TL;DR This is a post about writing and the process of writing and the thinky-thoughts that happen in that process and if that bores you, go ahead and flee now. There are many cat videos available for you.

Lately I’ve  begun to self-identify as a writer. I know that doesn’t sound like a big deal, but the jump from “I write” to “I’m a writer” feels almost threatening.

Part of this process has been for me look at myself and my writing and see if I’m becoming the writer I’d like to be. So I’ve been engaging in discussions, paying attention, and trying to listen more than I speak. Because here’s the really scary thing about writing: as a writer, you don’t get to decide what you just said. The reader decides.

This is a theme I see over and over, especially in debates on the internet. Someone writes a thing, someone else says “I think that thing you just said is bullshit” and the writer responds “That’s not what I said.”

Yes it is.

Yes, it is what you said.

It is exactly what you said, and I can scroll up, scroll down, cut and paste it. There’s no going back. We all know what you said.

This gets especially sensitive in discussions of racism, privilege, gendered thinking, and damn near any other place I can put my foot in my metaphorical mouth up to the hip. I’m lucky enough to have friends who trust me enough to call me on my bullshit. And I’m lucky enough to be in communities where people are kind and generous enough to not only call out offenses, but explain why they are offensive.

And then, in the middle of these discussions, “that’s not what I said”

Scroll up.

It’s exactly what you said.

It’s not what you meant. Or you didn’t know it meant what this person says it means.* That’s not the same thing.

Confronted with this, the author resorts to “well, I didn’t know. It meant something different to me. Can’t you be nice about it? You know I mean well.

Let’s confront another truth here: a person you are harming has no duty to be nice to you

Would it help to look at it like a peanut allergy? You grew up eating peanut butter. It’s delicious.** You enjoy peanuts and want to share your sandwich with a friend. She has a life-threatening peanut allergy that you don’t know about. She knocks your hand away, yelling “Are you trying to poison me?”

Of course you weren’t. But she doesn’t have any duty to explain her medical history to you while she’s at risk of anaphylaxis. Your job is to get the goddamn peanuts out of her face and apologize. You may explain that you didn’t know any better. What you may not do is tell her peanuts are delicious and healthy. Or that she misinterpreted your offer, because no. You offered her poison. The fact that your definitions of poison differ doesn’t make her statement or reaction untrue or inappropriate.

So that’s what I’m staring at: at some point I will put my foot in it. I will have said that stupid thing. I’m hoping I have the grace to apologize when I’m called out, to listen, and to acknowledge the very real hurt that words can cause, even if I didn’t mean it that way.

 

*Which is okay! It’s totally okay to not know things!

**No it isn’t.

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