I live in a land where people think it's perfectly acceptable to say whatever they want. If you gain weight, or lose weight, or cut your hair, or let it grow, or grow paler, or grow darker, all these things are worthy of comment. And along with the comment comes a healthy serving of judgment. The judgment says a lot about who we are. When I was growing up, and even now, sometimes, getting darker was not cool: "Oh...you get dark! You been in the sun? [contemptuous snarl]" Well yes, I've been in the sun. We only get about 702 days of sunshine a year and I'm 8 years old. My life is in fact dedicated to being in the sun. But of course, voluntarily getting darker was not something that people understood, because for a lot of them, dark was less attractive. The same was true of short or natural hair, and an aunt once remarked with disapproval when my sister grew her natural hair out: "oh...('oh' in this context is usually a sign of impending disapproval)...you leaving the hair hard!" I am at once totally baffled by and in complete understanding of this kind of sentiment. I get that she meant "oh you have ceased to chemically process your hair", but implicit in that statement is the notion that processed - rather than natural - hair is the default (which by definition cannot be true), that unprocessed hair is 'hard' and therefore bad, and that 'hard' hair is to be avoided at all costs.
In our nicknaming, we go a step further. We not only comment on some aspect of a person's physical appearance, but we brand them accordingly: we make it the sum of who they are. So a person will be Fat Man, Short Woman, Tallies, Hopalong (yes, I'm referring to a person with one leg; yes, I'm horrified that some people seem not to see the problem there), Slims or Bones or Matchstick.
And on we go: commenting on people's appearance and habits, expressing unsolicited desires and attraction, bullying people as a pastime, and generally blabbing here there and yonder about things on which we have no business remarking. It gets tiresome, but what's more tiresome to me is the defense or dismissal of this habit with the words: "Well I/he/she/they didn't mean anything by it." This expression is a mystery: it's that all-encompassing defense which it seems is supposed to allow you to let any mess fall out of your mouth without taking responsibility for it. It's akin to "it's just my opinion" and a close neighbour of "I'm just saying". There's this notion that because an idea was spawned somewhere in the recesses of your brain, albeit by a process that remains unclear, it is worthy of utterance. And not only do you have the right to share it (which you probably do, which doesn't mean you should), but we have the obligation to 'respect your opinion' merely by virtue of the fact that it's your opinion. This is false. If your opinion is ill-conceived or bigoted or just plain nonsense, I don't have to respect it. And further, if you share it with me, and I think it nonsense, be prepared to hear about it, if I'm in the mood to let you know. You don't get to hide behind "it's just my opinion" as a license to talk out the side of your neck and not have to defend it.
Not meaning anything by it is a similar animal. What am I supposed to do with this information? That you didn't mean anything by it? You formed a sentence, so you meant something. You used words, which carry meaning, and so there was something that you hoped to convey. Perhaps you're saying that you didn't mean to upset me, or to start a fight. This might be true. But what you're really saying there is "I wanted to say whatever I pleased and leave you with the responsibility of not getting upset or challenging me." Or maybe you're so used to certain patterns of conversation that you just automatically discharged some nonsense without thinking about what it might mean for the other person. And if that's the case: stop it. Or finally, maybe you had a genuine foot-in-mouth moment. I've had those. They're hideous things. But "I didn't mean anything by it" is not of any comfort in those situations either. Because it's so overused, it's a bit of a non-statement now. If the person registers offense (or even if they didn't, depending on how brave you're feeling), just say sorry, you used the wrong words, and say what you really meant. Because you did mean something. Otherwise, why was your mouth open?
Now, there's been a lot of talk recently about what it means to be offended, and whether it is even desirable to avoid offending people, and it's a worthwhile discussion, because people do claim offense at everything. It's now a strategy; it's about manipulation. In the theater of the absurd that is the US Tea Party movement, for example, becoming offended is the new method by which to deflect responsibility: "How dare you call me a racist? I'm offended by the implication!" The ensuing backlash means that no one cares any more. Forget about not meaning anything by it, people are now starting to feel that if they can cause you personal injury on a lark, that means they're edgy and interesting, possess biting wit and are not afraid of being 'real'. That is all an illusion. The fact is, you're just an a$*hole. For me, the point of demarcation lies in the following: you don't have a right to not be offended, especially if you're the type to be offended by the skirt length of a stranger on the bus. But you do have a right to be free from discrimination and dehumanization by word and action. I tend to feel that words are action. They can call all kinds of things into being. They should be operated with care.