Apology of Intent …

So, a while back, Greta Christina wrote a post about intention and magic. She referenced it again in talking about Sam Harris recently, and since Iwrote a post a while back talking about intention as well, I thought it might be good to talk about it.

She starts with these two quotes:

“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, of course, as she points out completely different statements What she wants us to pay attention to in the second one is this:

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.

Yes, that’s true. The first one is someone who has done something clearly wrong and that they should have known not to do, that hurt someone else. The hurt done was completely and totally their fault, and they’re taking full responsibility for what happened. The second one is someone who has done something perfectly reasonable and understandable, and the other person for some reason ended up hurt by it, mostly because of things about them specifically. In short, the person was not responsible for the hurt, or at least wasn’t responsible for the hurt in a way that should encourage them to act differently, and they are upset that the other person is insisting that it is, in fact, completely their fault.

The important thing to note here is that these are not, generally, statements that you ought to apply to the same situation. The first is what you say when you have clearly done something wrong; the second is what you say when you have done nothing wrong and someone is bound and determined to be mad at you anyway.

The other important thing to note here is that in most real-life situations when we have to deal with someone saying or doing something that inadvertently hurts someone’s feelings, things are not normally this clear cut.

Let’s look at the example she gives of someone stepping on someone’s foot. Now, as I’ve commented before, in general if I accidentally step on someone’s foot, I’ll say “Sorry”, but it’s not because — or at least not always because — I think I’ve done anything wrong and have to/am apologizing, but mostly as an expressing that I’m sorry that the person was hurt. There are a number of cases where I stepped on their foot but they were in the wrong; they stood too close or moved the wrong way or stuck it out to get the ball and I couldn’t react in time or … well, whatever. So if in those cases they turned around and demanded that I fully apologize for hurting their foot, well, rather obviously I’m not going to take that well, and am going to react pretty much in line with the second statement, with an angry and possibly hurt “Why are you demanding that I take responsibility for the pain that you more caused than I did?”

This goes double when the reason the other person is hurt is because of something they are assuming about what you meant to say or do — or, to relate it back to the topic of the post, what your intent was. If they are hurt or taking offense because they assumed that your intent was to hurt them, then the right response is to simply say “That wasn’t my intent or what I meant”. A simple statement of fact, not a statement of apology or a statement taking full responsibility for that hurt. If at that point the person still rants at me that I hurt them and was wrong to do so and need to apologize, my answer would definitely be “Why should I apologize for something I didn’t do?” and things will not go well.

Now, things are usually more complicated than that, as people will not phrase things in a way to ideally express their intent and others won’t always be so incredibly hurt by a misunderstanding. But I think the whole post misses two important points:

1) She focuses on the hurt feelings of the person listening, and judges it all from that perspective. But the issue is that just because someone’s feelings are hurt doesn’t mean that that person is right to have hurt feelings. This should be obvious to her because it’s one of the main arguments used against the “Don’t be a dick” form of accommodationism: that my criticism of religion hurts the feelings of those who are religious doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t criticize religion or criticize it in that way. The same can apply when you talk about social justice issues. So you have to be prepared for people to argue that you are indeed being too sensitive or reading into the statements and that they did nothing wrong. Sometimes, they’ll be wrong. But sometimes, they’ll be right.

2) Someone can indeed have legitimate hurt feelings from these sorts of interactions. If you interpret someone that you know in a way that assumes that they are sexist or racist or have some kind of immoral agenda, or in fact have some kind of agenda that they themselves oppose, it will indeed hurt their feelings that you think of them that way. They may well ask — legitimately — why after all the support they’ve given and all of the effort that they’ve put into being a better person with regards to race, gender, religion, etc, etc that you still think of them as, effectively, just the same as those who not only didn’t stand with you on these issues but instead completely opposed you. Even if they are wrong or there’s an actual disagreement, why are your feelings so hurt? Why does their being wrong on this one issue mean so much, and is seen as such a betrayal? In a sense, just as you may argue that their statement shows what they really think of you, your reaction shows what you really think of them … and for those who are trying and are indeed better, that’s just as much if not more of a slap in the face.

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.

I agree with her here. I think a lot of the time those who get that defensive over these situations have heard it before: have had someone jump down their throat for making a statement that some people interpret incorrectly and then insist really meant that no matter what the person says, or jump down their throat for not using the preferred terminology of the person doing the jumping despite the fact that they disagree that it should be used, and then have them retreat to “My feelings were hurt!” as a reason to insist that the person is wrong, the offended person is right, and no argument shall be brooked. For someone who spends so much effort being concerned about hurt feelings, the lack of empathy for people who feel — rightly or wrongly — that people are indeed looking to find offense in what they say is puzzling.


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