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Intent vs. impact

Disclaimer: This musing is almost certainly naive. Nonetheless, I consider the issue worth musing on. Feel free to critique me when I deserve it, but please be moderate in your critiques.

The other day, the CS department hosted a discussion of inclusion in computing. I had many reactions to that discussion, but I think, for now, I’ll focus on one particularly useful comment I heard. Maure Smith-Benati, our Director of Intercultural Affairs, noted that there is often a gap between a speaker’s intent (I didn’t mean anything by that) and impact it has on the recipient (Wow, that hurt). Let’s consider a few examples that have come up recently, directly or indirectly.

I mis-name students much too much. This summer, I had two students who look almost nothing alike, are from different parts of the country, and who have different personalities. But I used the name of one for the other [1]. Was it intentional? No, not at first. It did become a running joke, though. I have another pair of students who I taught together in CSC 151, who both have two-syllable first names and five-syllable hyphenated last names. They are very different people. But I mis-name them, too [2]. Does it bother these students when I mis-name them. Almost certainly. If it were me, I’d ask myself, Doesn’t Sam know who I am? Doesn’t he care?

But here’s the thing, I even mis-name my children. I even mis-name them when I call them by order. I’ve referred to first as second. I’ve referred to second as third. I’ve referred to third as second and first. For whatever reason, my subconscious does not properly align people and their names [3].

I don’t think I’m alone in this. For whatever reason, it can be hard to associate the right name with the right person. But it also hurts when someone doesn’t use your correct name. It also hurts when someone doesn’t use your correct gender [4], perhaps even more, because it gets to a core part of your identity. However, as Maure said at an earlier meeting, we’ve been socialized to attach certain pronouns to certain appearances, and it takes a lot of effort to break that socialization. That’s not to say that we don’t need to do so, but that it’s hard.

Let’s consider a potentially more controversial word. Unfortunately, a few students, both male and female, sometimes refer to women using the b word. Now, I would assume that most people who do so aren’t thinking of the b word as referring to a female dog. Rather, they are using that term to mean an unpleasant person. But many women I know feel dehumanized when called that. After all, the term does mean female dog [5]. And, when dehumanized, they react with appropriate anger. Amazingly, that reaction generally does not change the speaker’s opinion.

Can we solve these gaps between intent and impact? I would hope that we could do by assuming the best in the other person. If you are mis-named or mis-gendered, assume that the person made a mistake and gently correct them. If you mis-name or mis-gender someone and they react harshly, remember that they have likely been very hurt by your mistake, even though it was not intentional, and that yours may have built on other hurts they have received. Apologize. It’s the appropriate thing to do.

What about the more complex situation? Don’t call people the b word, even though you don’t mean to dehumanize them. Understand that it’s a hurtful word. And, although I wouldn’t want to defend anyone who calls you that word, if someone does call you that, try educating them (Wow. That hurt. You do realize that you’ve just suggested that I’m just an animal and not a human.) I know it’s hard, but it’s more likely to have a lasting impact. The same applies to the too many other terms that people don’t realize are derogatory: such as gyp, guinea grinder [6], or welsh on a bet [7].

So, be generous in your reactions to others. Realize that, if push comes to shove, impact beats intent. If what you’ve said hurts someone else, even if you didn’t mean it to, you owe it to them and to yourself to apologize and to make an attempt to do better.

[1] I sometimes used the name of that one for a third student, too.

[2] And feel horrible about it when I realize that I’ve done so.

[3] I tell my students that my hash function is broken. All three children hash to male offspring. The two former CSC 151 students hash to students with two-syllable first names and five-syllable hyphenated last names and have other common characteristics.

[4] I don’t know this personally. I’m a fat, cis-gender, older male with a beard. I can’t recall being mis-gendered as an adult.

[5] Google tells me that it can also mean female fox, wolf, or otter. All of those are also dehumanizing.

[6] For those of you who were not aware, many people in Iowa refer to Italian sausage sandwiches as Guinea grinders and don’t know that that’s a slur.

[7] As far as I can tell, it’s okay to call someone slovenly, as it does not seem to have an etymology that relates it to Slovenia or to Slavic countries.

Version 1.0 of 2017-05-08.