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Harassment and Intent: Once More Unto the Breach July 10, 2012

Posted by Alex Bove in Culture and Society, Skepticism and atheism.
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I wanted to piggyback a bit off of Shaun’s recent post about shame and shaming. In the comments section, Shaun wrote:

My point was that the emotional shame we feel is often caused by actions which do not seek to cause shaming. I didn’t see the OP making the distinction between the two, so wanted to make sure that this was not another call for people to stop criticizing other people because it might hurt their feelings.

The potential disparity between the intent of a statement or act and its effect on the statement/act’s recipient is, I think, a key factor in most breakdowns in communication. I also think that several of the conversations on this blog and others in the past couple of months have not fully acknowledged the elephant in the room. Charlie Glickman recently wrote his response to the skeptical con sexual “harassment” kerfuffle, and (as I pretty much think of all of Glickman’s writing) he’s spot on.

What this situation brings up for me is the fact that there’s a big difference between doing something to deliberately and maliciously harass someone and offering an unwanted invitation or attention.

Of course, one of the big problems here is that we can’t always know what someone’s intention is in a given social interaction. They might not even fully understand their intention themselves. In addition, when someone says he/she felt “harassed,” we have to take their word for it. I’m not sure we can devise a set of rules that would objectively determine what constitutes harassment in all circumstances, and possibly not even in most. And even if we had such a set of rules, and saw people acting according to them, that still wouldn’t solve the problems because, as we’re all fond of saying around here, context matters. A lot.

While these folks’ actions weren’t appropriate in this setting, I can think of quite a few situations in which it would have been perfectly acceptable to do what they did. Swingers conventions and kink conferences both come to mind. Non-conference events like sex parties or clubs are also places where one might offer a card like theirs and walk away. For that matter, so is Folsom St. Fair. And those are also places where it very well might be “appropriate to hand someone an invitation to group sex if you haven’t already had or discussed having sex.”

I do worry about the possible sex-negativity of Elysa Anders’ characterization of her encounter at Skepticamp Ohio. Anders clearly finds the sexual nature of the invitation upsetting, not necessarily its social nature. She has subsequently said that she became friends with the “sex card” couple of Facebook prior to the encounter, which does not mean she wanted any more than a casual social relationship with them but does mean that she was not opposed to interacting with them in non-sexual ways, despite their status as relative strangers. The fact that adding the possibility of sex into a social situation is always seen as problematic (or its not being problematic is the very rare exception to the rule) suggests a cultural discomfort with the notion of sex as a relatively harmless social activity. I find that assumption to be sex negative.

I want to be clear about what I’m saying here. It seems fairly clear that the couple’s behavior violated the conference’s harassment policy, and I think it was an inappropriate thing for them to do in that context. However, I also think it’s possible that they’re simply the kind of people who see no harm in propositioning relative strangers for sex (i.e. their intent was not to harass). I’m not saying that their intention trumps (or invalidates) Anders’ reaction, but I think it’s also problematic for the reverse to be true. A person’s perception of being harassed is, of course, real to that person, regardless of the “harassing” person’s intent. But I also think that Glickman is right to say that it’s important to work “with people to distinguish between ‘this person did this thing’ and ‘I feel this way about it.'” Sometimes the gap between what a person did and how we felt about it is minute; sometimes it’s wider. Assuming it’s always one or the other gets us into unnecessary trouble. And though we should probably err on the side of caution, that doesn’t mean we’re inerrant.

Finally, Glickman suggests a four-part sequence of events between what happens and how we react:

  • Some event happens, whether by a person’s actions or chance.
  • We filter it through our experience and decide what we think it means.
  • We have an emotional response based on our interpretation of that meaning.
  • Our feelings shape how we respond to the event.

When a social encounter results in one party feeling uncomfortable, harassed, etc., I think it’s important for both parties to consider this chain of events. What in each person’s experience made them believe the interaction had a certain emotional tenor? Is it possible that they’ve both “read” the situation incorrectly? Have they both read it correctly and one person really is being an asshole? Under what circumstances would the same behavior in a different context be (or not be) offensive/harassing? In all cases, I’d argue that assuming both parties are operating in good faith is a better default position than being preemptively distrustful/cynical/defensive.

Glickman also suggests that if we hurt someone, regardless of our intent, we should be willing to “apologize and make amends,” and I think this is good advice as well. One of the reasons I think this discussion has taken some ugly turns in the blogosphere is that several writers (mostly men) have essentially said that the “offending” parties in these examples ought not to apologize for their actions. I don’t really understand this position. If you’ve hurt someone, it doesn’t really matter if you meant to hurt them. They’ve been hurt. That hurt exists, even if you believe they’re being irrational. You can, of course, choose not to apologize. You can say, “it’s your fault for misinterpreting my intent; I didn’t do anything wrong, so I won’t apologize for your reaction,” but that’s childish and staggeringly arrogant (it implies that you couldn’t possibly be wrong, for starters). I don’t think childishness and arrogance are good methods of having productive social encounters/relationships.

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1. wfenza - July 10, 2012

I’ve sort of avoided discussion the intent/effect divide in communications, mostly because I want to avoid the intent is magic fallacy (note to logic nerds: not a real fallacy), and partly because I don’t think it matters.

In the law, when we talk about an intentional action, we’re not talking about the effect of such action. We’re just talking about whether you made the conscious decision to do it or not (as in, it wasn’t an involuntary spasm, you don’t have tourrette’s syndrome, etc.). I think the distinction between intentional/not intentional beyond that is kind of useless. Nobody but the biggest assholes make it their goal to cause people to be uncomfortable, and those people don’t really seem to be the subject of most of the conversations on this topic.

The law focuses most of its attention (when we’re talking about negligence, anyway) on the foreseeability of harm, and what a reasonable person would do. I find this a more useful way to look at it. From that perspective, you stop asking “did they mean to do harm?” and you start asking “did they, or should they have known that their actions would cause harm, and should they have acted differently?”

Also, I vehemently disagree with your assertion that

If you’ve hurt someone, it doesn’t really matter if you meant to hurt them. They’ve been hurt. That hurt exists, even if you believe they’re being irrational. You can, of course, choose not to apologize. You can say, “it’s your fault for misinterpreting my intent; I didn’t do anything wrong, so I won’t apologize for your reaction,” but that’s childish and staggeringly arrogant (it implies that you couldn’t possibly be wrong, for starters)

If you’ve hurt someone, a reflexive apology, regardless of where you actually place fault in the situation, makes you dishonest. And moreover, it makes your apology essentially meaningless. To have any meaning, an apology has to be an expression of regret. It has to mean “if I could do it over, I would make a different choice.” Otherwise, what does it mean? All it means in your circumstance is that you wish the situation turned out differently. It does not acknowledge your bad decision which led to the outcome. However, you know (or should know) that the person is going to interpret it as an admission of wrongdoing. If you don’t mean it that way, then you are lying to that person.

A refusal to apologize doesn’t imply that “you couldn’t possibly be wrong.” It implies that you don’t think you’re wrong. It says nothing about your level of certainty. Encouraging people to apologize whenever anyone has been hurt, regardless of their assessment of fault, might lead to better social cohesion, but it’s at the expense of honesty.

2. Alex - July 10, 2012

To have any meaning, an apology has to be an expression of regret. It has to mean “if I could do it over, I would make a different choice.” Otherwise, what does it mean? All it means in your circumstance is that you wish the situation turned out differently.

My dictionary says that an apology is “a written or spoken expression of one’s regret, remorse, or sorrow for having insulted, failed, injured, or wronged another.” The regret is not for the thing one did but for having insulted, failed, etc. the other person. In other words, an apology is about the state of the relationship as it currently exists (i.e. fractured because one party is aggrieved), not about what has already happened, which can’t be undone (so one’s desire to have done it differently, if given the chance, is irrelevant).

An apology doesn’t necessarily mean one thinks one is wrong. It means one regrets their role in the social interaction/relationship having gone awry. Your statement that “you know (or should know) that the person is going to interpret it as an admission of wrongdoing” strikes me as a bit of projection. Whether and/or to what extent the other person assigns “wrongdoing” would never factor into my decision to offer an apology since I try not to assume what other people are thinking. But so what if they think you’re wrong? What matters, if it matters to you, is that the relationship is mended.

Also, I don’t see this as a zero-sum game (you may not either: I’m not sure). I think there’s room between “I was completely wrong and take back every word of it because it hurt your feelings”–which might cause one to be dishonest about one’s own true views/feelings–and “I believe what I said/did was right, so I couldn’t possibly apologize since it’s your fault you reacted that way”–which might reflect your view of the rightness of your position (a sort of “honesty,” I suppose) but says nothing about the actual social situation you’ve found yourself in, and shows little to no regard for the other person’s valid feelings (they’re valid because you don’t get to decide whether or not someone else’s feelings are valid).

I think there’s room for an apology that says that you still believe what you believe but you realize that your actions/words in pursuit of those beliefs have hurt someone and you feel sorry about that hurt, and your role in it (and you’ll try to find ways to say/do what you mean/desire in less hurtful ways in the future).

3. Alex - July 10, 2012

Also, viz a viz the “foreseeability of harm,” if I speak/act in a way that is honest for me but that I think will likely cause someone else’s feelings to be hurt, and that person’s feelings are hurt, haven’t I erred? In that case, don’t I owe that person an apology?

Actually, even if I don’t think my words/actions will cause the person’s feelings to be hurt and their feelings are hurt, I would still have erred because the act of attempting to “foresee” harm is an act of virtual mind-reading. If the other person’s reaction does not match my assumption about what their reaction would/should have been, I’ve misread/misjudged them. In that case, I’m still at fault, at least partially.

4. wfenza - July 10, 2012

I think there’s room for an apology that says that you still believe what you believe but you realize that your actions/words in pursuit of those beliefs have hurt someone and you feel sorry about that hurt, and your role in it (and you’ll try to find ways to say/do what you mean/desire in less hurtful ways in the future).

That seems to just be another way of saying “if I could do it over, I would make a different choice,” albeit in a more forward-looking way. In that sense, the meaning of the apology comes from your commitment to behave differently in the future. Implicit in that is the idea that you’ve evaluated your behavior, and you’ve concluded that you made a bad decision. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t be committing to changing your behavior in the future.

To me, an apology is a big deal. I feel that they should be heartfelt and rare. Because really, how often do we actually question our own behavior and commit to doing thing differently in the future? In your world, apologies are automatic whenever anyone’s feelings are hurt. If an apology is automatic, it is essentially meaningless.

…shows little to no regard for the other person’s valid feelings (they’re valid because you don’t get to decide whether or not someone else’s feelings are valid).

Since we’re playing the dictionary game, “valid” is defined as “sound; just; well-founded.” Please explain to me how an emotion can be either valid or invalid.

Whether and/or to what extent the other person assigns “wrongdoing” would never factor into my decision to offer an apology since I try not to assume what other people are thinking.

Umm… I think you’re missing the point of communication. Every attempt at communication relies on the assumption that the other person understands what you’re saying (or at least part of it). If you have reason to know that the other person is reasonably interpreting your statements in a way differently from how you mean them, and you fail to correct that interpretation, you are being dishonest.

Also, I don’t see this as a zero-sum game (you may not either: I’m not sure). I think there’s room between “I was completely wrong and take back every word of it because it hurt your feelings”–which might cause one to be dishonest about one’s own true views/feelings–and “I believe what I said/did was right, so I couldn’t possibly apologize since it’s your fault you reacted that way”

Correct. You can make a heartfelt apology for only the portion of the behavior that you think was wrong. This seems non-controversial.

f I speak/act in a way that is honest for me but that I think will likely cause someone else’s feelings to be hurt, and that person’s feelings are hurt, haven’t I erred?

Only if you believe that hurting someone’s feelings is always wrong. If I say, for instance, that all people who have faith are delusional, that’s likely to hurt someone’s feelings. No way in hell will I be apologizing for it, no matter how much pain it caused. As I’ve said in the past, hurting someone’s feelings by telling them the truth is a brave and awesome thing to do. I won’t apologize, because I see nothing wrong with what I’ve said, and I have no intention of changing my behavior in the future. Do you really think I should apologize anyway? Do you find my refusal to apologize childish and arrogant?

5. Alex - July 10, 2012

I think if you speak what you believe is the truth, understanding that it might hurt people’s feelings, and you actually hurt people’s feelings, you should only apologize if you value the relationships you’ve lost by being so strident. And I say this as a person who has lost many relationships by being strident.

We also both know that there’s a difference (a big difference, in my estimation) between saying/doing something in a public forum, where it is likely that almost any strongly held belief will cause someone offense–and where, consequently, one probably ought to apologize only if one alienates most or all of his/her audience (people whose deeply held beliefs are completely immune to any social influence and/or any revision based on the emergence of new ideas/information are called fanatics, and people who say they don’t care what their audience thinks should ask themselves why they’re bothering to speak to an audience at all)–and hurting an individual’s feelings.

Saying something, no matter how honest one thinks it is, to an individual when one knows it will hurt that person’s feelings is cruel. We might be able to think of situations where such cruelty is justified (a drug intervention, for example), but that doesn’t make the telling any less cruel. Even in that case, I would advocate that the intervening person say they are sorry to have to be so cruel but that the cruelty is necessary.

You said yourself that “nobody but the biggest assholes make it their goal to cause people to be uncomfortable.” One can’t be both “brave and awesome” and a big asshole at the same time, can they?

6. wfenza - July 10, 2012

I think if you speak what you believe is the truth, understanding that it might hurt people’s feelings, and you actually hurt people’s feelings, you should only apologize if you value the relationships you’ve lost by being so strident.

I think you forgot the second half of that phrase. It should read “…if you value the relationships you’ve lost by being so strident more than you value honesty in your relationships.” Apparently, if you believe something hurtful about a person, the way you handle this is by keeping your belief a secret?

Saying something, no matter how honest one thinks it is, to an individual when one knows it will hurt that person’s feelings is cruel.

Well… I suppose that depends on what you mean by “cruel.” If you mean “willfully or knowingly causing pain or distress to others” then… yes, you’ve successfully made a tautological statement. If you mean “enjoying the pain or distress of others” then you’re absolutely wrong. Either way, I don’t know what you’re getting at.

Even in that case, I would advocate that the intervening person say they are sorry to have to be so cruel but that the cruelty is necessary.

This is exactly the situation in which we disagree. “I’m sorry to have been so cruel, but it was necessary” is the classic non-apology apology. You’re basically saying “I’m not actually sorry, but I’m going to say I am to placate you.” It’s patronizing, and it shows a real lack of respect. From Wikipedia:

<blockquoteThe classic "non-apology" is something like "I'm sorry you're upset, but if you're too stupid to understand, there's not much I can do!" – or a form of words that gives this kind of impression. "I'm sorry that you were upset" – or, worse, "I'm sorry that you took offense at my remarks" can have this effect, and can compound the problem further, or cause further offense. In effect one is expressing regret for the actions of the person we are "apologising" to – effectively turning the apology on its head!

This seems to be exactly what you’re advocating.

You said yourself that “nobody but the biggest assholes make it their goal to cause people to be uncomfortable.” One can’t be both “brave and awesome” and a big asshole at the same time, can they?

Are you seriously not understanding the difference between being honest with someone, which has the effect of hurting their feelings, and purposefully setting out to hurt someone’s feelings? Telling the truth, when you know it’s going to hurt someone’s feelings, is a really difficult thing to do. But it’s still the right thing to do. Lying in order to spare someone’s feelings is one of the most unkind things you can do to someone. In effect, you’re making the decision for them, without their input, that they can’t handle the truth. It’s not something you do to someone that you respect.

7. wfenza - July 10, 2012

Ack… some formatting issues there…

8. Alex - July 10, 2012

It would be nice if we could edit comments. Why can’t we do that?

9. wfenza - July 11, 2012

I blame Shaun.

10. Alex - July 11, 2012

Yeah. That way neither of us has to apologize.

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