(Blanket content warning: discussion of harassment, transphobia, and similar.)
I’ve been seized by the wish to finally articulate, in long form, my perspective on a common subject of anti-oppression discourse, at this point found online and offline alike, whether you’re reading a heated argument on a website or you’re sitting in a workshop. This subject is the intent of Person X, who has just done something harmful to Person Y.
Typically, in this scenario, Person X has not only harmed Y but has harmed them in a manner that is common for people in (one of) X’s demographics to do to people in (one of) Y’s demographics; but this isn’t a requirement, and because more “universal” examples of harm are often used as analogies in these discussions, I would prefer to allow some breadth. In any case, I want to look at intent because lately I have experienced some wildly divergent situations where I was initially hurt by something that someone said to me, and where it turned out that knowing each person’s intent did not automatically solve whether I should forgive them or resent them— but it also did make a difference in how each of us approached ensuing developments with one another. Even if intent did not exclusively mandate the ethics of these people’s behaviors, I found their intent somewhat relevant to my initial response, and their intent also demonstrably fed into how respectfully they responded to me throughout the further spiral of our interaction. This stands in contrast to the usual viewpoint that I read or hear in a lot of other popular discourse around intent, which is, “Intent is not magic.” The sentence, while to my knowledge originating on a very specific blog (and using a sarcastic affirmative instead), has within the span of about half a decade become a major catchphrase in anti-oppression conversations, debates, flame wars, workshops, endless blog posts, clickbait pieces, and more. And as one who studies language and social hegemonies out of both academic interest and immediate relevance to my own life, I can’t help wanting to dissect and re-evaluate catchphrases like these when I run across them.
If you have begun reading this in the hope that I am about to completely refute Intent Is Not Magic™, I will have to disappoint. For a few reasons, I’m not going to link or quote any specific posts about this topic; the main one is that I don’t disagree with what I’ve always understood to be the actual point of those four little words, so I don’t want to tear down any other writers about it. It’s completely true that you can’t, as the highly favored analogy goes, step on my foot, claim (honestly) you didn’t mean to step on it, and expect me to forgive you with lightning speed. Maybe my foot is broken now; I’m too distracted by the agony to even acknowledge your presence, never mind tell you that it’s fine. Maybe you stepped on my foot because you were doing something highly unsafe; I think I have the right to be angry at you for that sort of carelessness. Maybe you stepped on my foot by accident but we also haven’t gotten along very well in the past; I can’t help wondering if you would have watched your step more carefully around someone you respected. Maybe you’ve been a pathological liar in other circumstances; I can’t easily trust your honesty now, no matter how heartfelt. Maybe I myself am just having a terrible day and I simply can’t engage on a rational level with your statement of intent or your apology; after a while, it might get a little absurd if we have future interactions and I let your mistake get in the way of an otherwise perfectly functional relationship, but I also have the right to some decompression time before I can say to you, “You know what, I do realize you didn’t mean to step on my foot, and since it was a mistake, let’s consider it water under the bridge.”
The uncontroversial foot example certainly also has applicability to more systemic problems in my life, and to systemic problems in the lives of others. Depending on my presentation and/or how certain aspects of my appearance tend to gender me in other people’s eyes by default, I’m definitely a recipient of street harassment and men trying to talk with me like they’re entitled to my conversation, my time, my attention. So say Bro #1 sees me walk past him and calls, “There’s some pussy that needs a fuck,” at me. It’s unlikely that I’m going to feel safe or calm enough to engage with him about this at all, but say I reach my destination, complain briefly about it to the people I was meeting there, and someone who turns out to be Bro #2 chimes in with, “Well, hey, the guy probably didn’t mean to offend you, he probably thought he was giving you a compliment, it’s not a big deal.” No, it’s still a big deal, Bro #2. Because whether or not Bro #1 truly lives in such ignorance as to imagine that sexually complimenting someone who doesn’t expect or want it fails to qualify as a real compliment, in the split seconds following the moment his catcall reaches my ears, I have to evaluate some things besides his ignorance. I have to evaluate whether he’s saying this as a prelude to an actual assault, and what I can (or can’t) do about it. I have to evaluate whether I’ve seen Bro #1 in this location before, whether I’m likely to see him again, and therefore whether— again, lacking knowledge of his predilection to assault me— I can safely pass through this location again on my own at this time of day, or at all.
And maybe all of my caution is unwarranted. Bro #1 really might think I’m attractive, think it’s reasonable to tell a stranger that much, and be voicing his opinion in the most eloquent vocabulary he can choose for the purpose; and he really might not care if I fail to respond, and if he does care, he really might not dream of harming a hair on my head regardless. For that matter, since most people who rape do this to people they already know, I’m aware that my chances of things escalating so far with a complete stranger are unlikely compared to what could happen between me and a seemingly close male friend in a locked room. But unfortunately, when I first hear the catcall, I still have to make my evaluations based on what risks still do exist, and while usually I rule in favor of, “Okay, I’ll probably be fine ignoring him, walking at the same pace, and walking this route again later without deviations,” the evaluation itself is an upsetting internal experience. It stresses me unnecessarily, and what’s unnecessary is not that I react with stress— only natural for considering that someone might genuinely assault me— but that I was put in circumstances where a stress response made any sense. Bro #1’s true thoughtless mistake is not that he’s giving me a failed compliment. It’s that he’s harming my mental health, whether or not he means to. He’s done something that’s going to make me feel like there are a lot of risks in stopping, looking back, and trying to tell him that what he did was wrong. His intent is straight up not going to matter to me. Though in fact, for me it would matter less if this weren’t a total stranger— if it were a man who knew me, ostensibly respected me, and still made a sexually harassing statement to me in any context, there would be that ongoing stress factor of, “Shit, I have to interact with this guy again, and what if I’m really not safe with him?” Then I really couldn’t just forgive his lack of forethought, no matter how much ignorance he might plead.
But that’s the 101 of intent. It’s a really important 101, one which I have reiterated in such detail because I think it needs the time, but truly I’m trying to explore the 201. Even if I agree that intent does not de facto absolve a wrongdoer of wrongdoing, I’ve often seen this problem presented such that the focus stays on the initial wrongdoing and the immediate aftermath. When we— individuals, myself included, who educate about the dynamics of healthy communication and/or how to effectively support members of marginalized populations— do not also talk about the finer nuances of intent in our next breath, we can sometimes leave others at a complete impasse on a big, important front: how I, you, or anyone can healthily “triage” conversations with someone about harm that’s been caused, when the person harmed has a self-motivated desire to repair interactions with at least some of the parties who have harmed them. I’m not about to argue that everyone needs to desensitize themselves to microaggressions, and definitely not that everyone must desire harmonious interactions with everyone else. I really mean that sometimes I have a completely legitimate reason to get upset by what someone has directly or obliquely done to me, and in that same instance I have a completely legitimate reason to want to forgive them and move on.
If the overriding message I have been hearing and repeating about the universal dynamics of intent is, “Intent is not magic,” and nothing more— if I find myself in a situation where I have to assess a serious cost vs. a serious benefit of choosing to smooth things over with my offender— and if I happen to treat Intent Is Not Magic™ as a be-all and end-all rather than the start of a larger dialogue, it might happen that I internalize an assumption that I cannot bring someone to the table if discussion of their intent might take place. Never mind whether in their view I ought to talk things out rather than ignore them. If I, myself, I have a reason to talk things out but I am too inherently intimidated or frustrated by their statement(s) of intent, I’m going to run into trouble finding the willpower to engage with them in the way that I really wish I could. And it’s going to happen to me a lot, because the fact of the matter is that people very, very frequently raise their intent in the course of offering any explanation or apology. For anything.
Now, I don’t think that every single person who uses this intent catchphrase actually thinks the conversation ends there. I also don’t think it matters what purpose the catchphrase was originally created for. And most of all, I definitely don’t think that everyone in the world is a bunch of babies who can’t figure out how to do conversational triage on their own, nor that someone who performs this triage has to do so in exactly the same way that I would. So I’m going to explain a couple of my experiences where I did this triage and intent proved relevant, but I don’t pretend to know for whom these examples may be useful, and I’m very much talking about my experiences. I’m just worried that there is a little too much material out there about intent wherein the phrasing does, truly, suggest that if someone mentions their intent as an explanation or an apology for their actions, their resort to intent has not only discredited them but also damned any likelihood that we can reconcile. I don’t think it’s nitpicky to find that logic unhelpful when my self-determined personal interest is not in telling someone, “You hurt me, full stop,” and it’s rather in saying, “You hurt me and now I’d like to talk about it.” With that, I’ll go into my examples.
The time when someone’s intent seemed pretty clear from the outset, seemed to hold fast throughout, and allowed me to correctly predict their listening ability
As will also apply for the other example, I’m not going to use real names for this, and I’m also going to keep contextual details vague when they aren’t 100% immediately necessary for understanding the situation. Some of these stories are still so close to home that I don’t want to share what isn’t in a fully shareable state. But I assure you that these have all been real incidents. The first and most straightforward took place only a month ago.
It was a discussion not with a friend but rather manifesting as one of those social media exchanges where you see something that this person says to someone you follow… and what this person says is unfortunate. Maybe not your proverbial third cousin once removed posting Facebook links about VACCINES CAUSE AUTISM!!! unfortunate, but definitely some statements that raised my hackles at first glance. This person, I’ll call her Katie, was a cis woman who had just read some gross, trans-exclusionary pseudo-radical feminist tripe posted by our mutual acquaintance (who had shared it only to mount a verbal takedown thereof). Katie commented— I will paraphrase as closely as reasonable— that although she really, really supported trans people, she couldn’t help feeling like there were some things about cis women’s experience, e.g. being able to get pregnant, that made a trans woman’s experience fundamentally different. Perhaps not the “full female package.”
Yes, if you’re in the trans community it’s an incredibly ancient argument to hear, and the tedium of encountering it in my case means that it still can upset me beyond measure, though it can also feel so old hat, so basic, that I can’t be bothered to engage with it. Somehow, I had the willpower to respond at all, and to respond calmly. Somehow I engaged for the purpose of educating, because I had the strength and desire in the moment. But it’s not really just somehow. There were some other things this woman had said, and wound up saying, which made it clear to me that though she had spoken ignorantly, she was speaking from a place of having just recently experienced pregnancy and the attendant misogyny from random individuals who think someone’s pregnancy is any of their business but the person having the baby.
Katie really didn’t want to offend anyone, she was just speaking from a place of her own hurt and confusion. I also knew that our mutual acquaintance didn’t tolerate blatant transphobia lightly, so it was at least unlikely for him and Katie to have stayed connected if she had said anything more intensely cissexist than this before. It probably also helped my energy that although I do have the capacity to become pregnant and am not a woman, I’m thus also not in the precise category of people whom Katie was discussing (and who are statistically an even more vulnerable and discriminated-against population than my own); in a way I had something closer to an obligation to educate than some other people might. Still, though there was that component of my background, my conscious calculation on “whether to try” was as much about guessing Katie’s motives as guessing my needs. What I calculated was that she might listen. So I did try.
I basically said something to the effect of how you know, it’s true that people who can get pregnant, or have gotten pregnant, have distinct life experiences from people who don’t, but that’s not about womanhood. After all, not all cis women can get pregnant themselves. Infertility happens, menopause happens, and cis girls before they hit puberty also have no more ability to get pregnant than cis boys. I probably could have also mentioned how there are childfree women who would find it insulting to have their reproductive capacity linked so directly to their gender, but I (for once) spared someone an essay and stuck to the general point— which was that it’s really unfortunate how pregnant women, how pregnant people, get treated in a misogynist society, but we can have that conversation on the one hand without disrespecting the gender identity of women who can’t get pregnant on the other.
I spoke to the basic, deep truth that I could tell was fueling Katie’s confusion— confusion, not malice, because if it were malice there would be no deep truth for me to find and engage. And somewhat surprisingly, but not that surprisingly, she listened, we had a short dialogue, and though she ultimately retreated from the conversation due to discomfort, it was my impression that we had both preserved mutual respect and she was only going away to avoid treading on any more toes while she processed her feelings. Did I do the only right thing for someone in my position to do? No, I don’t think so, but I recognized that it was right for me, personally, and I couldn’t have reached that decision without taking a guess about someone’s intent.
The time, right now, when someone’s intent is going to make a difference in how much we ever talk again, and I’m still waiting to figure this out
Once upon a time, probably eight or nine years ago, I had a close friend. I’ll call her Wendy. We’d already been friends for several years, and our bond had been formed over a few shared interests like literature, theatre, dance, and other arts. It was the sort of friendship where, even knowing each other in the flesh, we usually spoke to each other online every day for various reasons. I can’t say that we were great confidants, but we did seem to share a trust that allowed us to reveal at least some of our most private, inner creative selves when we were alone. Was this affinity ever more than platonic? I have no idea, and I’d rather not speculate about it here; I only acknowledge the thought because I know some reading may wonder.
Above all, however, I recall the friendship as fraught. While I never felt as though we were toxic for each other at the time, she had vastly more conservative politics than my own, and she was extremely religious, an evangelical Christian. We had our differences in other realms, too, but these core issues tended to infiltrate our lives in ways where we agreed to disagree and yet I never felt completely happy with such a non-solution. I think the friendship lasted for several years because we were vaguely kindred spirits— that is, whatever a kindred spirit is, we were that. But there were so many cultural obstacles between us at the same time, just as if we had similar personalities but were raised to speak wildly different languages.
So at the time I’m recalling, it happened that I revealed to Wendy, among other friends, how I was trans. Around the same time I also revealed to her that I was strongly considering Catholic baptism. The latter is an altogether tangential kettle of fish, but it was either one or both of these things that caused Wendy to greatly disapprove of what I was doing with my life. (I know most people likely to read this at the moment aren’t terribly strong Christian believers, if they’re anything, but don’t forget that some Protestant sects and some Catholics still have tremendously hostile attitudes across the divide of the Reformation; and this applied entirely to her, I was fully aware.) Actually, I am reasonably certain that she disapproved of both. The trouble for me is that then, while we had already begun lives in separate states, she rapidly drifted out of touch, and I don’t remember which problem was the decisive factor in her ceasing communication.
Now we come to last month. Since that somewhat passive friendship breakup, I had not contacted Wendy; eventually I didn’t even known how to do so. But as for the past winter I really began a reckoning with myself about my social life, my friendships, what people I valued, what personal connections meant to me, I remembered this old friend and I got curious whether she was having a good life. With the power of Google, I looked her up, discovered a professional webpage that was transparently hers, and the more that I read about what she was up to, I got even more curious, not just whether she was having a good life but also what sort of person she had grown into over so much time apart from me. I have certainly changed a fantastic amount.
In the name of adventure I wrote an e-mail to this new address of hers. I used my current legal name to sign it, but also a nickname that only she had ever used for me, a nickname I knew she had to recognize alongside everything else I mentioned in my message about our old friendship. I had no idea what would happen, but I gave it a go. A couple of days later, I got a reply. She used my old legal name, the name I use for nothing, a name I flat out don’t answer to; her stated rationale was that this was, aside from my private nickname, the name she knew me by in the past. Everything else about her e-mail was cordial and more or less what I’d expect from someone re-establishing a very worn connection. But she’d used a name for someone who just absolutely is not me, the real me, right now.
Obviously this is the sort of thing that I and many other trans people consider a serious crime of transphobia. It’s completely plausible that Wendy’s use of my birth name is meant to passive aggressively discredit my assertion of trans identity. I have to accept this possibility, and the possibility hurts. However, I didn’t talk about my transition when I reached out to her like this. Also, just as I don’t remember what precisely drove her away from me once upon a time, I don’t remember whether I ever gave her the name Devon to use for me, whether I ever detailed what transitional plans I had, or anything of the sort. (In the meantime she also has no idea that my experiment with Catholicism lasted about a year and a half before I went off and became the existentialist-pagan-atheist oddball that I am today, but I imagine this is a less relevant problem to resolve.)
This lack of recollection has put me in a rut in terms of responding to my former friend. I may have seemed to write to her from the past, a ghost, but I’m not really a ghost. I’m me now. She needs to know who me now is. I don’t know how to tell her what that me amounts to, not with her having said the wrong name to me, because I simply don’t know why she said it. I do not know her intent.
I must know her intent.
Of course, as I write all of this now, I’ve still decided to write back to her, more than a month later. I’m going to give her the benefit of the doubt. I’m going to imagine she knows nothing. Because in this case her intent is unknown to me but there’s a possibility of her not knowing why I refuse to be [birth name]; there’s even a possibility that she might be more accepting of my trans status than she was before. Sometimes when intent isn’t known then it isn’t worth pursuing the whole affair. But sometimes when the affair is already worth pursuing— I really do want to reconnect with this individual because of how well we got on in some respects— well, I just have to write back to her, and I just have to find out that intent behind her one misstep, and then, only then, can I determine whether she’s a person worth adding back to my life or not.
“But in those above cases, it still doesn’t seem like intent is that important. At best it seems like one consideration made among others. Why focus on it?”
I don’t know if anyone is going to ask me that. In case they are:
These are only two out of dozens and dozens and dozens of minor or major calculations I’ve had to perform with other people for arguably my whole life. There are some situations, including ongoing situations, where I can’t even describe anything abstractly because too much detail is really needed to properly understand what’s afoot, and too much privacy is needed for the people involved, myself included. There are also many more situations where I very quickly calculated that someone’s intent was ineffable and I didn’t have time or energy to figure it out, so I just had to do whatever was necessary for my sanity and move on. And then there are all the situations where someone’s intent was obviously to offend and I could do what was necessary, move on, etc., even quicker.
If I catalogued all of those moments for you, I would have written a book. It’s precisely the fact I could choose two immediate, safe examples of longer engagement, longer deliberation… and only two. This fact makes the examples preciously important. I frankly wish that I had the personal capacity to handle such situations so that I could provide more examples. Alternately I wish that the world threw less bullshit at me so that I had less calculations to make. Either way, I can’t presently change this reality. And in the end, this reality means I am cherishing the one successful interaction, the one potentially successful interaction, as a method of drawing strength and hope for future struggle.
Furthermore, I’m aware that sometimes when I talk about intent above, I don’t use it in a black & white sense of intending to offend vs. not to offend. When you get right down to it, I believe very few people actively wish to ever offend anyone. The only people who do are obviously assholes, but in the meantime, I’m looking at intent more in the vein of what someone wants to communicate beneath the surface, what someone’s background to the situation is.
“It still sounds like all you really want to do with this essay is complain about people who say that intent isn’t magic.”
I also don’t know if anyone is going to tell me this, either. But if they do, I must respectfully doubt whether they’ve read anything I said. I’m not saying intent is magic. I’m saying it’s situationally relevant for me on certain occasions, and I’m suggesting that this nuance is an important dimension in conversations about how marginalized communities respond to harmful behavior by people outside those social boundaries.
Communication is difficult when the mere act of communicating is considered stressful. In some anti-oppression discourse there is often an adage heard alongside Intent Isn’t Magic™, and that’s, “It’s not my responsibility to educate you.” While that phrase also deserves major deconstruction and re-examination, on the surface it’s quite correct. It’s not my responsibility, it’s a burden. One which I may adopt willingly on many occasions, but a burden nonetheless.
Educating people about a form of oppression that I face takes emotional energy— a great deal of it. Not only because those people may not listen to me at first, but because often I just don’t feel like handling the topic. I don’t want to be That Trans Friend, That Queer Friend, etc., whose existence revolves around that singular facet of his identity. It took me a long time to complete this post because I get irritated at myself when I write about these sorts of issues in my life like they’re the be all, end all of my days and nights. In reality I spend a great deal of time not even thinking about the fact that I’m trans or any one other thing. I also do spend some time thinking about it, but I can’t reduce my experience to a few tokens in the whole of my conscious life.
I don’t know for which other people that problem rings true, but there you have it. In the meantime, when communication about a topic of any kind is stressful due to the predicted likelihood that the communication’s ending will hurt, this often convinces people not to try communicating in the first place. Even when under these particular circumstances the ending shouldn’t hurt. I’ve discovered a behavior loop with numerous friends and loved ones wherein staying in reliable communication via e-mail, text, or even in person— and even about extremely important questions— proves impossible. These people develop reputations as “flaky” or “fallen off the face of the earth” in our shared social spheres, but my best guess is that they’re delaying or denying contact because they’re convinced that having even a conversation that could solve everyone’s concerns is going to be a more inherently negative experience than avoiding the conversation to the bitter end. I may not be right about this for everyone where I’ve made this guess, but I think it has to be a reasonable guess in some cases because it’s something I absolutely experience for myself depending on the subject, the people, and the time available to procrastinate.
Translate that problem over to specifically anti-oppression education and I think something similar can crop up. If we speak as though everyone who expresses their intent is only expressing it to excuse their actions rather than to explain the possibility of reconciliation, that rules out an entire class of potentially positive educational exchanges from happening. And that’s a problem not because it somehow disadvantages people who have the ability to do research themselves, but because I want positive exchanges in my life. I may not have the capacity to constantly educate or productively engage with someone who’s hurt me, but I need a toolkit for noticing when something might be positive. I need positive pattern recognition. Intent is one of those tools that I’ve found. Perhaps I’ll write about the others someday.