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A common slogan in the social justice community is that intent is not fucking magic. Usually, people say that when someone does something oppressive, someone else calls them out on it, and the first person says “well, I didn’t mean to.” Intent is not fucking magic! If you hurt people, then they’re hurt, regardless of why!

…Except that intent kind of is fucking magic.

For instance, let’s say someone refers to me with female pronouns. Regardless, I’m misgendered, and I get that twinge of oh fuck oh fuck wrong pronoun. (It feels like being stabbed in the gut with an icicle.) But it is different if the context is:

  • My boyfriend, who knew me as “she” for a year and previously had pronouns in read-only memory;
  • A friend who is trying but still sees me as a girl;
  • A random person on the Internet who assumes I’m female because I talk about gender;
  • Someone who hates me and is deliberately misgendering me as a sign of disrespect.

The primary difference in these situations is intent. The difference in intent between “fuck, I’m used to your old pronouns” and “okay, but you’re a girl REALLY” and “I didn’t know” and “I want to hurt you.” It is reasonable for me to get more upset at someone wanting to hurt me than I am at someone making a mistake.

And you know what? If it’s an ambiguous situation, and it’s possible that they misgendered me to insult me and possible they misgendered me because they thought I was a chick, I would really appreciate it if they would clear the matter up. This is not just about their culpability, although that matters. It’s about my ability to assess how safe that person is and how much I should trust them. If you think intent shouldn’t matter, you are making it more difficult for oppressed people to distinguish people who will hurt them from people who won’t. That is the exact opposite of social justice.

Of course, I think most of the time “intent is not fucking magic!” is used when someone does a shitty thing over and over again and says “I didn’t mean to!” as if that makes it better. But you know what? If you make a sexist joke, and someone explains why that’s bad, and you make another sexist joke and then defend it with “I didn’t mean to be sexist!”, your intent was not good. If you mean well, you will act the way a well-meaning person acts.

How do well-meaning people act?

1) Apology. A real one.
2) Try to understand why the people believe that that thing was wrong.
3) Take steps to make sure that it doesn’t happen again.
3a) If you disagree that a thing was wrong, take reasonable steps to avoid doing that thing in front of people who are bothered by it.
3b) Or admit that, in fact, you DO intend to make sexist jokes and upset feminists, which at least has the virtue of being honest.

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