This is an article for everyone. It’s something I really feel needs to be written and it’s something I really feel needs to be read. It’s about how we treat people.
This is an article that is sort of about black-face and sort of about cultural appropriation and sort of about people getting upset about something being “too-PC” or their freedom of speech being “restricted.” I say it’s sort of about these things because it relates to all of them and hopefully it’s perspective that enables us to realise that what we’re actually arguing about it how we treat other people.
Intention vs Interpretation
Here’s the thing: if you don’t intend for something to be sexist or racist or discriminatory, but someone who belongs to that group finds it to be so… you don’t get to say it wasn’t because you didn’t mean it like that. The intention of something is important, but people have every right to not respond to the way you acted in a different way from you intended. Just because you thought you were being complimentary, it doesn’t mean that they HAVE to interpret it as a compliment. And it doesn’t give you the right to tell them they’re wrong to feel the way they feel. Let me give you an example to illustrate this further:
Let me tell you a story. I used to have a housemate. He was a nice guy. He had good values. I really wanted to like being around him. However, every time I had friends over, he’d impose himself onto the conversation we were having, even though he didn’t know my friends and start offering everyone advice about how they should go about doing things. The fact that he had little to no experience in the matters being discussed didn’t matter, he felt that he was doing the right thing. He felt that he was helping. When I pointed out to him that I didn’t like the fact that I never got an opportunity to spend private time with my friends to catch up, that we just wanted to chill out and have a good time and not necessarily talk about heavy, difficult stuff all the time, he didn’t understand. He told me that he was just trying to help and he continued to interrupt our conversations and continued to turn conversations to heavy, difficult topics when people cam over to hang out. Eventually we had to ask him to move out. My friends stopped wanting to come over and I was stressed out all the time.
You see, he had the right intention. He wanted to help people, but when I asked him to stop because I didn’t like it and found it unsettling, he refused because he didn’t understand why I felt the way that I did. This example is an excellent analogy for what’s happening in our world at the moment. Just because you don’t understand why someone finds something offensive or why someone is asking you not to do it, it doesn’t mean that you get to decide whether or not they’re right in their request. If they feel hurt, or offended by something you didn’t intend to be offensive, it doesn’t mean they’re wrong if you don’t understand why they’re offended, it doesn’t mean they’re over sensitive. Everyone has different experiences, everyone has had different influences on how they see something. The experience that you have had in life is totally different from the experience they have had, this means that you might not be able to understand why it’s offensive because you haven’t experienced the contexts that might lead to this being offensive.
Subconscious vs. Conscious intentions
This doesn’t even take into account the fact that your conscious intention might be totally different from subconscious intentions you won’t admit to or even acknowledge. Most of us aren’t even aware that we have intentions that lie within intentions, while on the face of it we may THINK we are acting from one intention, there may be other intentions that we aren’t conscious of. An example of this might be:
Imagine someone who is single and lonely, they are in love with their best friend but they feel inadequate, maybe they think they are too fat or too ugly or not popular enough. This person really cares about their best friend, they want them to be happy. So, when their best-friend gets a girlfriend/boyfriend they feel happy for them. Their conscious intention is to support their friend. However, their unconscious intention is to be with their best friend at all costs, to undermine their new relationship to ruin it. Even if they thoroughly do not believe they intend this, their subconscious intention will affect their actions. They will unintentionally look for things wrong with the new girlfriend/boyfriend. They will unconsciously act in particular ways around them, talking to them about things that might make them insecure or relishing disagreements that may occur between the new couple.
Now this is a simple example, however, our cultural assumptions affect our subconscious on a number of levels. These affect out ideas about what is and isn’t acceptable/normal/good behaviour. These assumptions are not the way it is for everyone. Therefore if you base your ideas about what is or isn’t offensive on what your cultural assumptions are (eg. if it’s a joke it’s okay) then you might not understand why some people get offended by something that according to your cultural norms is totally okay.
Basically all I’m saying here is: if someone asks you not to do something that relates to them as an individual, a member of an ethnic group, a member of any group really, listen to them and respect their wishes. Different people from the same group may have different responses, some may be offended and some may not. The thing is, is kind of doesn’t matter. If someone asks you not to do something because they find it offensive it doesn’t matter if their friend/someone else/another guy you know said it was okay with them… because you see that’s the whole point: just because it was okay with you or someone else you know it doesn’t mean that it’s okay with EVERYONE. It also doesn’t mean that the person who was offended was wrong to feel offended. Perhaps we should just listen to why they are offended, to hear their perspective. Maybe, just maybe, it might help us start to understand their experiences and help us all to start living together a little more empathically.
You are entirely entitled to your freedom of speech, but you are also entitled to take responsibility for what you say, just as others are entitled to interpret your free speech however they choose.