Harmful Communication, Part One: Intent Is Magic

[Trigger warning for harmful language, emotional manipulation, rape culture.]

This is the first post in a series about language. Specifically, harmful language.

We talk about physical and emotional abuse a lot in this space, and, to some extent, we also talk about abusive language: Under the "this shit doesn't happen in a void" refrain, I've frequently addressed hate speech, and we acknowledge that bullying is abusive even without any physical violence.

We also recognize, in discussions of rape culture and in conversations about institutional oppressions, that systemic harm is not limited to physical violence, but additionally manifests as harmful language in the form of rape jokes or slurs or violent rhetoric, as examples.

In discussions of privilege, we also begin to get at the ways in which language that is not explicitly violent or marginalizing can also be oppressive, and we recognize how a failure to own one's privilege using accountability deflecting language extends and exacerbates the hurt, anger, and alienation caused by privilege and expressions thereof.

The language of defensiveness, projection, emotional auditing, non-apology apologies, false choices, and magical intent is ubiquitous in social justice spaces—and pretty much everywhere else.

This series is intended to really examine how this brand of accountability deflecting language manifests as abuse in everyday interactions with the people around us. In the same way that discussions of consent as a broad concept beyond sexual interactions have inspired people to reconsider other consent issues, even something as common as posting photographs online, I hope that this series can make us more sensitive to what we're actually communicating when we engage accountability deflecting language, and underline why it is inherently harmful.

We begin with Magical Intent.

Magical Intent is the principle by which someone who has said or done something offensive, hurtful, rage-making, marginalizing, and/or otherwise contemptible argues that the person to whom they've said or done it has no right to be offended, hurt, enraged, alienated, and/or otherwise disdainful because their intent was not to generate that reaction.

In other words: "I didn't intend for you to feel that way, so if you do feel that way, don't blame me! My intent magically inoculates me from responsibility for what I actually said and how it was received!"

This is one of the most harmful—and common—manifestations of accountability deflecting language, rooted in the false contention that intent is more important than effect. It is a most curious habit, given that most of us would readily acknowledge that "I didn't mean it" isn't an excuse for not having to apologize when we bump into someone or accidentally step on someone's foot. Yet we have nonetheless created an entirely different standard for things we say that inadvertently hurt other people.

Intent does not, in fact, magically render us unaccountable from the effects of our communication, no more than not intending to step on someone's toes magically renders us unaccountable from the effects of our movement. Pain caused unintentionally is still authentic pain.

And, although it's true that sometimes our communication is simply misunderstood, more frequently, the (mis)communications that led to the invocation of magical intent are the result of implicit intent not actually matching what is being explicitly communicated. To illustrate what I mean, some examples:

Example One: Alex has a PhD in Subjectology. Jamie knows that Alex has a PhD in Subjectology, yet, during a discussion of Subject, Jamie, who has an interest in and is reasonably knowledgeable about Subject, condescendingly explains basics of Subject to Alex without regard for Alex's demonstrable proficiency. Alex expresses that Jamie's insistence on explaining basics makes Alex feel as though Jamie does not respect Alex's competency or intellectual capacity. Jamie, whose intent was actually to impress Alex, insists that hir intent was not to make Alex feel that way. Alex makes a valiant attempt to explain why Jamie behaving as though Alex doesn't know the basics of Alex's professional field is disrespectful, at which point Jamie gets miffed, reiterates that the intent was not to make Alex feel bad, accuses Alex of looking for things to get mad about, and misrepresents Alex's good faith attempt to address demeaning language as a personal attack on Jamie.

Thus, what had started out as an inadvertent slight becomes a harmful exchange, as Jamie refuses to acknowledge that the effect of the action irrespective of its intent was hurtful to Alex, and deflects accountability by casting Alex as unreasonable.

Example Two: Kelly and Terry are friends. Kelly is fat; Terry is thin. Terry routinely expresses disgust with hir body by saying things like, "I am so fat" and "This cellulite is disgusting." Kelly tells Terry that such expressions are hurtful and make hir wonder what Terry must think of hir, since zie is much fatter than Terry. Terry, whose intent was actually to solicit support and validation from Kelly, insists that hir intent was not to make Kelly feel that way. Kelly makes a valiant attempt to point out that even if it was not intended to make hir feel bad about hir body, it does, because Terry is associating fatness with something bad. Terry reacts defensively, reiterating that the intent was not to make Kelly feel bad and accusing Kelly of being jealous and oversensitive.

Thus, what had started out as a misguided attempt to connect becomes a harmful exchange, as Terry refuses to acknowledge that, despite a lack of intention to be hurtful, zie was hurtful nonetheless, and deflects accountability by projecting hir void of sensitivity onto Kelly as an abundance of oversensitivity.

Example Three: Jesse has a habit of casually using the rhetoric of sexual violence ("I got raped by that ATM fee"), even around hir friend Jordan, who was raped. Jordan has asked Jesse not to use those phrases around hir, explaining that they are triggering and make hir feel unsafe, to which Jesse agreed. Jesse nonetheless slipped up, and Jordan expressed hurt both over the use of the phrase and also over the disregard for hir previous request. Jesse, whose intent was not to hurt Jordan, responds belligerently and insists zie just forgot and hir intent wasn't to hurt Jordan and doesn't Jordan know that? Jordan says zie does know that, or else they would not still be friends, but adds that it was hurtful all the same. Jesse storms off in a huff, but not before hurling another accusation of bad faith at Jordan.

Thus, what had started out as a hurtful mistake becomes a harmful exchange, as Jesse refuses to own hir mistake or acknowledge that the effect was to disregard the feelings of an ostensibly valued friend, then further escalates the situation by attributing to Jordan accusations of ill will that Jordan did not make.

In the first example, Jamie's implicit intent was to shape Alex's perception of hir, but Jamie's explicit communication was a display of hir knowledge of Subject. In the second example, Terry's implicit intent was to elicit validation and fish for a compliment from Kelly to assuage Terry's anxiety about hir body, but Terry's explicit communication was a negative expression about fat. In the third example, Jesse's implicit intent was merely to communicate a frustration about something, but hir explicit communication went beyond that to include triggering language that broke an existing friendship agreement with Jordan.

In all three cases, there was a significant gap between intended communication and actual communication, leaving room for a grave misunderstanding.

Now, mismatches between intended communication and actual communication happen all the time, even when one endeavors to communicate as straightforwardly as possible, and it's not always a problem. (Sometimes, in fact, it is a source of great humor.) But a harmful exchange is most likely when the discord arises from seeking something for oneself without empathizing with how it's being received by the person from whom one is seeking it.

That's the danger in trying to communicate need in indirect ways. It's easy to lose sight of what you're conveying tangentially, because you're so focused on accessing approbation, reassurance, validation, support, the placation of internal distress because you know you've fucked up, or whatever else for which you're searching.

And in instances where it begets an unintentional offense, the worst possible response is to try to shift accountability to the recipient of the communication.

It's an understandable impulse: Deflecting accountability—that is, asking the listener to be responsible for the genesis of the hurt, because they misunderstood your intent—feels a lot better than being accountable.

But seeking accountability-free absolution from whom you've wronged, asking to be let off the hook so you can let yourself off the hook, only serves you—it does not serve the person that you've hurt.

It is not merely unfair (although it is that, too) to deflect accountability by casting someone to whom you've done wrong as unreasonable, oversensitive, or alleging malice ("How could you think I intended to hurt you?!"), when they are being or doing no such thing. It is abusive.

And it is abusive because it is emotionally manipulative.

That's a difficult notion to accept for most of us, because most of us have engaged in this type of harmful communication at some point in our lives, even if it's not a regular habit. Even being presented with the idea that common defensiveness can be abusive is likely to elicit, in some readers, a magical intent response: I don't intend to abuse or manipulate people, so there's no way I'm doing it!

But that's why this conversation is so important—because a lack of intent to harm doesn't guarantee that one will never harm.

The convention of magical intent seeks to oblige a harmed person into accepting accountability for our fuck-ups. It asks them to accept that their feelings are irrational, because what matters is what we intended them to feel.

Which brings us to the auditing and asserting ownership of someone else's emotions. And that will be Part Two.

[Note: It is not incidental that, in all examples provided, the harmed parties responded to unintentional offenses done by trusted people with the good faith assumption that there was no intent to harm even when harm was done. As all communications, this particular issue has two sides: One is assuming good faith in criticism when deserved, and the other is assuming good faith in response when approached thus.]

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