Sunday, September 15, 2013

Intent And Saying You're Sorry

One of the apologist arguments that gets tossed about a lot when I get into discussions about racism, sexism, classism, or other "isms" I notice that are harmful and oppressive (and usually pervasive) is the argument of intent. I point out that an aspect of a movie, article, picture, is sexist or racist (usually not saying the whole thing is, but rather some specific element), and someone (and yes, usually a wealthy white dude) says, "But they didn't intend to be racist, so what's  the big deal?" And it's often followed up with a, "Why should they apologize?" And, really, it even happens in regular conversation about mundane things- someone will just say something that hurts someone else's feelings, and they get huffy and demand to know why they should apologize, since they didn't mean to hurt that person.

It baffles me, and I think, on some levels, the perpetrators (or their defenders) are afraid of looking  like this:

I know this is a kind of unsophisticated way to go after the particular (il)logic I'm talking about, but I just think this is utter bullshit. Think about this a lot  more simplistically. 

People apologize for accidents all the time, in everyday circumstances, and in more extreme ones. If I accidentally hit someone with a door, I'm going to apologize profusely because I feel absolutely terrible. Hell, I apologize like crazy whenever I almost hit someone with a door. I know I'm kind of an extreme example, but I'm sure you, reader, would apologize if a door makes unintentional contact with someone else at your doing.

Or think of this  one: 
We're held monetarily accountable if we get into a car accident that's our fault somehow (say, a missed stop sign that results in a T-bone), and that act of the car insurance company paying the damages is of the same symbolic significance as the apology I give when I hit someone with a door. 

The reason is there was harm done to another person. It's not like I set out to slam the person in the face, or T-bone them in the intersection. But society recognizes that when harm is done, compensation is due to the person that was harmed.

Yet forms of oppression, harmful and hurtful things, are excused away by people because, well, the thing wasn't intended to be harmful.

This relates to my previous post about April Fool's Day, or when talking about how silence functions with respect to harmful discourses- the ones doing the harm, or the people defending them, turn it around onto the person pointing out the harm and make them look like the one doing harm- it's implied the whistle-blower is seeking out things to bitch about, or making shit up, or whining too much and just need to grow a pair.

Using the "intent" argument is an excuse for assholery and a tool for oppression. It's not hard to apologize, or even to acknowledge having acted inappropriately toward someone else. 

Yet it's so bloody hard for this "intent" thing to go away when issues of "isms" come up. And this in itself is harmful, because it gives people a free pass. As long as they don't intend to do any harm, claims of harm are invalid. And this can lead to all sorts of justifications for inappropriate, hurtful behavior. Not only that, but it can delegitimize the claims of those calling out the BS because of their positionality.

See, here's the thing. A claim of non-intent coming from a member of a dominant group equates exoneration is "inherently" invalid  because, guess what? The person making this claim is also part of the group that writes the rules of the game. And, inherently, subconsciously, then, that person assumes disagreement is wrong, because what they value in other circumstances is structurally valued as normatively better, anyway. 

And I would also like to point out that there are sometimes double-whammies, too. I've always been irked by hearing, "I'm sorry if I hurt your feelings," or the like from people. I've felt condescended to, like they were trying to make it seem like it was my fault, still, in a backhanded way. Well, I guess I wasn't making it up- this little page explains how to apologize properly, and the first part is a fine articulation of what I had in the back of my mind for ages. But yes, rather than apologizing for what has been done, the attention gets shifted onto the reaction, framing the conversation around that. And that's not good, because it goes right back to above. 

I feel like I've said this before in my blog, but I'll just say it  here: One  of the difficult things  with pointing out something bad is that the person that did whatever caused the harm makes the other person out to be the bad one. Here's how it plays out:

A: Hey, you just punched me in the face. Could you at least apologize?
B: I don't think "punch" is really the right term for it- I was just flailing my arms and just happened to have my hands in fists, and your face just happened to get in the way. In fact, my hand  really hurts. How dare you accuse me of trying to punch you when it's my hand that's probably broken! You should be the one apologizing to me, and probably paying for my medical bills, too. 

I just get so gorram sick of the douchebags that know they're being douchebags that bear down and put all of the blame on the people they've upset. Which leads me to two examples  that dovetail slightly, but that ultimately end up in the same place.

Item 1: Pennygate*

The  dudes at Penny Arcade posted a comic with some dialogue that  upset anti-rape advocates, persons that have experienced sexual  assault, and some other people that just found their  joke ("...raped by dickwolves") in poor taste. This was a couple years ago, sure,, but the reponses from the dudes were pretty lackluster, and the gorram thing kept coming up over and over. I'll give you a link  here with a good summary of the events, better than I could- but  note how the woman writing it  is swearing them off. Why? Because every time they get called  to the carpet, they give a half-assed apology  at best, followed by some pretty crude backlash aimed at the people  they, in theory, were just apologizing to. So most recently, while wearing a shirt with the punchline of their rape joke on it, one  of the Penny Arcade bros  hunkered down again (and made no move to stop the cheering from the audience, as well as says they've never done anything wrong). And  then there's yet another apology. And you know  what? I just don't fucking buy it. I seriously don't.  They apologize and then repeat the behavior and go to great lengths to throw it in the faces of the people they've hurt. That's, at best, insincere, at worst, sociopathic. They've also done a great job of demonstrating they really don't give a flying fuck  about other people's opinions about other things and would rather make fun of people expressing  malcontent, rather  than engaging in any sort of productive dialogue. The Penny Arcade dudes are just spoiled, entitled little boys that don't recognize their upper-middle-class, male, white privilege, and they're never actually going to be  sorry.  They haven't learned or moved toward "a progressive goal" (as is  claimed in that interview). As they "go forward," they're just doing the same bullshit every single time.

Item 2: Harleygate

I'm working on a difficult post about DC right now because I could write a huge essay on how  DC is so problematic for me to read or be fan of, as a woman of color and disability advocate- but I've always felt much more  emotionally connected to the DC Universe. But the most recent debacle has  been over a contest for new artists depicting Harley Quinn in various suicidal moments, no context, no dialogue. The last panel, in particular, was pretty awful because there's the specific instruction for her to be  naked in it, thus not only fetishizing but sexualizing suicide. Here is a link to the contest page, for your own objective look. There are lots  of reasons this  was messed up for a lot  of people, including  that it was announced right before National Suicide Prevention Week.  Jim Lee, DC artist  currently on Superman stuff, responded about the Harleygate backlash, and did quite a lot  of the same stuff DC and fanboys do to people that say there's anything remotely wrong with a piece of nerd culture, usually a game or comic. Basically saying the fans that are upset are doing it wrong, that they just don't  understand- then he very condescendingly makes some outlandish argument that is supposed to be, Well, DUH! He insinuates that if you're upset,  you're not only stupid, but also not a real fan of comics because you just don't "get" them.  And that's pretty insulting. Then DC itself apologized, as well as one of the two main architects of the contest. And while I kind of buy  the one by  the artist, I don't buy it coming from DC. DC has fucked up enough that stuff like  this exists. Flub  after flub after mistake- they keep losing  creative minds because the company wants to uphold the devaluation of women, persons of color, and anybody  that isn't heterosexual. I think the reason  this entirely misguided contest went through, and the week before National Suicide Prevention Week, to wit, is because it fit quite  comfortably  within the overall discourse that DC sends out to its audience- that  women are sex objects of no worth except to jack  off to or serve as plot points for the stories  of the male characters. The fact of the matter is, DC is a huge corporation, and if they  didn't expend some resources to figure out that, if nothing else,  the timing was entirely inappropriate, boo; but if they  did know about the temporal problems here and didn't do anything, well,  that's just even worse, and they're really  no better than the Penny Arcade bros. So I don't buy DC's apology any more, either. And I'm not sure  if I'll be willing  to buy any more products with DC's name on them, at least  for a while. Just because I'm so upset over the Harley thing, and some other stuff they've done recently (like forcing out Batwoman's writers- because they, the writers, wanted her to marry  her girlfriend, who is, gasp, another woman!). 

In all honesty, I think it takes more strength to sincerely apologize. To own up to one's actions, take responsibility  for them and any repercussions, and then  work on changing the behavior. Bearing down  and being a stubborn asshat is actually pretty cowardly. The Penny Arcade bros aren't "brave" for "sticking up to"... who? Rape survivors? DC isn't "brave" for not pulling the contest despite the who... people that have lost loved ones to suicide? 

It's the intent behind the apology that makes the difference, not necessarily  the original action. If you keep fucking up and saying you're sorry, you're doing it wrong. The apology needs to come linked  to the intent to change the behavior. If that doesn't happen, you're full of crap. 

And power matters. Pulling the "intent" card during an "apology" denies the privilege of the person making  the apology. If what you were doing is an echo if a systemic discourse of oppression, it doesn't matter whether you intended the harm or not, because that discourse has made the decision for you. Apologize for upholding that, not hurting the person's feelings. Acknowledge that there are norms and institutions whose existence depends on the marginalization of others.

Or just admit it was a dick thing to say. Or that it was your bad and you won't  do it again.

*I'm not sure if this nomenclature is a thing, but I thought  that sounded snazzy.

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