If someone were to compile a list of common excuses that should have been apologies, “I didn’t mean it like that” would be at the top of the list. This is a rule that applies to the world at large as well as to the skeptical community. Many a conversation about the lack of women in skepticism and the pervasiveness of sexism in the environment has gone off the rails at the point where someone will point out that a certain word or behavior is sexist (or racist, or ableist, or classist, or transphobic), and the person who has uttered or performed that word or behavior insists that it’s not sexist because he or she didn’t mean it like that.
Oh, words! Always meaning things to other people that the speakers don’t mean themselves! What is a person to do?
What a person is to do is understand that language exists in a context, not a vacuum, and every time a word is uttered it carries with it not some pure, limited meaning but a complicated history full of significance and meaning that varies by person. Words that might be inoffensive in one context (like labeling a vagina in biology class) become very sexist and demeaning in another (like labeling a politician a vagina when you disagree with her politics)–and sometimes you won’t know in advance what those words and contexts are! Seems very unfair, I know, but that’s how language works. Furthermore, the intent of one person to not be sexist is not more powerful than the actuality of other people experiencing sexism, and an audience–not a speaker–decides if a word is sexist or not. And the decision of that group of people that another word is not sexist to them doesn’t mean that the word is never sexist to any other group ever. If a single woman takes offense at a remark that no other person in the world would consider sexist, that remark is still harmful to her. If you care about that single woman and you do not want to harm her, you will not repeat that remark. Her reaction to the word determines its offensiveness, not your intent to be nice when you were unknowingly hurtful.
Your intent to not be sexist doesn’t make you not sexist. Not intending to be sexist matters if someone is judging your character, but not as much as immediately trying to make amends for having been sexist if you’ve been called out for it. Apologizing immediately matters, and checking your vocabulary in the future matters, and might make your protestations about not meaning to be sexist sound believable. It won’t undo the harm you caused even inadvertently, but it can keep you from causing more harm later.
Here are some things you should not do if called out for having said something sexist that you did not intend to be sexist:
- Begin an etymological argument about how the origin of the word is not sexist.
- Accuse the listener of being too sensitive about language.
- Make a list of other words or behavior that other people do that might be sexist.
- Make a list of all the things you have done in the past to prove you couldn’t be sexist.
Wrapping the banner of I Didn’t Intend It That Way around you doesn’t make sexism within the active skeptical movement disappear, and it doesn’t make the women who want to participate in skepticism immune to its harmful effects. Protesting that you don’t intend to hurt women doesn’t mean very much if your next sentence announces your intent to keep using language you’ve just been told hurts women, especially if your third sentence attempts to portray women who have asked you to check your language as evil censors who are trying to undermine free speech. The right to use sexist language, purposefully or accidentally, is yours to claim, but it might counter your attempts to bring more women into your community. If you care more about using sexist words than you care about bringing women into skepticism, then that’s just your priority. Just realize how one affects the other.
For an even better example of how intent is irrelevant, click through to this essay, “Intent! It’s Fucking Magic!” from the blog Genderbitch: Musings of a Trans Chick. It’s what inspired the topic of this post, but Genderbitch says it better than I have, and provides charts and examples to boot!