Intent v impact?

Six years ago I wrote this:

Browsing on the internet this week I seem to have read a lot about misunderstandings.

They happen every day. We rarely see the world from someone else’s perspective. If we are lucky we occasionally share random points of view.

I thought this:

“impact is more important than intent—whether we meant to hurt is not really the point. It’s how our actions were felt by the other person”

was such a neat way of describing the dichotomy where someone is insulted/offended by words that were never meant to do so. (Credit for the quote to Bird, which in its original context was in relation to sexual harassment training).

It’s hard to apologise when you never intended to do anything wrong. But when you have been hurt and that’s not acknowledged at all, it’s even harder. It stays with you and colours your view of people you once thought were friends.

I know. I’ve been in both positions. I wish I didn’t get it wrong. But I also wish people didn’t get it wrong with me too.

Lack of communication and honesty ruins relationships of all sorts. It would be nice if we could trust people enough to be honest with them, to say when we are offended, to say what we really think. But it doesn’t happen. And another relationship falls off the end.

Sirius picked up on the issue of intent this week, in relation to sexism.

But rather than start with sexism and feminism, let’s look at a couple of other minority groups that are discriminated against.

Over on Sirious’ blog, Ruth related a tale of years ago being pulled up for saying coloured people, in her ignorance, instead of black people.

I was brought up in a racist sexist environment. When we went to a local rugby match and the black player got the ball, one of our friends yelled: ‘Give ’im a banana!’ And of course we laughed.

When a tall black man with dreadlocks approached me in a quiet car park, I wondered whether he was going to mug me, rape me or knife me. I looked around. No one to help me. He offered me his car parking ticket because the time hadn’t been used up. I was no longer a teenager at a rugby match, I was a career woman in my thirties, and realised just then, how horribly racist I still was, even though I professed not to be.

In the same job, I was increasingly concerned about how disabled women were being treated for screening services.

One of my male colleagues had told a female one that if a disabled woman in a nursing home refused cervical screening she should be sedated.

There are a couple of sexist issues in this.

The first, obvious one, is that all women have the right to refuse cervical screening. It is not compulsory. It is not up to a male doctor to make that decision for anyone.

Secondly, my colleague in charge of nursing homes chose not to ask me about the policy. I was in charge of cervical screening. I knew the national policy, legislation, and procedures inside out and upside down. I chaired our local cervical screening quality assurance group which included surgeons, GPs and pathologists.

So why did my colleague choose a male doctor who had no specialist knowledge of the subject instead of me, as the policy lead? We haven’t just got implicit sexism here, we’ve also got differential knowledge, ie that ‘doctor must know best’. Or maybe we just had workplace competition between women?

While chairing breast screening meetings I listened to the radiographers refer to women as wheelchair-bound. This is a non-starter. The intent of the radiographers was good, they wanted to provide the service to women using wheelchairs, but the whole approach was of dealing with a difficult problem rather than thinking about it from the perspective of the women.

I called a meeting, jointly with a colleague who worked with disability groups. It was a fucking disaster. What I intended to do, was to get the patient perspective across so that I could get the clinical side to approach breast and cervical from the women’s perspective. But the best-laid plans of mice and women …

What actually happened was that a formal complaint was sent in against me and I had to go on a disability awareness course. Which was really interesting and involved two days out of the office at a seaside hotel.

However, back to the meeting. I wanted to improve the service for disabled women. I wanted their views on how to do this. I wanted to get the radiographers to change their language and not treat disabled women as second class citizens.

The first disaster was a room change. The reception staff swapped us around at the last minute so we ended up with a smaller meeting room. No double doors. Piled high with junk around the edges. Absolute manna for an irate woman in a wheelchair who took at least ten minutes to be able to get into the room, let alone to the table.

My good friend the radiographer provided the next minefield. Every time she referred to wheelchair-bound ladies, I wanted to dive underneath the desk. My local disability rights activist in the wheelchair criticised everything. Especially me. I seriously wondered why the hell I had bothered.

But, what were the lessons?

Did I have the right intent? I think so, to improve the services for disabled women, and to get their view, not just what I thought was needed.

Did I use inappropriate or discriminatory language? I doubt it very much.

Did I stuff up with the room booking? Originally no. I had booked the main conference room with double doors. But, the rooms were changed for a ‘more important’ meeting. Should I have kicked up a fuss? I didn’t. Pragmatically in terms of politics that was the right decision. Ms Disability Activist was going to complain about something regardless. From the POV of someone in a wheelchair, she was being discriminated against.

Was our policy of room bookings wrong and discriminatory? I think so. But are poorly-paid reception staff expected to deal with the finer political power play points? No.

Was I misinterpreted/misunderstood? Of course. Or so I would say.

Was the awareness course worthwhile? Very much so. The politics around disability were interesting, and I was interested to see how, as in many cases, disability came before feminism.

So let’s return to feminism.

It’s easier to point out discrimination when there is a physical perspective. That person is in a wheelchair, has a white stick/guide dog/ hearing dog, has a different colour skin.

What isn’t so easy, is when discrimination is based on 50% of the population and is aimed at every essence of her being.

It’s not as easy as changing buildings to make sure wheelchairs can enter, or paving stones so that blind people can tell the difference, providing audio tapes or Braille, or remembering to caption blog photos so that software can read it out to people who can’t see.

Would people still laugh these days at ‘Give him a banana’? Maybe they would in working-class Yorkshire. Or would it even be said? more to the point.

Yet, we still laugh at sexist jokes and comments. Because it is still ok to put women down.

Years back, I read a great book about discrimination. The one comment that stayed with me was about how we treat children, or, rather babies/toddlers. Not just the whole colour-coded pink/blue thing, but how we react to and with them.

The example given was of lifting a little boy to the window and showing him the big wide world. For the little girl, she was told to be good and sit in the corner and wait while the world came to her. If it ever did.

But so starts our indoctrination. From childhood about not just our own role in the world, but that of others. Girls do this, boys do that. Or rather boys do this and girls wait nicely to be told what to do.

And it continues though life. We make jokes about ugly women because a woman’s role in life is to look decorative aka sexually attractive.

When we see or hear women reinforcing patriarchal stereotypes then we know we aren’t being sexist, because other women think the same as us, right? Wrong. Women are just as unwittingly sexist as men.

Ever used gender specific language? OK to call a man a chairman because he’s a man? But, maybe think more carefully about a woman? Because, by now, you are aware of the whole language thing. Why not call both a chair? Because every time you call that man a chairman you are reinforcing gender specific assumptions.

It’s not easy is it?

You can support equality from here to Timbuktu and in the next breath, you will come out with one gloriously, funny, hateful sexist comment. Without even realising it.

Before you deny that you are sexist, racist, ableist etcist, stop and listen to what the other person is saying.

I can’t speak for black people, people with disabilities, with diabetes, or even older people (getting there though).

I can, and will speak for women.

Earlier posts:


About roughseasinthemed

I write about my life as an English person living in Spain and Gibraltar, on Roughseas, subjects range from politics and current developments in Gib to book reviews, cooking and getting on with life. My views and thoughts on a variety of topics - depending on my mood of the day - can be found over on Clouds. A few pix are over on Everypic - although it is not a photoblog. And of course my dog had his own blog, but most of you knew that anyway. Pippadogblog etc
This entry was posted in Atheism, blogging, feminism, gender-specific language, Longreads, Religion, WPlongform. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Intent v impact?

  1. davidprosser says:

    I was going to suggest I may stay healthier if I carried a pad and pen and pretended to be unable to talk.It hasn’t escaped my notice however that I’m just as likely to write the same thing I’d say and then there’s no chance of denying it in court.
    Now of course I can claim senility anyway but before someone my age jumps down my throat for that, it was a joke.
    Let me just apologise in advance to everyone for anything I say and remind you all, I didn’t mean it the way it sounded.
    xxx Huge Hugs xxx


    • I think you are one of the most generous-hearted people around David. And what all of us should learn, and accept, is that we will get it wrong. But when we do, is it so hard to learn, and try not to repeat it?


  2. makagutu says:

    My intentions are always noble, the impact I can hardly ever tell, but would readily make amends if it is pointed out I had crossed the line, real or imaginary


  3. Ruth says:

    The more things change, the more they stay the same. Yes, we will all inevitably get it wrong sometimes. Mistakes are awfully good teachers.


  4. EllaDee says:

    During the week I attended an Occupational Health & Safety and Work Health & Safety (I think that’s right it was called EEO/WHS and described as “training on equal employment opportunity, work health & safety, diversity and workplace behavior”.
    One of the things I got from it was about intent, e.g. if someone sends using a office email what they contend is a humorous email accidentally to all users rather than an intended specific recipient and any of that intended or any unintended recipients are offended by unintended inappropriate content then it’s the sender who’s culpable, and who needs to make suitable rectification. It’s the impact that counts.
    Your example was very interesting – you didn’t intend to offend but were still held responsible. I wonder if anything could have been done to avert the outcome. Possibly not.
    My downfall is my tone of voice apparently… my stepmother was always commenting on it unfavorably… it’s rarely my intent to sound short. And when I deliberately do, my tone is in a much different league.
    I think it comes to if I offend without intent then I am a truly contrite and do my best to make amends. If I’m not, I try not to make my offense personal. If I’m wrong, I endeavor to not repeat that action.


    • Your office course was interesting. Or rather, sounds interesting. Mainly because it’s badically bearing out what I’m saying. Gone are the days when people say at work, get over it. Unless it’s a building site of course, the last bastion of change.

      The disabled activist was a well-known thorn in everyone’s side. When my director was telling me about her complaint, he said she’d bleated about him too and he’d been on a course! Either that or he was trying to make me feel better. One of the points about being a senior manager is that sometimes you know when to argue and when not. As I said, two days out of the office at the seaside …

      I know I sound short, and I’ve rarely got the patience to explain what—to me—is blindingly obvious. I think apologies are called for when someone is offended, and lessons to learn. So we agree on that. But, as ever, not everyone does.

      ‘Well I didn’t mean …’

      ‘I’m sorry IF you are offended …’ when it’s patently obvious they are.

      Work is one thing, it provides us with an income, but why not apply those rules socially on the Internet instead of, as many do, dismissing it as political correctness.


  5. disperser says:

    Nicely said, my good man!

    I think I am fairly aware of the implications of gender-specific words. I guess rarely a few might slip through, but it’s odd to imply that because of it one is sexist.

    That’s like saying someone is a meat-eater because they unintentionally ate some meat.

    Or calling me a vegetarian because I had a salad, pasta, and a sweet potato for dinner.

    I usually say I don’t drink . . . but I do have four ounces of wine 2-3 times a week.

    It’s not to relax me, betting a buzz, or even enjoying it. It’s supposedly healthy, so I guzzle it down and move on with my life. I still identify myself as a non-drinker, and would never consider going out for a drink, going to a bar, or setting time aside to enjoy a drink.

    If someone does occasionally slip (not pay attention and be uber-aware), I don’t think it’s reasonable to label them as sexist, racist, or any particular other -ist. They just slipped.

    In that respect, I have to go with intent as being the overriding factor.


    • It’s not just about gender specific language. It’s also about unfunny supposed jokes, and when pointing out they aren’t funny, being told you haven’t a sense of humour. Or you are being too sensitive. Both accusations levelled at women. Does anyone tell black men they have no sense of humour or are too sensitive if they complain about racism?

      But I guess you’ll know about that, my wop friend.


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