My recent colorful discussion with Cute Overload got me thinking. The defense of the rape-referencing post was essentially another example of "It was not my intent...." Yeah, we've hear this before.
So, rather than waste more energy trying to get these particular people to understand why making rape jokes is not okay, I'm going to talk about intent in a broader context.
One can have the best intentions, and still say something racist. Or portray something racist. Or sexist. Or misogynist. Or homophobic. Or anything else that might make someone feel less than. One can, with the best of intentions, make light of rape, and then be left astounded that there was dissent. And you all may be wondering how this can happen.
Because intent is irrelevant. Intent does not affect how a wider audience will perceive what someone has said or done or made. I think this is best explained when discussing books, since there's "the author is dead" perception, which basically means you only consider the text. The author's life, experiences, education, family life, suffering, etc. is not relevant to the text. This is perhaps the most basic way of reading a text, because most of us read just the book, and unless there's also something about the author within that book, our perception of the book is based solely on the book. Unless we make an effort to learn about the author, we won't know about their possible motivations for writing the book.
I read Baudelaire's poetry before learning about his life. Many of the poems are misogynist--the poem from which I get my namesake is probably the best example of this. Learning about his life added some context, but I wouldn't go so far as to say, "Oh, that's okay, Charlie. Those women were bitches."
And for all I know, Sara Douglass really isn't a rape apologist.
But my problem with people claiming intent should change everything is that it's often used as an excuse. Whenever I talk to someone about intent, I point to this example:
The New York Post which published the cartoon has expressed that it was not intended to be racist, or offensive. Except, it was. And even if this was truly, innocently not supposed to be racist, it doesn't matter. People are capable of saying or doing things and meaning well, and still say something racist:
Let me quickly stipulate and clarify that one can unintentionally express racism. That innocent intent, or ignorance of the history of how people of color have been marginalized, does not, however, in any way change the quality of what was being expressed. Something can still be expressed racism even if the speaker's intent was not to oppress people of color. And particularly if it does fit neatly into a historical pattern, it necessarily conjures that pattern of racism, intentionally or not.And even if it wasn't Adam Lambert's intention to exploit women, he did:
Citing intention is simply a way to avoid owning up to one's actions, words, or work. Saying things like "I didn't know it was racist," and "I wasn't trying to be sexist," and "I was referencing a movie, not making a joke out of rape," are all ways to avoid responsibility (though the last is also a product of our rape culture).
And that is why I say intent is irrelevant. Your good intentions do not give you a free pass. Sure, it's easy to react defensively and say that is not what you intended. We've all been there. There have been times where I have said something I regret, something which I said from a place of privilege, and which I thought was okay because I didn't intend for it to be taken that way, and the person calling me out on it was just being sensitive. But that doesn't mean that I shouldn't reflect on it, and recognize why someone is calling me out on something I've said. I, like anyone else, am not perfect, and sometimes I may say or write something that upsets, hurts, triggers, or offends someone. And I will always do my very best to listen to someone's concerns, because it is also my intention to not further marginalize anyone by not owning up to my actions. And I would want someone to treat me with a similar sense of respect.