“Allegedly”

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“Allegedly” is one of those words that people stick in front of disputed things, and it serves the useful purpose of signaling that the dispute exists. But there is another way people use it as well, and that is less about signaling dispute and more about introducing it. And it works! For me, as a reader, when I see the word “alleged” tied to something, it makes me more critical, more doubtful, and more aware that some other people don’t think the thing in question is true.

So, I find it rather disturbing when people use the word “alleged” for things like sexual assault, abuse, and online harassment. In this context, the word is used as a rhetorical trick, even (especially?) when the event itself is not really in doubt, to create that doubt. People use this word, in short, to minimize the experiences of women.

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The Magic Number

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I pay attention to members of several communities that claim to value critical thought, respect for others, egalitarian ideals, social responsibility, equal opportunity, et cetera-the whole lot. And so I also can’t help noticing the disheartening sexism in these allegedly progressive groups and organizations. Somehow, people who claim to value evidence and reason happily ignore the evidence and treat the idea of their own sexism with derision, and somehow people who claim to build their philosophy on equality happily harass the women around them.

Emily Crockett has an article at Vox about an ongoing harassment scandal in a progressive organization, and the quote at the end stood out to me:

“ ‘One of the things I keep thinking about is, what is the magic number of women it would take before an allegation will be believed?’ said Karen. ‘What would have happened if only one employee would have come forward? Are we ever going to stop somebody like this after one or two victims, or is it always going to have to go on for years, and follow them across different companies, and there has to be a critical mass of complainants before people take it seriously?’ ”

That sounds awfully familiar; it sounds like the same thing I hear when prominent atheists or skeptics or Christians are exposed for their harassment of women. It sounds like the same thing I hear when prominent Democrats or Republicans are exposed for their prejudice. People keep asking, what’s the magic number? How many women have to speak up for it to be enough evidence?

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Racism, Sexism, and the Fundamental Attribution Error

Lookingout_viaAllenLaiWe all know racism, sexism, and similar –isms are things we shouldn’t admit to; even those who embrace them ideologically would rather express them in different words. The disclaimer mad lib is simple: “I’m not _____, it’s just that _____.” Islamophobia? No, no, it’s just that there really are Muslim terrorists, so my fear is justified! Sexism? Are you kidding? Women just choose lower-paying jobs than men do. Racism? Don’t make me laugh. Black people just commit more crimes, so of course the police need to pay more attention to them. For Americans, for white people, for men, for those on the inside, an –ism is easily explained away by external factors.

From the outside, it looks a bit different.

If you’re a woman in the United States, you have probably gotten attention you didn’t want from men who didn’t want to take no for an answer.

If you’re black in the United States, you have probably gotten attention you didn’t want from police who assumed you were guilty of something.

And you’ll notice that what these things have in common is not, necessarily, some internal core quality (which is how many white people think about racism, how many men think about sexism, etc.). Instead, what they have in common is behavior, and a system that says that behavior is okay.

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It Wasn’t My Intent

Intention is both more and less important than we allow. It matters what I meant to say and do, because those reflect my experience of the events in question. But what I meant to say and do may have little relationship to your experience of the same events. And the events themselves are yet another truth.

I am not suggesting it is easy to navigate these murky waters. It’s tough to anticipate how someone will respond to what you say or do, and it’s tough to know ahead of time how it will be perceived. Maybe you tap a friend on the should to say hello and they jump out of their skin—you mean to say hello, they experience it as being startled, and the objective act (tapping them on the shoulder) holds neither connotation. In this sort of circumstance, intent does matter, and the phrase “it wasn’t my intent” may actually be reassuring. The hurt is minor and results from an innocent misunderstanding.

But there is a different usage of this phrase, and one that takes it well outside allowable bounds. Where I more often see “it wasn’t my intent” cropping up is in apologies where it really has no business being. I am talking about circumstances where the hurt is large, or there is no misunderstanding, or the consequences are so significant that intent no longer matters. In these cases the phrase “it wasn’t my intent” and its cousins are the phrases we trot out to abdicate responsibility.

Tim Hunt - World Economic Forum

Tim Hunt – World Economic Forum

For example, Tim Hunt used the phrase “I certainly didn’t mean that” this past week when apologizing for sexist comments about women (he called them girls) being a problem in labs. He was worried that women would “fall in love with him” and “cry” and be “distracting,” so Tim thinks they should be in gender-segregated labs. And in his apology he says he “did mean the part about having trouble with girls,” so he seems to be burning the candle at both ends on this apology. By saying he “didn’t mean” to offend anyone, he seems to be saying that the inherent sexism of his views doesn’t matter, because he didn’t intend it to be offensive. Happily, lots of woman in science jumped in to tell Tim just how wrong he is.

Nevertheless, this is how I usually see phrases like “it wasn’t my intent” employed. Not to clear up some real misunderstanding of meaning, but rather as a verbal scalpel to separate someone’s offensive views from the consequences of expressing those views. When someone says something steeped in prejudice and then claims “it wasn’t my intent” to upset anyone, they are effectively saying that there is nothing wrong with their views, and the fault lies in your response.

At this point some people may be thinking “hey, wait a minute, maybe Tim Hunt didn’t mean to be sexist.” They are probably right. And they may be thinking of some time that they said something prejudiced themselves and didn’t realize until after the fact—I know I’ve done this. And that is true, and a good point.

And it doesn’t matter. There is no plausible deniability for those espousing sexism, or racism, or homophobia, or any other prejudicial viewpoint. The offensiveness of prejudiced views and the hurt they cause cannot be separated. This is why the phrase “it wasn’t my intent” is such an insidious bit of misdirection—it’s basic role is to suggest that when someone is prejudiced and offensive, whether they intended to be matters more than whether they were. It refuses to acknowledge the prejudice as the problem, and thus it reinforces, rather than diminishes, the original harm.

“It wasn’t my intent,” we say, “to give offence. But of course, we are decent people, so if you were bothered by our prejudices, we will happily apologize for the bother, even though the problem really lies with you. Sorry.”

“It wasn’t my intent” is the “I’m sorry your face keeps hitting my fist” of rhetorical apology.