It Doesn’t Really Matter If You Intended to Offend People; You Did

Man, it seems like everything is just so politically correct these days, am I right? You can’t make any sort of joke without some rabid social justice warrior jumping down your throat. It’s almost like people can’t take a joke anymore.

Except that’s not actually the case. People can take a joke as well as they ever did. What’s happening now is that a whole lot of things that were once considered funny are now recognized as being funny only to the cruel and ignorant.

Here’s an example from the past Christmas season. Maybe you saw the story of photographer Hannah Hawkes, who posted a picture she took of a family. The mother and daughters had their mouths taped and their hands bound with a string of Christmas lights. The little brother stood behind them with his fist raised in victory. The father held a sign saying “Peace on Earth.”

The Internet more or less flipped out and divided into two camps. On one hand were a large number of people pointing out how this image reinforced a number of very troubling attitudes about women. At the very least it pushes the old adage that women are yapping harpies bothering men with their chatter, a particularly noxious notion considering the difficulty women still have being heard professionally.

The other side, including Hawkes herself, squared their shoulders and declared it a joke. It was meant to be funny. Everyone should laugh because it was meant to be a joke.

My question is this: Why should it matter if it was meant as a joke? How does the intent of the family in question or of Hawkes change the way an image makes people feel or what it says about American society? If this photo is found hundreds of years from now by archeologists and no one is there to explain the joke, what would they think about it?

I saw this a lot in the GamerGate debacle, especially when it came down to feminist critique of video games. Bring up any sexist bit of content, and someone would rush to defend that content because the developers didn’t intend to be sexist. As if sexism or racism or any other ism can only exist as long as there is a dedicated awful person being purposely awful.

Intent is not a magic field. Director Jack Sholder didn’t intend to make the definitive gay horror film with Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge, but he did. Chris Rock didn’t mean to empower a bunch of racists with his famous “Niggas vs Black People” routine, but he did. I didn’t mean to question Barack Obama’s blackness when I quipped, “Out of the 43 men who have been president, 42.5 of them have been white,” but I did.

America has an extremely puritanical obsession with the idea of intent. It always becomes a question of good guys and bad guys. A racist is the KKK, a sexist is a wife-beater, a homophobe is someone in the Westboro Baptist Church, and so on and so on. As long as we stay on the right side of these very well-defined extremes, we can feel safe and, most important, innocent,

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Unfortunately, intent is largely meaningless next to effect. Someone may not intend anything other than a nasty laugh when he or she makes jokes about Caitlyn Jenner’s genitals or by calling her a man, but all these jokes added up over time are one of the many reasons the attempted suicide rate among transgender people is ten times higher than in the general population. Someone may not think anything of joking that Serena Williams wasn’t worth Sports Illustrated’s Sportsperson of the Year and that it should have gone to a horse instead, but the tendency to view blacks as closer to animals than whites remains a consistent problem into the modern age.

Intentional or not, certain jokes and ideas contribute to a world where things are hard and dangerous and joyless for all but a privileged few. The past seven years have seen an unprecedented social growth. Marriage equality came in like a thunderbolt; a new crop of tech-savvy feminists became public figures; we elected our first black president; and some transwomen took the spotlight as mainstream entertainment figures. The world is changing fast, and a lot of voices that were too frightened to say how much certain jokes hurt them are not taking it anymore.

Like a lot of kids, I was bullied, and I remember one thing about the bullying very clearly. Bullies like to pretend the abuse is a joke that everyone is in on. They want you to laugh at their cruelty so they can convince themselves that it is a sign of affection you welcome. Believe it or not, bullies are people who want to be liked, too. They don’t want to see themselves as the bad guy, so they need their victims to agree it’s all in good fun between friends.

I went along with that when I was a skinny Galena Park kid who couldn’t fight back. Friends of mine whom I have kept in touch with since bear deeper scars than I from slut-shaming, transphobia, racism, ableism and a variety of other tortures. At some point someone has to stand up and say, “That isn’t funny. Stop it” or it’s just going to keep on happening. The world is growing up and getting better, and if it’s going to keep on happening, some folks are just going to have to deal with the fact that their intentions are simply not as important as what their words and actions do to the people around them. 

Jef's collection of stories about vampires and drive-thru churches, The Rook Circle, is out now. You can also find him on Facebook and Twitter


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