Thursday, October 22, 2009

On intention

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. 


Anonymous said...

I completely agree that it's possible to engage in a racist/sexist/transphobic narrative unintentionally.

But that doesn't help in determining whether something is racist. How can we? Do we just look at the majority of people think? The majority of the insulted group? I don't know.

Given the country's history, it's not unreasonable to give the benefit of the doubt to people alleging racism or whatever, in my opinion, at least. But at the same time I want to give people the benefit of the doubt. Especially because sometimes I don't see the offensive nature of some things.

The chimp cartoon I did not see as racist but as a weak play on chimps trying to write Shakespeare and I didn't see its racist potential until it was explained on a feminist blog.

FilthyGrandeur said...


thanks for reading. I'd like to point out that simply because you personally did not see the racist implications of the cartoon is not proof of someone looking too much into it. benefit of the doubt is fine, but when someone claims they didn't know something was racist doesn't mean it wasn't. take the guy who used the n-word on his restaurant's sign to refer to Obama. he claims he's not racist, but freely uses a racist word. can we not agree that that use is racist? and if someone were to say "he throws like a girl," that statement is sexist, even if the person isn't meaning to say anything but describe how someone throws. anyone can say racist or sexist things without actually being racist or sexist. here's a video which may also be helpful:

Emily said...

Above all, when one is caught out having offended someone, shut up, listen and apologise. Triggering someone isn't something which one justifies with discussions on intent!

I was really disappointed with the reaction of CuteOverload, first of all the justification and the attempt to pass the responsibility off onto the readers who were offended. Most of all, though, the 'don't come here until you can handle it' annoyed me. Yes, I can understand that on a site whose purpose is to discuss tough content, but a site about cute kittens shouldn't trigger *anyone*!

cinnamon girl said...

Hi, nice post. This is something I've been thinking about a lot lately, as I see a lot of 'unintentional' racism and sexism. The only parallel I can think of is how 'intent' is used to prove a murder charge - with no intent, the crime is manslaughter.

Since when has racism or sexism been the equivalent of murder - only applicable if 'intent' can be proven?

I guess if there is intent, it is racism or sexism. And if there is no intent, apparently it is just 'offensiveness' - that, or I'm just being a humourless over-sensitive feminist...


Again, nice post.

meloukhia said...

Oh my stars and garters, this post is awesome. And now I don't have to write a post about intent, I can just send people here.

I always tell my readers, when they try to use the "intent" argument on me, that it's not what you say (write, draw, etc), it's *how other people read it* that matters. But this post articulates that much better.

TeriSaw said...

Thank you for this. The victim blaming that occurred in their justification, essentially: "take responsibility for being something horribly offensive" was practically as triggering as the original post.

Glenn said...

Shouldn't the relevance of intention be decided by the person or group being spoken to? Instead of having a blanket "intention is irrelevant."

When my wife suggests I invite friends over to watch the football I don't invite my whole team because as enjoyable as it would be to me, it was not the intent of her comment that 16 men turn our lounge room into the local bar.

If I took her at her word everytime she mis-spoke, ignoring her intention, life would not be worthing living.

It is up to me with intent is relevant or not.