Ignorance Vs Malice

twohead_viaolegshpyrkoI have long held the position that one should never attribute to malice that which is explainable by incompetence or ignorance. Inherent in that position are two presumptions: first, that intentions and actions can be judged separately in the same cases; second, that most people are selfish, but not malicious. In most situations, that means presuming good intentions even when a person’s actions cause harm or damage common goals. With most people, I find that presumption is justified and leads to better relationships and easier problem-solving.

Yet I have been struggling lately with where to draw the line. At what point is the explanation of incompetence or ignorance no longer plausible? How much foolishness must I allow to cover over blatant harm? Yes, I can believe that many people act on specific priorities to benefit themselves, and without anticipating the consequences.

But what do you do when someone has been given every chance to uncover their own errors, and refused? At what point does willful refusal to consider different perspectives cross over from ignorance to malice?

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The Apotheosis of Form

I like to think about words. I believe that thinking about the words we choose is a wonderful way of pushing the bounds of our thinking. I believe that choosing our words carefully and drilling down in the nuances of their meaning helps us understand both what we personally believe and how others’ thinking is subtly different. I believe that strongly enough that I’ve written a number of posts now about the importance of choosing your words carefully.

Anna_Chromy_Cloak_Of_ConscienceIn the discussions I’ve had on this topic, though, another theme has emerged: that of treating our words as if they are the only things that matter. I was discussing this with a close friend recently and she brought up the idea of “liberal shibboleths,” which I think is a brilliantly simple way to explain this problem. A shibboleth, after all, is “the watchword of a party,” and often “some peculiarity in things of little importance.” And before I single out liberals for illiberal use of shibboleths, there are plenty of conservative shibboleths, libertarian shibboleths, progressive shibboleths, and so on.

I and my friend both have seen moments when a well-meaning person is rebuked by members of the in-group for use of the wrong words. Sometimes that rebuke is called for—there are, indeed, people who are offensive with intent, and those people should be called on their behavior. But what of the rest? If someone reaches out honestly to understand a thing they are not, it’s natural that they not know how to speak about it. Why do we treat them as if they should? These are people who have taken a step outside their comfort zone—they do not need us to critique their form, they need us to show them new ideas.

There is value in treating people with respect. There is respect in describing people with the words they choose and not the words we choose. There is respect in recognizing what is offensive, and why, and avoiding it. But there is also value, and respect, in presuming the best of intentions. Certainly when a prominent white man publicly speaks of women as girls, the inherent sexism of his statement is worth critique. But if that man had gone to some of his colleagues with an honest desire to learn and asked how he should handle situations with “girls” in his lab?

Someone who wants to learn is a rare and precious commodity. What would you teach in such a moment? Would you teach this man that he is making unwarranted assumptions about half the human race? Would you teach him that basic human decency should not be dependent on gender? Would you teach him about women’s experiences when men view them as erratic, emotional, unintelligible aliens, instead of as human beings?

Or would you take this moment, this rare open moment, to teach him only that he is using the wrong word?

The thing I did not mention before is that a shibboleth is not merely a password or a badge of membership—it is a tool of exclusion. We know, by the words they use, who agrees with us and who does not. If we are complacent and unwilling to engage our own ideas, if we prefer superficial discussion with no dissent, the shibboleths tell us who to echo and who to exile.

In my opinion, the way we engage with outsiders is the true test—of whether our groups are bent on real, deep discussion and self-improvement, or whether they are rigid places where ritual is king and doubt is forbidden. We, who profess to be open to multiple ideas; we, who profess to believe in human rights and human decency; we, who claim to value discourse and discussion: it is incumbent on us to pay more than lip service to these ideals.

We can choose our words carefully, and we should. But we can make those choices out of understanding rather than prescription, and when we speak to those who disagree we should not conflate the two. The form is what we see, but it cannot be what we teach—because form, without the ideals to inspire it, is dead.

A Poor Choice of Words

via Neil Moralee

Have you ever made a complete ass of yourself and then had to apologize later? Ever found yourself rapidly backpedaling from something you said that, while ill judged at the time, seems head-smackingly foolish in retrospect? Have you ever found yourself stammering out an apology for “my poor choice of words?”

Personally, I can’t recall doing this—but I would bet that I have. I would bet that most people have (excluding incredibly inoffensive people, and assholes who never apologize). It’s not surprising that this phrase might come into your head at a moment of tension when you are fumbling for a way to take back something you said; after all, we hear it all the time. But if you ever find yourself about to say this, you really, really shouldn’t.

Last Friday I wrote about apologizing by claiming “it wasn’t my intent;” which is valid in minor incidents where good intentions can be presumed, but is often used to justify wildly prejudiced things. “A poor choice of words” is a close cousin: an apologetic phrase that makes perfect sense when you have a slip of the tongue, but not if you just said a meaner version of what you meant to say all along.

One place this phrase crops up often is in apologies from organizations, politicians, media personalities, and other individuals in the public eye. Rush Limbaugh called Sandra Fluke a “slut” and a “prostitute,” then apologized for his “choice of words.” Arkansas representative Don Young called migrant workers “wetbacks” and then apologized for his “poor choice of words.” Congressman Geoff Davis called President Obama a “boy” and then apologized for his “poor choice of words.” Dr. Ben Carson drew analogies between LGBTQ individuals and “bestiality” and then apologized, you guessed it, for his “choice of words.” Senator Harry Reid gave Obama the back-handed complement that he “had no Negro dialect” and then apologized, as usual, for “such a poor choice of words.”

You might have noticed a theme in all these examples: specifically, that these are all people expressing absolutely horrible, prejudiced things and yet they seem to think it was how they said them that mattered. In this insane upside-down world, you can hold opinions that are sexist, racist, or many other kinds of horrendous, but all that matters is the words you use to express them. The sentiment, apparently, doesn’t matter.

I assume that you, the reader, are already ahead of me at this point and have realized, if you didn’t know it already, that apologizing for “a poor choice of words” is not, in fact, apologizing. Instead it is downgrading one’s offense from believing something terrible to making some kind of slip of the tongue. “Oops! I totally meant to say something else instead of ‘subhuman mongrel.’ My bad!” “So sorry, I didn’t mean to say you were ‘a slut,’ I just accidentally said it out loud because I thought being sexist was funny. JK you guys!”

You might have noticed another insidious theme here, and I want to make it explicit because I think it is very important. Apologizing for “a poor choice of words” is the same as saying your original sentiment was fine. You are basically saying the horrible thing you said is a valid, acceptable thing to say.

So, if you happen to be a school with a dress code, say, and it happens to advise girls that “we don’t want to be looking at ‘sausage rolls’” and tells those same girls that “you can’t put 10 pounds of mud in a five-pound sack,” you should know that it is no way sufficient to apologize for “unfortunate word choices.”

Now I know horrible non-apologies are put out there all the time, but that doesn’t mean we have to condone them or perpetuate them. If you see a leader apologizing for their poor choice of words, call them on it. Twitter, Facebook, whatever—let their terrible apology writers know that we do not accept their apologizing for word choice instead of sentiment. If your friends apologize to you this way, you may want to be nicer, but gently make it clear what is and isn’t a real apology.

Because the phrase “a poor choice of words” is a indeed very poor choice of words.

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.