Intent vs Impact: Why Your Intentions Don’t Really Matter

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  1. John Anderson says:

    Let me give you s different scenarios. Your at a park with your young children. A woman walks up to you and mentions that your children are beautiful and she begins to make inquiries like how old are they, what school they go to, etc. Scenario 2 is a woman waiting at a bus stop. A man approaches and compliments her on her beauty and begins to ask her what bus she waiting for, where she is going, etc.

    Why would many people view scenario 1 as innocent and scenario 2 as street harassment? Both actions are similar. In each a person feels entitled to complimenting the appearance of and getting information from someone who hasn’t indicated consent. Some parents feel unease when a stranger takes an interest in their child. Could the difference be our assumptions of their intent?

    Does the difference lie in the need to be satisfies because in the first the need is maternal and the second it’s sexual? That would mean that sex would need to be dirty and wrong. Doesn’t sound reasonable. Is it the genders of the people intruding? That would be sexist. If people put aside their assumptions, they’d probably see a little of both in why they create a distinction between the two. They’d probably see how this changes their perception of the intruding person’s intent.

    So why are some forms of street harassment OK and others not?

    • Thought provoking point. The answer comes back to privilege, as the author mentions. In your scenario the woman who compliments someone’s children for being beautiful and the man who feels he has the right to comment on a woman’s beauty both have privilege. But today society is challenging the latter’s while the former’s is not being challenged (at least for women – a man who complimented children would be called a pervert).

      • John Anderson says:

        @ Dave

        I suppose it could be viewed that way. I remember two instances. One involved a niece and the other a nephew. I was with my niece. She was about 2 years old. She was a few feet in front of me. A woman walks up to me. My niece turns around, raises her arms, and says “Up, up, up”. I picked her up. All she knew was that this giant stranger was walking towards her. The other time I was holding my nephew. He was facing forward. A woman walked up, waved, and said hi. He immediately turned around and hugged me. She moved around to get in his line of sight to say hi again. He turned his head. She wasn’t getting that she was scaring him.

        Sometimes the person you impact can’t tell you that you’re impacting them. Sometimes you need to go with body language. Sometimes someone else needs to tell you that you’re impacting someone. Other times you should use common sense and agreed upon social norms. I’ll give you two other real life examples.

        A friend visited a friend of his in Ireland. His friends name is Michael, but they called him Mick for short. He was going to meet his friend at a bar. When he saw his friend enter, he yelled out, “Hey Mick!” The entire bar got quiet and they looked at him. He never considered that it could also be construed as a racial slur. His friend had no problem with it, but the bystanders were impacted.

        At an former job, they hired a third generation, Hispanic man. He was so Americanized that he didn’t even know how to speak Spanish. Sometimes my boss would ask him to puck up lunch for her. Sometimes it was at Taco Bell. He never had a problem with it. He quit and they hired a first generation Hispanic man. My boss asked him to do the same thing. Another employee told her that he was embarrassed to go to Taco Bell because that wasn’t real Mexican food (He’s not the only person who’s told me that). She apologized and never asked him to go there again.

        Should he have been embarrassed to go to Taco Bell? Is there an objective standard of offense or is everything based on everyone else’s (except the person doing the action) subjective opinion? As a non-black person, can I take personal offense at the use of the N word or does my personal experiences prohibit that? What if it was used by a black person? Does his life experience over ride my lack of it and he gets to use it even if it upsets me?

  2. Joanna Schroeder says:

    I think intention does matter, but it only matters in individual relationships – and even then it only matters if the person is willing to apologize and move forward in a different way, as you said, Jamie.

    We can’t have an all-or-nothing unforgiving society, and I don’t think you’re calling for that. Instead, we need to be willing to forgive those who are truly sorry and interested in helping solve the problem with themselves and society.

  3. Throwing a Frisbee in someone’s face is different when it is done by accident. If it is deliberate, then it is assault.

    Intent plays a crucial role in prosecuting people for crimes. Murder if it was deliberate, manslaughter if the intent was to injure, rather than to kill.

    Intent really does matter. Once someone has accidentally caused offense once, then they know that it is offensive, and they don’t have the excuse of ignorance next time.

    • John Anderson says:

      @ Mike

      Lack of criminal intent doesn’t necessarily mean lack of responsibility. When we accidentally injure someone it may be a civil matter were we would be required to make amends. In that sense he’s right. Where he goes wrong is when he starts discussing privilege. It makes it appear that those without or with less privilege have no or reduced responsibility for the harm that they caused. A Frisbee doesn’t hit any less hard because it was thrown at a white man.

  4. Mostly_123 says:

    “When we are told that the impact of our action, inaction, or words is hurtful and furthers oppression, we can start by apologizing without any caveats.”

    I think it’s important to avoid talking in absolutes, especially when you’re dealing with generalities and potentialities – sometimes those caveats ARE necessary and well founded. It’s direly important to evaluate the source, its credibility, and criteria. Blindly assuming ‘a’ knows better than ‘b’ is no better or more valid than blindly assuming ‘b’ knows better than ‘a.’   

    It’s foolish and dangerously short-sighted to assume that one can always judge one’s own actions fairly and impartially, without bias. But it’s equally foolish and irresponsible to assume that because of that, then one simply CANNOT (or should not try to) do it all. A lot of people say ‘reflect on what you did’ when what they really want or mean is ‘see it from my point of view, and you’ll realize I’m right’ – that’s all well and good. But sometimes, upon reflection, that other point of view IS wrong (if there even is an actual, quantifiable ‘right’ or ‘wrong’). To assume that one can never be right because of personal bias or ‘privilege’ is just as bad as assuming one can never be wrong because of it: It just transfers the responsibility (and the power) from one party to another. One should rightly then be very cautious and discerning about when, how, and who they differ their better judgment to. 

  5. The most insightful part of this article IMO is:

    “And we need to step back and listen when we are being told that the impact of our actions is out of step with our intents or our perceptions of self.”

    I strongly believe that intent is extremely important. However, if someone claims that they did not intend to be hurtful/sexist/racist/homophobic/pickyourpoison and yet it keeps happening. Then it’s a cop out or a lie. If I say something that causes someone pain and my intention is not to do that, then I am going to change what I’m doing so that it doesn’t happen again. If I don’t change what I’m doing, then my intent is not what I am saying it is.

    Intent matters, it matters because when someone tells you that you’ve had an impact that was not your intent it’s time to take a good look at yourself. That’s when you learn.

    The awesome part of this blog is that some people need it. Some people have been resting on their “intent” and need to have it pulled out from under them. They didn’t take the hint and examine the times when their intent did not match their impact so it’s time to take it to the next step.

  6. Gint Aras says:

    Can I go out on a limb to suggest that some of these people who claim they never intended anything actually did intend something. Perhaps they did not intend to come across as racist, or they did not intend to hurt someone, not with malice. But they still intended to express a strong point of view, one they must be aware is strong. They lack the mindfulness necessary to see their larger intentions, sure. But that does not mean they are free of bad intentions.

    You don’t get away with it by saying you didn’t mean it. And just because you say you didn’t mean it doesn’t mean you’re telling the truth. I had a guy ask me on a train once, “I don’t mean anything when I say this, but are you Jewish?” I’m not. No. Why? “Well, your beard is kind of Jewish. I don’t mean anything when I say this. Just, you look kinda Jewish.”

    This is a person with the intentions of an asshole.

  7. EnterNight says:

    Perhaps it wasn’t the *intent* of the article, but what this says to me is “Your actions will all have consequences, and you’ll just have to deal with it. But please don’t let that stop you from doing things, you’ll just be punished for stuff you totally didn’t mean to do. Just take your lumps like a good little sheep now.”

    Sorry, but if this is a real value system, it’s probably better to be a shut-in and just never leave the house–though even then, you’re probably still pissing someone off, so no matter what, you lose.

    But at least then, you won’t have to step on the toes of someone whose eyes flash with indignant rage at you as though they haven’t done the same thing themselves a few hundred times. You won’t have to risk innocently throwing proverbial Frisbees into the air, only to accidentally hit people who have trouble with the concept of “accident” despite the fact that they’ve probably made a few hundred thousand mistakes themselves, and yet still somehow cling to some notion that they have a “right” to be indignant at you.

    No one has an inherent “right” to rage when someone hurts us. What we have is a survival instinct to maim or kill the person/animal that just harmed us. There’s nothing “right” about this–it’s just pure reptilian brain logic same as fight-or-flight. It came about not because that’s how humans are “meant” to act, but because early primates that acted on that rage–whether it was right or wrong after the fact–had a better chance of surviving to pass on their genes than the primates who didn’t.

    We’re no more entitled to lash out and/or hold a grudge than the person who apologizes to us is entitled to our forgiveness. Rage should always be reconsidered and de-escalated as quickly as possible, and forgiveness should never be taken for granted.

  8. It depends on the evaluation being made of the person. If that involves a projection of intent, then actually yes, that person’s statement of intent is entirely relevant. They know their intentions best – others do not.

    Accusing someone of misogyny for example means you claim they hate women. That is not something you can you know. You do not know their intent, and you cannot infer it on the basis of a disagreement on one particular issue, say.

    In my experience, the whole “intent isn’t magic” meme is a smokescreen for those who want to impute bad intentions onto people they disagree with. And ultimately yes – there is a HUGE difference between someone who goes around throwing frisbees who accidentally whacks the occasional person in the face with one, and someone who goes around intentionally throwing frisbees into people’s faces. Assuming that someone is in the latter camp based on one incidence of frisbee meeting face is faulty logic, and is only going to aggravate people. I’ll take a thousand well-intentioned people over those with malign intent any day.

  9. And one more thing:

    “Check YOUR privilege”, followed by “this isn’t about you!”

    If it isn’t about them, why tell them to check THEIR privilege in the first place?

  10. MCaulfield says:

    Simply brilliant.

  11. The big problem with this that I see is that it enables troublemakers, people who get their own way by manufacturing drama. It can also be used as a way of silencing criticism or disagreement. One might even say that was the intent behind it, which is perhaps another reason why “intent doesn’t matter”.

  12. Intent matters far too much to allow it to take a back seat to impact. Tribal conflicts and long standing feuds survive and flourish on the story telling of “impact” to pride and ego. Genocides have been rationalized based on imagined “impact” – taking of land, jobs, wealth, culture etc

    On the flip side and in full agreement that intent is not the final arbiter to all that is good and proper. Uncovering the real intent behind an action can be daunting at times and lead in several directions.

    Impact is often manufactured by the politics of the day, making it an unreliable and intent is often hidden under layers of social dress, making it hard to tease apart – each can be played and manipulated – a misdiagnosed/manufactured intent and an exaggerated impact has historically been the weapon of in/out group dynamics that leads to strife, wars and atrocities.

  13. Chuchundra says:

    And, you know, some people just walk right into the path of that Frisbee. Maybe they’re oblivious, just not paying attention, or maybe it’s something else. I’ll still apologize, because politeness, but I’m not gonna feel real bad about it.

    And sometimes, it’s that same person who always seems to walk into the Frisbee path. So maybe when they come around, we’re just going to stop with the Frisbee until you leave or just find somewhere else to play.

  14. John Anderson says:

    Let’s turn it on it’s head and see if the argument still holds. Does effort matter or should we only be concerned with results? Effort = intent and results = impact. What if someone has a disability? Should we give them longer to take a test or finish a task? Should they get paid the same if they don’t produce as much if their effort is the same?

  15. I couldn’t disagree more. Intention absolutely does matter. It doesn’t change the facts, doesn’t change what happened, or change the impact, however it does matter.

    When a person buys you a gift, should we be more concerned with the impact of said gift ? or the thought behind it?

    When someone actively commits an assault against me (physical, verbal, or otherwise) I’m more upset that they’re TRYING to hurt me, rather what they’re actually doing.

    Intention Matters. It may not change anything, but it matters.

  16. I’m finding this conversation interesting. Recently I was accused of being very hurtful to someone, however her demands of an apology were out of line. She was feeling hurt because of things I DID NOT do, rather than things I did. For example, I did not respond to good news she shared with me in the way she wanted me to respond. I frequently find this person difficult to be with. Is my lack of interest in her good news an intention?. Her accusations of my being hurtful are based on her own desire to have people react to her in a very specific way that she has apparently pre-determined. In this particular case, there really were no intentions on my part that I can think of. Yet, this person was hurt by my not giving her the full range of emotion about her news that she had expected. Truthfully, I was simply avoiding being pulled into her drama. Maybe sometimes there is just no avoiding someone else’s hurt. Maybe sometimes, you just have to put yourself first. No apologies.

  17. What about the apology part? I am uncomfortable with the concept of apologizing. It ties in with this conversation to the degree that apologizing somehow lessens the impact. Aren’t apologies just another way of trying to take away the intent? Id rather hear “I recognize that what I said was hurtful/inappropriate etc..”

  18. The point about privilege is an interesting one. I would say in many respects the one who is being offended is the one in the privileged position, because they get to be the one to have the final “moral” say on the outcome of the incident. The buck stops where they say “I’m offended”, and many people will abuse that and maybe even get high on the little power rush that gives them.
    Imagine for instance a religious fundamentalist who is “offended” by the way a woman dresses in a short skirt. Should she be apologising to him for the impact of her clothing choices, clearly regardless of the fact that she never intended to offend anyone?

  19. Wow – overthinking it much?? If you get hit in the face by a rogue frisbee, yea that is TOTALLY different than if someone throws it directly at you. Sure, it hurts either way, but it’s missing that crucial edge – the “I was just ASSAULTED” edge…


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