Yesterday I posted this on Facebook:
I posted it to my wall asking the simple question “Which is more important – “The Words” or “The Intent”? I’m firmly in the “The Intent” camp. Beyond firmly, actually ‘militantly’ would better describe my position. What’s yours?”
I got many good answers. You can go onto my Facebook to see this post. Many people came down on the side of intent, which is most definitely where I fall, but there’s some interesting, thoughtful arguments for the words being the issue.
Mikey Bostrom’s “The important thing in communication is not the intent, but how it is received.” is a nice platitude, but implies that someone else is responsible for how you feel. I like Mikey a lot, but this is a core social problem. I can’t be held responsible for how you feel. You can’t be held responsible for how I feel.
One can certainly set out to hurt another, but again, that’s intent. One can misinterpret another’s words and infer they are being attacked, and be hurt, but that should just lead you to a discussion and resolution, because if the intent to hurt wasn’t there in the first place, reasonable people can discuss things.
It is perfectly reasonable to use all the words in the English language. In fact, I only avoid one – “nigger”. I don’t trust my own intent, not that I think I’m racist, or rather, more racist than most people (cue: Avenue Q’s “Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist“) but that particular word cannot be reclaimed and disarmed by me, a cracker. Not gonna happen. I have the brains to know that perception of me is overwhelming any cognizant attempt to use this word in a playful manner, so I avoid it. Plain and simple. And yet, still wholly intent.
Terry pointed out that “…there’s no way that the typed word intent can ever be clear.” and I have to disagree with him. In this example, it’s pretty clear to anyone who would see the post, would know the person putting it up well enough to know he’s an out gay male, so the ‘math’ represented, and the words used, are done for humors sake. Was the joke good? I thought it was funny, and laughed. (And then saw the secondary equation from Brad Gorman and, thus, this discussion was born.)
Ed Hall gets to the issue right off – they both matter. Yes, they do. But one can overwhelm the other. He expressly says so in his final line with “There is a lot of power in words no matter the intent.” but that’s only true if the intent of it’s historical use overwhelms anything to do with your current, particular intent. Implying that intent and the inherent power of a word are equal gives words an undiminishing power they don’t deserve. Words can overpower intent, in some cases, but intent can overpower a word much easier. If you don’t believe me, watch 5-year olds fight. They don’t have the words that adults do, so they use what they have, and believe me, the intent to hurt can add a sharpened edge to ‘doodyhead’ like you’ve never seen.
Betty brings up an interesting point, in that unintentionally hurting someone by using words or phrases is a problem. I’ve fallen into this trap many times, although I’m less and less inclined to worry about it. I make my apologies and move on with my life. Why?
Because I can not be responsible for how you feel.
You shouldn’t be responsible for how others feel.
This isn’t including the attempts to deliberately hurt someone using words as weapons, but let’s be clear, you don’t own me, I don’t own you, we’re both adults (for the sake of this discussion) and at the end of the day, you have to own your own reactions to how the world around you works. I tend to ride my emotions like a surfer in a hurricane, and I know this comes across as mad to many of the people who’ve met me. I rant. I grumble. I yell. I argue. I’m clever, witty and, at times, vicious, in my defense of what I think is right, and my desire to smack down those who have sought to hurt me and those I care about. I know, full-well, how dangerous and deadly words can be, but I also know that it’s because of my intent that they achieve the power-up to be considered nuclear arms.
The words themselves have very little power, overall. It’s only what we give them. And that’s pretty fucking magical, so let me repeat it.
Words only have the power WE GIVE THEM.
Terry posted again and summed this up nicely:
As we all come to discover sexuality near puberty… And grow into these things as we mature into an adult… There will always be a word (used on the middle school play ground) like faggot or queer or fem-bot or whatever… Used to assert one’s self while insulting and judging others… That’s part of being a stupid kid stuck in the pecking order of social hierarchies. But the more adults can see how stupid different words are, the better.
Faggot is as offensive as the word queer was/is for some people who were kids/teens 40-50 years ago…
Maybe it takes that long to get over whatever these words are…
Faggot is only offensive to me when someone is trying to brand another as less than. When someone is having fun with the word, enjoying the gender-otherness of not being the expected, why not take it back? If we show the world that the word has no power over us, they will, yes, have to find another word to belittle us, and why shouldn’t we make them work at it?
No social interaction is without it’s thought and intent, and understanding both of those is key to getting along in the world, but you can have a social interaction without words. If they aren’t always necessary, how can they always have power? If someone says something you don’t like, or that you see as hurtful, be mature enough to have a discussion with them and find out what their intent really was. Sometimes it may have been to hurt someone else entirely, but their shotgun approach pulled a Cheney and hit you in the face. They need to know that.
Hell, I need to know if I do that. I’m human, I make mistakes.
If I say something that has no intent to hurt, yet you’re hurt because the words aren’t comfortable for you, tell me, please, but know that I may not apologize. I may change my behavior around you to avoid the words out of courtesy, but don’t count on that. I’ve met me. That’s just the way it is.
If you’ve given power to words to hurt you indiscriminately, you need to find out why. Some, like the word I avoid, appear to always be wrapped in odious intent, but most aren’t. Inside you is the reason you’re hurt, not inside the word.