t want extra rights or benefits that others don’t have. They want–to use that dreaded term–a level playing field.

It is also true that most people tend to act in their own self-interest. Women and minorities do have a vested interest in advocating for rights and fair treatment, because everyone does. People who oppose social justice causes tend to fixate on this as a reason not to give them said rights and fair treatment, as if wanting to improve your lot in life somehow makes you more “biased” than the rest of us.

But what these opponents ignore is that they themselves have a vested interest in ignoring the demands of women and minorities. Because it’s easier to ignore them. It’s easier not to care about what comedians say on stage because it’s “just humor” and if you don’t like it you can just walk out. It’s easier not to bother drafting, implementing, and enforcing legislation that makes workplace discrimination illegal. It’s easier to ignore racist acts on campus than to find the students responsible and discipline them. It’s easier not to think of yourself as a contributor, even a minor one, to systems like racism, sexism, and homophobia.

What I notice a lot is that, in responding to an event that has offended someone else, people tend to go, “Well I’m not offended so why should anybody else be? I don’t think this is wrong, so why should anybody else think so?” Many people, it seems, have a very limited ability to put themselves into others’ shoes, let alone walk in them. But to assume that we all think and feel the same way–or ought to–is a huge mistake.

What I’m saying can be summarized by a sentence I once found in a comment on a mostly-unrelated but excellent blog post. It goes like this:

“Those who are outraged beyond your understanding have probably been hurt beyond your experience.”

Those who are outraged beyond your understanding have probably been hurt beyond your experience.

Next time you are confused, skeptical, and dismissive towards someone else’s outrage, see if you can learn more about their experience.

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