“I didn’t intend you hurt you. I am so sorry. Here’s what I meant to do — I meant to do something good, but I can see that I failed to do it, and in fact I did something that hurt you. I was tired/ harried/ uninformed/ careless. I am really sorry. Please let me know if I can do anything to undo the damage or to make things better. I’ll be more careful in the future.”
“I didn’t intend to hurt you. So why are you being so mean to me about it? Here’s what I meant to do — I meant to do something good, so the fact that I actually hurt you is irrelevant. I was tired/ harried/ uninformed/ careless — so it’s not fair or right for you to tell me how I hurt you and why you’re angry about it. Let me tell you, at length, how your criticism is hurting my feelings, and how you should have expressed it differently.”
These are not the same statements.
Notice the lack of apology in the second statement. Note the lack of any concern being expressed for the damage that was done. Note how the hurt feelings of the one who did the injury are being made a higher priority than the injury itself. Note the lack of any expressed intention to change the behavior.
It’s often said in social justice circles that intention is not magic. This is true, although it’s somewhat oversimplified (as pithy slogans often are). Intention is not magic, it doesn’t make injury go away — but it’s also not trivial. I, for one, am a lot more willing to forgive an unintentional injury than an intentional one. If someone steps on my foot by accident, I’m going to be a lot less pissed off than if they stepped on my foot with premeditation and malice.
But in order for me to forgive an unintentional injury, I need to believe that the person who injured me actually gives a damn about it. I need to believe that they feel genuine remorse for the harm they did, and a genuine intention to do better in the future. They don’t need to pour dirt on their heads and chant “Mea Culpa” a thousand times (although if they hurt me very deeply, I need to see some proportional concern about that). What I need to hear is, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you, but I understand that I did anyway, and I care about that and feel bad about it. I’ll work to do better in the future.”
If, on the other hand, someone does an injury — and they don’t show any concern for the harm they’ve done or any interest in changing their behavior — then I have to assume that they very likely will do it again. And that demolishes any “get out of jail free” card they might have gotten for the “unintentional” part. Morally, the whole point of saying “I didn’t mean to hurt you” isn’t to rationalize and deflect responsibility and make yourself feel less bad. Morally, the point is to convey regret for the injury, and an intention to do better in the future. If it doesn’t convey that, then “I didn’t mean to hurt you” isn’t about making the injured person feel better — it’s about making the person who did the injury feel better. And that’s totally bass-ackwards.
In fact — and here’s the kicker — if someone is making the second statement, I have to seriously doubt whether the harm they did was, in fact, unintentional.
If someone responds to “You hurt me” with “Why are you being so mean to me? I meant to do something good, so the fact that I actually hurt you is irrelevant. It’s not right for you to tell me why you’re angry. Let me tell you how your criticism is hurting my feelings,” I think it’s very likely that they they’ve had this conversation before. Especially when it comes to social justice stuff. I think that if someone is getting defensive about their slut-shaming language, or is getting pissy about the word “cisgender,” the chances are very good that they have had (or at least have seen) this conversation before — and are choosing to ignore it. And that means that the hurt is intentional. That means they know that what they’re doing is hurtful, and are choosing to do it anyway.
Intention is not trivial. Good intentions do have power. But in order for good intentions to have power, they have to signal concern for the hurt that was done, and a willingness to make things right, and a commitment to do better. Without that, intention is more than just not magic. It’s bullshit.