Wednesday, May 6, 2009

On not giving the benefit of the doubt

There was an exchange recently on the adoptive forum I frequent that reminded me of many others that have occurred on this forum, usually around subjects of race. Here's what happened: Person A, who is white, posted a question using language that was less than inclusive. Person B, who also happens to be white, politely pointed out that the language was not inclusive. Person C, also white, rushed in to defend A, arguing that she didn't mean anything negative by her language and should be given the benefit of the doubt. Heated discussion between B and C ensued. Meanwhile, A, who apparently did not feel that she needed to be defended, thanked B for pointing out her how her language could be read and apologized.

This notion of intention often comes up in discussions of racism--particularly the idea that the intention behind an utterance justifies or excuses any offense it has caused--and it drives me nuts. So I started a new thread, titled "Words & Intentions," and this is what I wrote:

This conversation feels familiar. One person will say something to the effect of "I find xxx language offensive" and another will say "yes, but we should really give the benefit of the doubt to the person who said xxx, because that person did not intend any offense." I'm a little weary of this conversation, to be honest. And I think the "give benefit of the doubt" argument is problematic, in that it seeks to protect the speaker. I'd argue that it is the person HEARING the language and feeling excluded/offended/etc by it who should be the person we rush to protect.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: in conversations about race, what people hear is the language, NOT the intention. And intention, no matter how good, does not compensate for language that hurts or excludes, EVEN IF the speaker did not mean to hurt or exclude.We all need to think carefully about what we say, own what we say, and take responsibility if we misspeak. And by "take responsibility," all I mean is to briefly acknowledge, clarify, and/or apologize. This is not about punishment; it is not about shame. It is about responsibility. And it does not have to be a big deal.

By being responsible and thoughtful about our language, and responding appropriately when others feel hurt or excluded by it, we ensure that this remains a community that is inclusive and comfortable for all of us. If we can't create such a community here, we can hardly expect the world to create one for our children, now can we?

I received many lovely responses. I also received a number of responses that were extremely frustrating, if not particularly original, and almost all of them, sadly, from the same person. Can you guess who? Yes, indeed, it was Person C.

And like the original conversation, C's arguments were familiar. There was, for example, much handwringing over how considering inclusiveness in language would deter dialogue: that people wouldn't post for fear of being judged, and what about the poor people who are in a hurry and don't have time to parse their language. Then there was more handwringing over not quashing free speech, blah, blah, blah. And much, much more, some of it truly head-scratching in its illogic that had the appearance of logic...

I was truly baffled by C's response, even though it's a species of response I've seen before. Nowhere did I suggest that people censor their speech. Nowhere did I suggest that people who failed to use inclusive language would be judged, or pilloried, or assumed to be racist. What, exactly, is so threatening about inclusive language? Why the protest?

At one point, I challenged him, writing "This argument sounds alot like an argument the privileged might make to avoid acknowledging their privilege."

But is that it? Or was C's response all about B's race? Could C not understand that a white person could object to language that didn't specifically exclude her but might exclude others? Would the conversation have been different if B was black?

In the end, I'm most puzzled by C's resistance and apparent sense that something is being threatened. But what? What exactly is at stake here?


  1. Great observation, Julia. One of the striking ironies in dynamics like this is that people like C will always proclaim that "political correctness" threatens to silence dialogue. All the while it's reflexive defensive posturing that actually damns honest conversation.

    I do not think intent is completely irrelevant, though. That is why my first instinct is to ask the speaker to further clarify their statement. A third party's projection is absolutely worthless in gaining any clarity. As we know, projections are about unresolved issues we have with ourselves. Stepping in between two others in such a manner is just a way of busying ourselves away from self-examination.

  2. Carmen,
    Thanks for putting into words that bit about projection. I feel like that is one of the missing pieces to this puzzle that I couldn't quite locate.

    I think you're right that intent is not irrelevant, and I may have framed it too strongly above. It's when intent is used to excuse, without any accompanying apology or taking of responsibility that I get frustrated. And in my experience, this sort of response almost always derails an otherwise constructive conversation about race.

    Thanks again for stopping by.


  3. Now that I've found your spot, I will be stopping by regularly.

  4. So glad I found you, via ARP.

  5. mama d,
    I'm so glad that you're here and finding something that's helpful. I hope you'll stick around!


  6. So true. These sorts of A, B, C conversations usually end with me feeling defeated and slightly sick to my stomach. I can't help thinking: if this is irritating to me, how much more irritating will it feel to my son? Instead of thinking about how "PC" language might silence people, why aren't the C's of this world concerned with how non-PC language might silence and ostracize?

    I do think its a question of can be so hurtful to some (white) people to acknowledge their privilege. They want to believe that if something is not offensive to them, it is not offensive to anyone. Its hard for people that are in the majority to understand the perspectives of those in the minority...and those in the majority don't want to admit that. They don't want to believe that their experiences are not universal. The C's of the world don't want to believe that they might be benefiting (perhaps unintentionally) from the oppression of others. So they instead choose to look away and tell themselves that it isn't happening. And to silence anyone who reminds them that it is. Ugh. That obviously has been threatening to come out for awhile now.

    For the record, if I ever say something offensive, I WANT to know it so I can change!