Intent: A Case Study

by Tom Ingram

Ian Dury wrote that song in 1981, and almost immediately it was banned by the BBC. Who can imagine otherwise? The lyrics include the line, “I wibble when I piddle cause my middle is a riddle” and “I’m knobbled on the cobbles cause I hobble when I wobble”, not to mention the surprisingly catchy chorus of “I’m Spasticus, I’m Spasticus, I’m Spasticus Autisticus”.

I’m sure Dury never intended to be brazenly offensive like that, but intent isn’t magical. In fact, intent is irrelevant. Even if there are clues about his real intentions in the lyrics, the casual listener could easily miss them. It’s hard to come away from this song without being offended initially, and surely your gut reaction is all-important.

Isn’t it?

Let’s learn a few facts about the song. 1981 was the United Nations “Year of Disabled Persons”, and Dury, who suffered from polio as a child and walked with a leg brace, was asked to write a song for the occasion. He thought the whole thing was a ridiculously patronizing pity-fest, more about making non-disabled people feel good about themselves for being so altruistic than actually doing anything for those with disabilities. The result?

“Hello to you out there in Normal Land…”

The song isn’t making fun of people with disabilities. In fact, it was intended as a rallying cry for them. It was meant to mock the people who thought that the “Year of Disabled Persons” was a good idea. Why, it’s almost as if understanding intent and context is crucial to understanding the meaning of a text. Stop the presses! The author isn’t dead, he’s alive and kicking and really pissed off.

I mentioned the common phrase “intent is irrelevant” when I was talking about the recent CBSC ban of the unedited version of “Money for Nothing” by Dire Straits. Incidentally, the CRTC has ordered a review of the ban with a national panel. Maybe a panel without as many Newfies on it will make a better decision. Oops, sorry. Intent. Right.

The catchphrase does have its place. When someone comes onto a message board and says, “I don’t mean to be racist, but on average, black people are less intelligent than white people,” of course it doesn’t matter that he didn’t mean to be racist. But there are a few things to note about this situation. First of all, saying something like “black people are less intelligent than white people” is pretty fucking racist, and so our hypothetical troublemaker is violating his intent not to be racist. And anyway, the kind of person who would make a statement like that one probably isn’t all that bothered about not being racist, just with not being seen as racist (hence the disclaimer, which is surprisingly effective in some circles).

More likely, they want to be seen as someone who is wise and slow to make decisions, but swayed only by the facts and unafraid of holding controversial opinions. Or, possibly, they’re a Klan member who isn’t quite sure how non-racist people actually talk. In those cases, we have a misrepresented intention. The troll’s true intention is kept a secret, possibly even from themselves.

“Intent is irrelevant” might lead one to conclude that there’s nothing good about not intending to be racist. That’s not true; not being racist is an admirable intention. But when you say “I don’t mean to be racist”, you need to (a) actually mean it, not just say it to diffuse tension, and (b) go ahead and, you know, not be racist.

Notice, though, how we imagined a real situation that could actually happen, and then tried to discern the speaker’s intended meaning, weigh it against the meaning they communicated, and figure out what’s what. That is a hundred times more work than most of the “intent is irrelevant” people want you to do. The catchphrase is too often used as a convenient way of plugging your ears and going “la la la” as soon as you get the slightest whiff of something that might be prejudice.

The story behind the Ian Dury song is fairly simple and clear-cut. The BBC made an objectively wrong decision when they declared the language in the song offensive. It’s obvious if you listen to any part of the song other than “I’m Spasticus &c” what Ian Dury meant by it. The only way it can be offensive is if we make the words themselves inherently naughty, independent of their meaning.

“Money for Nothing” is just as clear-cut and just as simple and the CBSC decision is just as wrong. It’s a song about bigotry. The character that narrates the song is saying that musicians don’t have to work for their wages; they essentially get money for nothing. Work should be hard and miserable, and anyone who enjoys what they do must be a slacker of some kind, and probably a “faggot”.

But much as you want to hate him, you can’t completely, because he makes some points that strike a little close to home. “Look at me,” he says, “I’m working my ass off here for peanuts so some faggot can fly around in his jet plane and snort lines of coke off of groupies.” No matter how much you disapprove of him, even hate him, you need people like him because they’re the ones the world is built on. Your society survives on the backs of the poor and ignorant who toil in abject misery, and it’s their suffering that allows us to have filthy-rich rockstars playing dress-up on MTV.

This much is obvious if you listen to all the lyrics, not just the “faggot” parts. But the infuriating thing about the CBSC decision is that they arbitrarily decided that the clause protecting bigoted speech when used to portray bigoted characters doesn’t apply to songs, simply because songs aren’t long enough. That was their reasoning. Perhaps if Mark Knopfler had tacked on an extra twelve minutes of “I want my MTV”, we wouldn’t be in this situation.

Both of these songs use offensive and blunt language to make you question your assumptions and possibly change them–or at least feel a bit guilty about them. They make you consider the possibility that you might not be right about everything. They make it really hard to feel moral outrage. In a word, they make you think. When bodies like the BBC or CBSC ban songs like these, they’re sending you a clear message:

“Don’t.”

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