A week or so ago, Kellyanne Conway, Counselor to the President, was photographed sitting on a couch in the White House with her shoes on, while surrounded by leaders of historically black universities. She subsequently received a great deal of criticism for what many see as a lack of decorum. Her response was, “I certainly meant no disrespect.” I don’t doubt her sincerity in saying that. Unfortunately, the issue isn’t about her intention, but about her impact. Did people in the room take offense, and did other Americans take issue with the behavior? The answer evidently is, “yes.”
The mechanism of creating an offense and then absolving yourself of responsibility for its impact is pervasive in our language. Consider how many times you have heard someone say, “I’m not racist, but…” and they go on to say something that sounds racist. The beginning of the sentence is there to preempt anyone saying “That’s offensive” by defeating claims that they are in fact racist. The real issue is not whether or not the person uttering those words “is racist” because that cannot be measured. The real issue is that they have behaved in a manner that promotes racist language and ideology. Whether they are or aren’t “racist” is irrelevant. Their behavior and the impact that it has is what matters. Furthermore, using the word “but” after the initial statement only serves to negate that part of the sentence. So when you say, “I don’t mean to offend you, but you look terrible,” the “but” negates your apparent desire not to cause offense.
Most of the time, people use this kind of mechanism not only to preempt accusations, but to subconsciously avoid the cognitive dissonance of saying something hurtful to others and taking ownership of what they are saying. If you watch teenagers interact with each other, you’ll notice that there is often a barrage of hostile language between them that is always followed by, “just kidding.” As in, “You’re a _____. Just kidding.” No teenager I’ve ever met realizes that they do this unless I point it out to them, and I suppose, because they are teenagers, I can give them a pass. But, I’m writing this for adults who should take responsibility for their actions and impact.
One way the above comes together in practice is safe spaces. For instance, many veterans who suffer from PTSD do not react well to loud, sharp noises or movies about war. In a safe space for veterans, you will never see someone crack jokes about war and then say, “just kidding” or “I don’t want to be insensitive about what you went through, but….” And you certainly won’t see people playing movies that might trigger their PTSD. This is what safe spaces are about. It is a space where people are intentional about what they say and do so as not to cause harm to others.
For my students and clients, it isn’t necessary for you to be in a safe space to embody the principles that make it so. If you want to be a better person who is easier to work with, and seen as having integrity, you can become the safe space by being intentional about your language and taking responsibility for your impact.
If you are going to say, “I’m not … but ….,” ask yourself if it really needs to be said. If it does, consider taking ownership of it and saying, “What I’m about to say sounds …, and…” You might find it’s a lot harder to say that. This opens a much bigger conversation about unconscious bias which might deserve its own post. But for now, I hope that if it ever happens that you do something that offends others, you take responsibility for it and apologize rather than retreating into the words, “Well, that wasn’t my intention.”