[Content note: abuse and rape apologism, child rape]
When I was in graduate school, I took a class on literary criticism. My teacher was a British man who has studied and taught at major universities in both the UK and Australia before landing in Waco, TX. He taught the class moving from New Criticism forward (about 1960 to present), and it was simultaneously one of the hardest and best classes I’ve ever taken. Because we spent so much of our time using literary theory to read and interpret popular culture, I felt right at home using what I learned in class to discuss what I saw in my favorite TV shows and movies. It changed how I take in culture and how I interpret the narratives I see in my life.
One of the theories we were introduced to was “Reader Response.” The main takeaway of this theory is that once the text exists as an independent thing, the author’s intent matters very little. You can read historical context and discuss the theory of what he was trying to say, but you have to give primacy to how it is received by the reader – you – and what you’ve brought to the text. How a reader responds to a piece minimizes the intent the author had in promulgating the piece in the first place.
There are parts of this theory I’m uncomfortable with – I do think intent is important when misinterpretation of the work happens – but I agree with the idea that the influence of authorial intent can only take us so far. Because of all the different things readers bring to table, we as writers need to be intensely aware of the ongoing conversation to which we contribute before we spout off thoughts. And we need to remember that once a reader has our words, our intent matters very little.
On Friday night, at about 8PM, the Washington Post snuck an op-ed online that they seemed to think no one would notice – which, y’know, Bad Idea. The post used the recent case of Cherice Morales, a 16 year old girl who committed suicide after being raped multiple times by her 49 year old teacher (she was 14 at the time of the assault). The piece implied that Morales’s suicide occurred not because of her assault, but because of the delay in the court proceedings. The author also cited her own childhood – when her teen friends engaged in sexual relationships with teachers and it was FINE – as a barometer for proposing that we need to reexamine how we prosecute and handle underage rape cases, particularly those of teachers and students.
Predictably, the internet exploded, and the author – B Karasik, or @PaintsNature on Twitter – began to engage in various silencing and gaslighting techniques in response. She cycled through them all – “you aren’t being civil/rational,” and “you’re being too emotional!” and “no one wants to discuss the facts!” And yet, most prominently, “It wasn’t my INTENT.”*
Karasik is learning the hard way (or, at least, I hope she’s learning, though her twitter feed seems to indicate not) that intent isn’t magical, that what you intended your words to mean and how your words were received are two different things, and regardless of how legitimate you feel the response is, you need to examine it closely, especially if people are hurt.
This, of course, requires that you actually, readily, believe that hurt has occurred, which is, I often find, the first hurdle in getting rid of the “that’s not what I meant!” defense. In American culture, we seem to think that having the best intentions means that our outcomes can’t possibly be bad. “I didn’t mean to hurt you” is a convenient shield behind which your ignorance can stay the same and hurt magically disappears.
Except it doesn’t work that way.
When I was living in Waco, a friend came to visit, and since I didn’t have a car of my own, I rented one and drove up to DFW to pick her up. When I dropped her off a few days later, I managed to get myself totally lost in Ft. Worth in my attempts to get to I-35 so I could drive south to home.
Now, if you’ve never been to Texas, there’s one thing you have to know – instead of on ramps and off ramps to get on the interstate, Texas has frontage roads. These roads run alongside the freeway and have tiny feeder roads that shift traffic over onto the interstate every so often. These frontage roads function as regular streets, too, with businesses all along them. It can be very confusing if you’re a transplant.
So, I’m driving around downtown Ft. Worth, and I finally, FINALLY, spot the interstate. But I’m on a frontage road. So I’m driving along and traffic begins to shift and I think that I’m coming up on the feeder road. I start speeding up.
Next thing I know, a motorcycle cop is behind me with his lights and siren going. I pull over and explain that I was only speeding because I thought I was coming to the interstate access. I wasn’t. I got a $75 ticket.
You see, I didn’t intend to speed, but the reality is that I did. I deserved that ticket, even though I had zero intent of driving dangerously and was just trying to get home. The reality of what actually happened and what my intent in the situation was were two completely different things. And reality – the police officer’s response to my actions – is what takes precedent.
Similarly, writers – your intent may not be to contribute in harmful or hurtful ways, but if you’re not aware of your surroundings (and sometimes even when you are!), you can still end up creating a reality that is different from what you intended.
Intent isn’t magical, and neither are your excuses.
*I actually wrote this piece prior to the Postsecret flap yesterday, but the same argument can be made there. I had a number of people in my mentions on Twitter saying "Frank means well!" which...means nothing when the result is the perpetuation of attitudes that see violence against women as a game or an object lesson, rather than a lived reality.