No one ever wants to be the baddie

Image by the brilliant Stuart F Taylor

I’ve had a lot of internet fights in my time. I cut my teeth on an incredibly racist and misogynist forum back in the days before Twitter, then I joined Twitter, then I started to blog. Fight after fight after fight – I’ve kicked off at so many people! People who were causing harm, and others who were trying to tell me that I was causing harm. Sometimes I’ve argued well, sometimes badly. Sometimes I am right, often wrong. Some things I’ve said have been justified, others terrible. You get the idea. At no point during any of these fights did I ever intend to cause harm. But that doesn’t mean no harm was ever caused.

Assume good intentions

No one ever wants to be the ‘baddie.’ As a general rule, most of us are just trying to get through our lives without harming anyone or letting others do harm to us. I tend to assume that the majority of people are decent and trying to be kind because… well… they are. Really. Even the people I profoundly disagree with aren’t finishing their angry comments then opening a secret trapdoor and sliding down into their supervillain lair to rub their hands with glee and cackle ‘Ha! That’ll show those GOODIES who’s boss! Mwa ha ha!’

People, generally, want to be nice. They do not intend to cause harm.

And yet they do. We do. I do.

A few years ago, when there was a lot of drama kicking off in the sex blogging community about various different topics, Dangerous Lilly (who is not writing at the moment but has a fantastic archive that you should check out) had the mantra: ‘assume good intentions.’ Particularly in the sex blogging space, where bloggers often clash over political or practical issues: assume good intentions. Those of us who blog about sex are trying to navigate a complex world, and we are often at the forefront of issues which the ‘mainstream’ media is either dipping its toe into and failing to understand (like Sesta/Fosta) or fucking up on an epically harmful scale (like the way the UK media vilifies, demonises and dehumanises trans people). In a world that is hard to navigate, we can build stronger communities if we assume the people in those communities have good intentions.

It’s really hard to do this with people I think are out-and-out dickheads, with whom I have nothing whatsoever in common or who I don’t know from Adam. It’s easier to do this when I’m talking to other sex bloggers, especially if I have admired/liked/met/worked with/chatted to them before. Assume good intentions: I don’t always do it well, but I usually try to remember that no one ever wants to be the ‘baddie.’ None of us intend to do harm.

I explain this only because I want you to know where I’m coming from when I talk about the following…

Impact vs intent

I think most sex bloggers will agree that they are not actively trying to do harm. In fact, whenever discussions pop up about this or that disagreement within the community, some of the most common refrains are along the lines of: ‘I had good intentions.’

‘You know I don’t mean to hurt you!’

‘Can you please understand that I’m trying my best?’

‘I would never deliberately cause you harm.’

The obvious response to this is ‘of course not! I don’t think you meant to cause harm!’ It’s a nice thing to hear. In the past, when I have fucked things up, I have had people tell me I am an appalling person at the same time as others have reassured: ‘you’re a good person, I know you didn’t mean this.’ Naturally I latch onto the latter answer and hug it tight to my chest to try and stave off the anxious voice in the back of my mind which instinctively tells me I’m the former. I’m a terrible person who did an unforgivable thing.

But weirdly, focusing on either of these answers (the good OR the bad) isn’t helpful. What’s useful for me to know, to avoid causing harm next time, has nothing to do with the inside of my head and everything to do with the world outside it: with the person/people I have harmed. My intent does not matter. This isn’t about my feelings or motivations. I mean that not in an emotional sense but in the strictest, most boring and rational one – my intent doesn’t matter, because even the best intentions were not enough to prevent me from causing the harm.

In a world where our baseline is to assume good intentions, when someone says ‘you harmed me’, a response of ‘but I didn’t intend to!’ is meaningless. You may not have meant to, but you did. Your intent is only relevant if you actually did mean harm – if you didn’t, then you’re the baseline.

If we can cause harm even with brilliant intentions, how can we stop ourselves from causing harm in future? The only possible answer is to set intent aside and look instead at impact.

Consider all the people who have hurt you in your everyday life: the ones who have pushed you out of the way to get on the tube, the ones who have elbowed you in the face at concerts or watched as their children pushed yours over in the playground or dented your car. Picture all the people who you’re angry and frustrated with because they hurt you and yours. Now assume that every single one of them was doing it with the best of intentions. How do you feel? Does it wipe away the hurt you were caused or the pain you felt at the time? Does it remove the dents from your car, wipe away your child’s tears or undo the disciplinary you got given for being late for work when you missed the train? Probably not, no.

Even assuming infinitely good intentions, harm is still caused: impact matters.

There’s a fabulous post by Fatimah Dainkeh which explains the ‘impact vs intent’ thing really neatly, which I urge you to check out. Here I’ve framed it within the sex blogging community and the ways in which we talk to each other, but it is more broadly and more often discussed in terms of social justice, especially as a means to highlight the ways in which people (no matter what their intentions) can and do perpetuate structural harms.

When harm is caused, intent is irrelevant

The reason I’m writing this post is that we’re having a new (but the same, the same) discussion in the sex blogging community about harm, impact and intent. Some people have caused harm to others – by misgendering them, or not using content warnings – and those who are harmed (or their allies) have pointed this out.

The response to that has been really mixed. Some say ‘thanks for letting me know, I’ll do this differently next time’ and others go ‘but I meant well, I’d never intend to hurt you!’. A few are asking for in-depth chats with people who’ve been harmed, so they can have a private platform to explain their good intentions in painful detail. There are others who’d prefer to frame harm in terms of ‘offence’ and ‘feelings’, and many more who say ‘I don’t want to wade into this, life is far too short.’ And oh yeah, finally there was one person who completely shat the bed, writing a hateful blog post rallying for ‘free speech’ then telling anyone who objected to shut up (irony, please rest: your work for this week is done).

Amidst all of this, there’s a lot of talk of good intentions. The problem is that when we’re talking about inclusion within our community, a lot of the harm done (to trans people, people of colour, disabled people, any other marginalised group who we want to welcome) is structural. By its definition, it is not something you choose to do on purpose. It’s something you may be doing without even knowing it, as you blunder through a world which is fundamentally – structurally – unequal. In a debate about structural inequality, those who want us to ‘assume good intentions’ are feeding a fallacy: that as long as we go about with good intentions we will somehow never cause harm.

That’s just not true. What’s more, even if it were true, when someone asks me to consider the harm I have caused them, replying with ‘but I have good intentions!’ adds nothing they don’t already know. Why? Because the person who has been harmed is probably already aware of my good intentions. No matter whether they’re coming at me with ‘please don’t do this’ or ‘fuck you how could you do this?’ the very fact that they’re coming to me at all means they’ve assumed that I don’t want to harm them. That I am perpetuating structural harm and no one has yet told me (or someone’s told me and I haven’t really listened or understood) how my actions reinforce unequal structures. By explaining, they’re assuming that my intentions are good enough that next time I might try not to reinforce them.

I’m more likely to challenge my friends on casual misogyny than I am angry strangers on Twitter. Not because my friends are more misogynist, but because I know that they really do not want to be. In exchange, one of the things I love dearly about my close friends is that they’re willing to let me know when I am being a bit of a dickhead.

It’s not that your intent is irrelevant: it’s incredibly relevant to you, and it always will be. It’s important for us to question our own intentions, examine why we’re acting (or choosing not to act) and try to benchmark ourselves against the goal of ‘not being a dickhead’ where possible. But when someone is talking about the harm you’ve caused them, your intent is not paramount. It’s irrelevant to the harm. Not because people think you’re a bad person, but because they believe you are not.

If you step on my toes while cackling about how fun it is to step on people’s toes, I’m probably not going to waste my time explaining how you’ve hurt me. So if I’m explaining how you’ve hurt me, I’ve already assumed that you did not mean to do it. Your intent is irrelevant because it wasn’t actually in question.

How do you change someone’s mind?

It’s really really hard to change someone’s mind, and I genuinely don’t expect to do it. But I’ve had my mind changed on a lot of things, so it’s clearly possible. Sometimes it’s taken years for me to really understand why my initial kneejerk position was wrong, and other times I’ve shifted and tweaked things I believe as new evidence came to light or more people waded into a debate. They’re really rare occasions, of course – far more often I will dig down into my position, drawing battle lines and having fun writing rhetoric-flexing snark to fire off at someone whose opinion makes my lizard-brain want to fight. But somewhere along the line my views, tone, approach and other things changed a significant amount. If you don’t believe me, go have a look at some of the earliest blog posts I wrote. They’re mean. They’re sarky. They’re entirely cishet focused with no acknowledgement of the existence of anyone outside simple binaries. They’re aggressive and demanding and prescriptive: here’s how to have sex/ask someone out/do what I fucking tell you. Some are plain traumatic, because I failed to write the context and assumed everyone could see the inside of my head.

But I have to admit that in order to go from those posts to these ones, my mind has changed a lot. If I want to change other people’s, that’s helpful information. So how did it happen?

  • Good friends took me to one side and said ‘hey, you know you wrote this? You forgot something really important, and I wanted to give you the heads up because forgetting this caused some people harm and I know you don’t want to do that.’
  • People I did not know got very very angry with me, and publicly told me I was being a dick.
  • Other people wrote blog posts which were not directed at me, but which made me think nonetheless and reassess my own position.
  • I saw other writers saying the things I thought and getting angrily smacked down by people I admired, who gave eloquent and sassy rebuttals that made me reconsider: if I’m against So-And-So, and they feel passionately about this, maybe I’m wrong?
  • Commenters/readers/friends emailed me links to things on topics I’d been talking about, and gently said ‘hey you might be interested in the other side of the story/my personal experience.’
  • Close friends sat with me round pub tables and debated these topics with me, sometimes supporting me and other times disagreeing, often introducing me to concepts and ideas and harms which I had been entirely ignorant of before.

There’s almost certainly more here. The point is it’s really hard to change someone’s mind, especially on the internet. It doesn’t come from a single argument or blog post, but from a combination of lots of different things. Some of these you may think are unacceptable or mean ways to try and change someone’s mind, some you might see as perfect examples of good discourse. I think all of them, in combination, were important factors in changing how I think about the world. When we try to argue for the things we need/want/believe, each of us will pick a technique that lies somewhere on the spectrum from ‘I love you and you fucked up’ to ‘fuck you you total fuckup’, depending on who the person is, what it is they’ve done, whether the harm was caused to us or those we love or total strangers.

And when others try to change your mind, their techniques will vary too. Sometimes it won’t be a deliberate technique but a yelp of pain when you stamp on their foot. Or a cry of ‘fuck you’ when you hurt their friends. Or a shriek of anger when you take potshots at beliefs they hold dear. Sometimes they’ll write painfully long, incredibly navel-gazing, potentially patronising blog posts that make you want to hurl your phone into the bin. Sorry about that.

You don’t have to agree with me, or change your mind, or care. One of the weirdest things about this discussion is when the people who are being told ‘you’re causing harm’ retreat into arguments about freedom of speech or expression. No one’s telling you that you can’t say harmful things: the people who nudge/criticise/shout at you on Twitter are rarely demanding that you have your right to speak ripped away. What they’re saying is ‘if you want to say X, you’ll cause harm Y, and I assume you mean well so I don’t think you really want to do that.’ Or ‘if you do that, I’ll think you’re a bit of a prick.’ You might decide that there is no harm, you might decide you do want to cause it. You might decide that I’m a condescending lefty arsehole who is oversimplifying the issue and should fuck off back to the vegan kitchen she crawled out of. You’re welcome to all these opinions, and your own blog posts. You’re welcome to retweet me or debate me or pull me to one side and say ‘hmmm… that blog you wrote is shit and here’s why.’

You do you, gang. But this is me.

Silence has impact as well

What’s the impact of sex bloggers saying ‘LIFE doesn’t come with a content warning’ and ‘GROW UP, you snowflakes’ and ‘who CARES about pronouns’? I genuinely believe that these things cause serious harm. Firstly to the people who are affected – those with mental health issues, trans people, and anyone else who is made to feel unwelcome by having their concerns dismissed and their needs ignored. Secondly to the sex blogging community itself, which is infinitely better for having those people in it. Finally I think it causes harm to those who do and say these things, because it makes it harder for others to assume your good intentions in future.

I don’t expect many who fall in that final category to go ‘wow, GOTN, you’ve converted me! You are a master of discourse as well as a master of dick!’ – I am painfully aware that I’m a tosser. A hypocrite. I am preaching from a very very wobbly and unstable place. If those who have previously expressed their good intentions feel like I’m saying ‘fuck you!’, rest assured that I am also one of you. I have done things which have caused harm, and I will do more of them in future. I have fucked up, I am fucking up, I will fuck up again. I am a rolling ball of constant fuck-ups, and my actions (and inactions) are constantly causing harm. The best I can hope for is not that people will judge my good intentions – no one can see my intentions! – but that they’ll judge me by my actions, and the impact those actions have, and tell me if I’m causing harm today, so I can try not to do it tomorrow.

I am writing this not because I am fired up with passionate rage (although yeah, I did have to restrain myself from replying to that ludicrous ‘satire’ blog – ask me why if you like, I’ll have lots of fun explaining), I’m writing because I had conversations with people in which they told me, or implied, that my silence was causing harm, and I thought about it and realised they were right.

The title of this post is ‘No one ever wants to be the baddie’, and it’s broadly true. The words ‘goodie’ and ‘baddie’ are entirely unhelpful though, despite them being the first place our lizard brain wants to go when we bump up against conflict: I’m good, you’re bad. I’m right, you’re wrong. Seeing ourselves as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is wildly unhelpful, not least because we get so wrapped up in clinging on to our identity as ‘goodies’ that we forget the importance of our actions.

Good is something we do, not something we are.

I could sit on the sidelines with all the ‘good intentions’ in the world, but the impact of my inaction is harm, so I’m taking my good intentions and trying to put them to practical use. Writing this post was hard. I did not enjoy it. I’d rather be left alone to nurture my good intentions in peace. But if silence means more harm, then I need to say something, imperfect and waffly though it is. People who belong in this community are dealing with the fallout of yet another debate, the impact of which is to make them feel unwelcome. To compel them to defend their right to be here. I don’t want that, it isn’t right. It isn’t fair. It isn’t equal. It is not the kind of community I want to be part of. I can either leave that community, or I can try to shape it. Explain why this matters to me, and why I think it should matter to you. You don’t need to listen, or care, but I should try. And I only know to do that because others tried with me.

Thank you to the people who helped me realise I should say something, even if I didn’t say it well.

7 Comments

  • Golden Hare says:

    “ So if I’m explaining how you’ve hurt me, I’ve already assumed that you did not mean to do it. ”

    I haven’t seen it framed like this before. Thank you.

    • Girl on the net says:

      Thank you! It’s not something I am always good at doing in interpersonal relationships but it’s quite central in my mind atm, especially in romantic relationships.

      • Mosscat says:

        This is an incredibly thoughtful and well put post. I was listening to a colleague use the ‘meant well ‘ argument recently and really wish i could have challenged him better.
        Its not enough to mean well. Just not. And I fail…get up…and fail all over again. But the fact that it’s hard to consider impact is not an excuse.
        You’re freakin brilliant, GOTN xx

        • Girl on the net says:

          Thank you! I love this as well: “I fail…get up…and fail all over again.” You’re right – we fail and fail and fail and the only thing we can do is get up and try again harder. <3 x

  • Valery North says:

    This is, as ever, a great piece of writing an very well thought out.

    A point that often feels like it gets missed in these things is the way that intent isn’t just about internal self-image. It’s also about the expectation of punishment or retaliation. We live in a society where wrongdoing is met with retribution and deterrence, and even attempts to reform wrongdoers are based in punishment narratives. Being told you’ve done wrong feels like a threat.

    But when someone is talking about the harm you’ve caused them, your intent is not paramount. It’s irrelevant to the harm. Not because people think you’re a bad person, but because they believe you are not.

    This is certainly true, but it’s not always easy to convince the “lizard brain” part to get on board with that. I feel like when people hear, “You hurt me!” there’s a lot of people who hear equally loudly, “Now I must hurt you back!” so their immediate plea is for mitigation, and until that fear is assuaged they aren’t in a place where they can listen and learn.

    If a person is feeling that reaction (and I know I feel it a lot), then it’s clearly something that they need to work on to internalise the message in the quoted passage above. It’s something I try hard to remember. But I also feel like it’s worth recognising when that fear might be present and manoeuvring past it to get to the important conversation about avoiding doing harm in future.

    So, yeah. I really hope the message “the very fact that they’re coming to me at all means they’ve assumed that I don’t want to harm them.” gets through. Because unlearning “punishment” and taking that message on instead is the big one.

    • Girl on the net says:

      This is a really good point, thanks Valery. I hadn’t really thought much about the punishment narrative but you’re right. I was chatting to a mate about this issue yesterday and she was baffled by some of the discourse – her question was “what are people afraid of? Why is it so hard to say it hear you, I hurt you, thank you for letting me know.’?” And so I think your point feeds into that a bit. Fear is powerful and it’s definitely part of the response in a lot of these interactions.

      • Golden Hare says:

        I feel like when people hear, “You hurt me!” there’s a lot of people who hear equally loudly, “Now I must hurt you back!” so their immediate plea is for mitigation, and until that fear is assuaged they aren’t in a place where they can listen and learn

        – oh, thank you! This is also really helpful framing. I will watch out for myself doing this.

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