(Inspired by a recent, much more in-depth post over at Ana Mardoll’s place.
Say you hit me in the face.
Not that I think you would do that. I don’t even know you. You’re probably a very nice person.
But say you do.
Now, there’s a few reasons you could have done this. One is that you dislike me and want to hurt me, and that would upset me a lot. I don’t like it when people dislike me, and knowing someone wants to hurt me always makes me feel bad. I’d also probably be pretty angry, and I might want to hit you back,
Another reason could be that you were swinging your arms around. Maybe you didn’t mean to hit me, but you weren’t particularly trying NOT to either. It just didn’t matter very much to you. Your arms are yours, you’re going to swing them where you like, and if I get hit, oh well. Maybe I shouldn’t stand so close to you next time. Now, this would also upset me. I’d be angry at you for being so careless, and angrier still that if you don’t care about hitting me, you’ll probably also hit other people and not care about them either. Also, I find it really really hurtful to be told “you don’t exist, you don’t matter, you’re not real,” which is essentially what an attitude like that says.
OR. Or maybe you honestly thought the space behind you was empty when you swung your arm. Maybe you thought it was ok. Maybe you misjudged the difference between us. Maybe you have some kind of nervous twitch or instinctive reaction that causes you to swing your arm at certain times whether you mean to or not. Maybe you’re just horrified by the fact that you accidentally hit me in the face, because you totally did not mean to and in fact would have acted completely differently if you thought you would hit me. In this case, while my face would still hurt, I wouldn’t actually be upset. I might even laugh about it with you. You’d apologize of course, and I’d forgive you of course. If we’re strangers, we would both go our merry ways; if we’re friends, it might become an in-joke in later years, that time you accidentally clocked me in the face.
So let’s talk about intent.
It’s a truism in social justice circles that intent is not magic. I’ve always had a hard time with that, because of what I just wrote above – knowing someone’s intent really can make a big difference to me in how something affects me.
However, there is one common theme in all of the above scenarios. Do you know what it is? Here we go: in each of those possible interpretations, you hit me in the face.
Whether you meant to or not. Whether you felt bad or not. In all of those scenarios, you hit me. I felt pain, and you caused it. This is a thing you absolutely have to acknowledge, before we even go on to the rest of it. You have to know that you hurt me, and that it happened regardless of your intent. Without that, you can’t even apologize, I can’t forgive you, we can’t laugh about it until it’s no longer hurtful or embarrassing. That part’s gotta happen first.
Two other things about intent: I do not know what your intent is, and sometimes your intent is not what you claim or consciously think it is.
You see, when you hit me in the face, I really want to think it was an accident. Unless you prefaced it by snarling “I’m going to hit you in the face,” my brain is going to be actively looking for reasons to forgive you. Because while accidental pain still hurts, it hurts LESS than knowing someone else hated me or didn’t care enough about me to NOT hurt me.
But I don’t know, not for sure. You have to tell me. When I say “Ow! You just hit me in the face!”, you have three possible responses:
1) “Good! You deserved it!”
2) “I don’t care, and/or/because you don’t matter.”
3) “Oh my god I am so sorry!”
That’s it. Those three. Pretty much any response you think of can be boiled down to one of those.
If you respond by flat-out denying that you hurt me, or arguing that I shouldn’t feel hurt, or that you’re the real victim here (“No I didn’t!” “Oh, your face is just too sensitive, I barely touched you,” “Well how do you think I feel, having to live with the knowledge that I hit someone??”), what you’re actually saying is answer 2. If you respond by getting angry at me (“Whaddya mean, I hit you? Well, why were you standing there when you knew I was swinging my arms? You’re always making such a big deal out of nothing, I swear, I think you made me hit you on purpose”), it starts to sound an awful lot like answer 1. Even if you really, really think your action was an accident, if your response is anything but answer 3, guess what? You’re telling me something completely different.
“But what if I was making a point with all that arm-flailing, and you missed it because you were focusing on me hitting you in the face?” Well, I’m sure the point was fascinating and I’d love to hear it, but first let’s get past the fact that you hit me in the face. (And also you need to make the point without, y’know, hitting me in the face again. You’re smart, I’m sure you can find a way.)
“But what if I really do have an uncontrollable urge to flail my arm, even if someone is standing there?” That must really suck for you, and you have my sympathy. Thank you for telling me, and rest assured I will remember it and not get mad in the future. But when and if you hit me, you do have to at least acknowledge it and say sorry, and maybe we can work together on ways to minimize me getting hit so that we can continue to hang out.
“But what if you actually ARE being too sensitive, and claiming that a gentle tap hurts?” Well, that’s not really for you to decide. You can’t feel what I feel, you can only take my word for it. If your “gentle taps” hurt me, then you can’t gently tap me. Not unless you actually want to hurt me. And if roughhousing is an essential part of friendship for you and you can’t be friends with me unless you can play around in that way, well, you’re free to walk away. Not everyone is suited to be friends with everyone. Alternately, you can learn to modulate your behavior. But one way or another, you have to stop hitting me in the face. (And if everyone you know starts acting “too sensitive,” well, maybe the problem’s not with them. Just sayin’.)
And again, just because I say “Ow! You hit me in the face!” doesn’t mean I’m angry. Most of the time, I’m not – startled, maybe, and perhaps temporarily miffed (sudden pain does that to me), but not actually angry. I don’t need you to feel bad, I don’t need you to grovel, I don’t need you to vanish away in a cloud of self-flagellation. I do need you to acknowledge that it happened, reassure me that you didn’t mean to and wish you hadn’t, and get at least the vague impression that you’re going to try to not do so again in the future. That’s it. You can do that in, like, a sentence. Watch: “Sorry, I didn’t mean to hit you, I’ll look first next time!” Done. And we can both move on and not make it into a thing. No anger, no hurt feelings.
But the ball’s in your court. If you really think you should be forgiven because your intentions were pure – demonstrate that to me, by reacting the way someone with good intentions should react.