Intent Is Not Magic, But It Still Matters

Sometimes we hurt others without intending to do so. Often in these cases, we typically feel it a matter of paramount importance to clarify our intentions and demonstrate that they were not malicious, and that the harm our actions did was accidental. This makes sense and is legitimate in that whether we are perceived as a good willed or an ill-willed person is a serious issue. It is inherently unjust to be seen as someone willfully cruel or indifferent to others when one is not. And if one gains a reputation as malignantly motivated, one risks serious social repercussions too.

On the other hand, when others hurt us, we typically want them to acknowledge that they hurt us, show that they both understand and take seriously the wrongness of what they did, demonstrate sincere remorse for having hurt us, and convince us they have either learned or are actively taking steps to be reliably better to us in the future before we will trust them again.

So when one of us unintentionally harms another these sets of priorities tend to automatically activate in the respective parties’ brains. The one is often primarily concerned to make clear, before all else, that no harm was intended. The other is often primarily concerned to get a remorseful and repentant acknowledgement of wrongdoing. Ideally, and in many actual situations, these two aims are compatible. The offender can convey they didn’t mean harm but that they understand how what they did was genuinely wrong and hurtful and are sorry for it on that account and how they will rectify their future behavior as much as they can to avoid recurrences. The wronged party can then be satisfied that the person they are dealing with means well, has taken responsibility for failure to do well, and will be more conscientious in the future.

But sometimes this goes off the rails for one of a couple of reasons.

Sometimes the offended party treats the offending party with the kind of interpersonal hostility owed only to a willfully chronic wrongdoer and this makes the offending party defensive. They didn’t mean to cause harm. So while they can be persuaded to see themselves as someone who makes mistakes worth the other being upset about, they are quite justifiably disinclined to see themselves as a generally bad person, and they strongly do not want to be treated like a terrible person because of an honest mistake. They do not have malicious motives. They are not indifferent to others’ well being. They quite rightly do not want their whole character falsely impugned because of an error of judgment. People should criticize behaviors without leaping falsely to the conclusion that those behaviors are the sum of what a person is and they should criticize harms without assuming bad intentions. They should direct their anger at bad behaviors or bad effects and not at the characters or motives of people who only accidentally do bad.

Sometimes those who bear the brunt of too much personal hostility relative to their actual badness of intentions or character will let excessive onslaughts slide to one extent or another because they are sympathetic to the other’s pain and anger and see that the pain and anger themselves are justifiable, even if their expressions of them are excessive or unrestrained and the judgments they are making are becoming unfair. Or sometimes they will assert themselves and apologize strongly for the bad deed, defend their character, and try to talk their accuser into believing their motives were not bad and into seeing the bigger picture.

Now, sometimes the offended party will have cause to make character accusations. They will be able to observe a pattern of mistakes that they will take to be symptomatic of a deeper character flaw. Or they will be justifiably frustrated by repeated mistakes of a certain kind they have complained about before only to see continue. With increasing evidence of poor character it becomes increasingly justifiable that criticisms move from behavior to character assessments and someone’s motives become less relevant. It becomes important that the serial offender be more proactive about changing and more proactive about figuring out in advance what will cause harm. Failing to do so makes accidental mistakes into morally culpable negligence that does reflect poorly on your general character in a way that other misfires of judgment or momentary weakness do not. I do not think that this is cause for the offended party to be abusive and call someone derogatory names like “asshole” or “douchebag” or “stupid” or to employ sexist or racist insult words, etc. But there is a place for not mincing words in naming vices and saying that “you are demonstrating yourself to be very selfish” or “thoughtless” or “irresponsible” or “greedy” or any of an enormous variety of specifiable types of bad. (For more on how we are responsible for how we cultivate our attitudes and feelings see: Yes, We Can Blame People For Their Feelings, Not Just Their Actions.)

The really hard situations come in when we not only hurt someone unintentionally but we see nothing wrong with what we did. We do not think that they are right to feel hurt and offended. Or some people say to others “you have a right to feel offended but not to insist I care”, meaning there’s no right and wrong in how someone feels but when you’ve done nothing actually wrong you don’t have to feel sorry. I prefer the former option. I do not think people who have not genuinely been wronged have a moral right to feel offended (though of course it is trivially and uncontroversially true they have that legal right). So, to me it’s not a matter of saying, “I don’t care whether you’re offended”. I do care. If you are offended for a good reason, I should apologize. If I think you are offended for a bad reason then I think you have made an intellectual and emotional mistake somewhere and I should challenge you (to whatever extent it is going to be productive) to reconsider the rationality of the moral judgment that has made you angry. It is important that we hash out our differences over what feelings are fit to what situations. These debates are invaluable to training our thoughts and emotions and behaviors to be the most mutually constructive in the long run. We need the input of other people into our considerations. (For more see: No, Not Everyone Has A Moral Right To Be Offended.)

And of course we might very well be wrong when we think an offended person is mistaken in being offended. They may be making a  more justifiable moral judgment than our own. They now need to convince us to see things their way. Now this is where things get very subtly tricky in ways that need to be teased out carefully if we are to have more productive discussions on social justice issues where these differences lead to ever-escalating acrimonies.

First, there are two crucial things we need to keep in mind before challenging others’ feelings of offense. The first is to seriously take into account ways that their experiences may be drastically different than ours that make certain statements or actions far more consequential and upsetting to them for understandable reasons. What would not bother us might not bother us because we do not have to deal with things they have to deal with that make it rightly bother them. We have to pay serious attention to this as our first priority. We have to deliberately contemplate all the possible ways we might be wrong, even where the person who is indignant may not be able to spell them all out themselves. We have to pay extra special attention to learning about aspects of their experience that we have no personal analogue to even grasping and aspects of their experience that, not having had it, are closed off to us nearly entirely except by listening carefully to them. Being conscientious means resisting the temptation to let our concern with the purity of our intentions cloud our ability to investigate thoroughly whether we might still be wrong in one way or another.

The other thing we need to do is be proactive before we ever get to the point of offending anyone. Anyone who claims that sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, ableism, etc. do not exist or do not infect our thinking, our institutions, our culture, etc. in deep and sometimes untraceable ways is being pretty willfully blind. That is not to say that these are the only causes of problems (even for the marginalized themselves). That’s not to say that white straight cisgendered able-bodied males who belong to majority groups have no problems or that there are no specific disadvantages that members of dominant groups sometimes have that are unique to them. It’s not to dismiss the experiences or hardships or injustices suffered by members of the more “privileged” groups to admit that there are groups that suffer marginalization that is systematic (whether diabolically intended or just culturally self-perpetuating) and real and tangibly injurious.

And since we know these things exist and that they do not require evil motivations or a desire to be a bigot in order to affect a person’s thinking, speaking, and behaving, we have a positive responsibility to research how we ourselves participate in and passively perpetuate these injustices. We should seek out literature where we can learn what kinds of language choices, attitudes, behaviors, etc. have marginalizing effects on others and why. We should figure out if there are ways we can modify our behavior and patterns of categorization in advance to avoid unintentionally offending people who already have a ton on their plate to deal with because of the effects of systemic marginalization.

And when we have failed to do this conscientiously in advance, it does make us somewhat culpable when we wind up making preventable mistakes. We know we live in societies with downright evil disparities in not only opportunities but in real outcomes. We know these are to one extent or another outgrowths of patterns of unfairness that have roots in old, unjustly discriminatory and marginalizing, explicitly oppressive social arrangements and attitudes. It is our responsibility to be scrupulous about not perpetuating those injustices. So even where we deserve some slack and not to be excoriated as malicious when our intentions are benign, it is incumbent to remind ourselves that part of the anger we encounter (even when it is excessive) is owed to our own negligence and, so, to that extent deserved. It is at least worth an apology that acknowledges that we benefit from things that hurt them.

But what about when we are the offended party, because we, or those we are offended on behalf of, have been wrongly insulted?

Like we said at the top, when people didn’t intend to hurt anyone, it is often of primary importance to them that this be acknowledged. Even when people are happy to acknowledge wrongdoing, they are often at pains to also make clear they lack malignant motives. Now in modern Western culture, bigotry is considered one of the greatest evils. Being a bigot is considered one of the most monstrous character traits and being motivated by bigotry is scorned as the least reputable of motivations. And many people think that for something to be bigoted, it has to come from a place of malice towards the group suffering bigotry. It’s as though they think that one can’t accidentally be the worst kind of perpetrator of immorality. Racism, for example, is construed by many as only either a hatred of members of some one or many other races or a belief in the superiority of one race to others. A racist is assumed to have ill-intentions and specific kinds of ideological racist beliefs. So, to many people’s minds not intending anything hateful is not doing anything hateful and so should not reasonably be taken as hateful or as a cause for pain and anger.

And since, to this thinking, the whole harm in racism is in the hate it expresses, nothing can be racist and hateful if it comes from an intention that is not racist or hateful. And so, according to this mindset, anyone taking offense at what was not intended offensively is misunderstanding the motives and or the character of the accidentally offending party. And add to this the natural defensiveness when we didn’t mean harm. If not only our action is being called bigoted but we or our motives are explicitly being called bigoted, then we are going to be tempted to become primarily focused on how we are not bigots and on how our action should not be interpreted as bigoted either, by extension. Our honor is on the line. We are not going to be painted as malicious when we weren’t. And insofar as admitting the action had marginalizing effects would give fodder to those who are charging us with being bigots, we are now quite likely to dig in our heels against any interpretation of even the action as having negative implications, even if only mistakenly. In other words, we become less likely to even admit “my action is wrong just mistakenly” in these kinds of cases, though we might readily do so in any number of others.

This is why it is vital to me that we distinguish between bigoted character, bigoted motives, and the effects of pervasive systematic marginalization that all of us participate in and perpetuate, even when only unconsciously or against our explicit wills and desires. And to get someone to consider that what they have said contributes to people’s oppression, the first priority has to be to assuage their agitation to defend their personal character and motives, so that mentally they can take them off the table and get them out of the way. As maddeningly unfair and overly considerate of the feelings of bigots as this might sound, the person who needs to have their mind changed here is the one in denial they are saying or doing anything with bigoted connotations or effects. Dealing with what is going on in their minds as sensitively, shrewdly, and strategically as possible has to be a high priority if we want them to change. Leaping straight to charges against their character or motives risks alienating them. Most of them do not see their character that way. They do not see their motives that way. They live in their own minds and hearts and even if they in fact misunderstand themselves they will indignantly insist that they have better access to what goes on in there than you do. They will feel misrepresented and misunderstood and maligned and threatened.

This is also the case if they are being disingenuous and claiming they’re ignorant when they are not (or are not fully). It is strategically best to give them the benefit of the doubt (at least outwardly) if we are to focus the attention on why what they did was wrong and why they should not do it in the future and keep it from being a debate about them as individuals. They have much more psychological, moral, and social stake in defending themselves and their basic goodness as a person than they have in defending any given statement or action. So giving them ample room (even sometimes more than they might deserve) to disassociate from a statement or action frees them up psychologically to reject it more safely. And even where they are knowingly bigoted, they may feel they have justifications for this that are unjustifiably suppressed and be resentful that their whole character is being impugned because of false social standards imposed on them. It’s best to focus on how what they do actually does harm or is irrational if a dent is to be made.

So the more you make it about them as people, the more they will lose psychological incentive to reunderstand their action as having anything whatsoever to do with bigotry. In their defensive state, it will become all the more important to disassociate their action from having any reasonable connotations of bigotry lest these charges against their character and motives gain traction and they be judged a terrible person. The more you help them disassociate the core of their being from the action, the more they are free to listen to criticisms of it.

So, talk to them about how things can be hurtful even if unintentionally–something everyone admits and understands. Stress to them that they have a responsibility to pay attention to how things hurt others and that it is not always on others’ shoulders not to be sensitive. Again, this is a principle that can be argued for with plenty of examples everyone accepts. Make clear to them that assuming their intentions are non-malignant is not the same thing as claiming their action is not of a type that has hurtful effects. We have to make the case for why we in this particular case have good justification to be sensitive by explaining how the offending remarks or behavior perpetuates unjust systems or attitudes, makes people feel excluded, implies nasty things, etc. We also have to stress the ways that more than just we (or whoever the offended party is) feel this way and most importantly we need to stress to the person whose actions we are criticizing that they are responsible going forward if they intentionally continue to do what they just did now that they know it has these hurtful implications. We can do all this by not getting more angry with them as individuals than their ignorance or intentions merit.

If you can make your complaint not about the past, you can stress to them that in the future they will be culpable if they act like they don’t know better now that they’ve had it explicitly explained to them. And then if they show a dismissiveness, you can have grounds for making more serious moral charges about their motives.

But in the meantime, reaffirming that you are giving them the benefit of the doubt and just talking about the nature of the action opens them up to consider the action itself without the emotional investment of themselves in the action. If they are not being accused of willing all that is wrong with what they did, they will be less invested personally in declaiming all wrong in what they did. They can say, “Oh, I see, here’s the part which was me, which was not wrong, but here’s the part I didn’t understand and that part was wrong”. Now they are much freer to unqualifiedly denounce the action, which is precisely what is important going forward. It’s important that that action be stigmatized, not that particular person. (Or that implicit attitude or saying or unjust structure they were perpetuating, etc.)

When the focus is on the future you are essentially saying to them, “I am not going to call you a terrible person for your mistake as long as you agree to not repeat it.” This forces it upon them to either defend their future self hurting future people or to reject the action. If they admit they’re willing to go on hurting people in the future then you have a much stronger basis for challenging their motives and their character because they are owning it. It doesn’t matter they only accidentally hurt you this time if they’d willfully do it again! So if they go that route you can dismiss their whole insistence that their intentions are pure as disingenuous. You can say, “Even knowing you will hurt people and even having seen this evidence of how you will hurt people, you don’t care, so your intentions are willfully negligent to others’ feelings or outright malicious.” 

Now they could have reasons that are potentially sincere for still being willing to risk hurting others’ feelings. There may be other principles that could plausibly be more important. Or they may have minimally good enough arguments that others are not right to feel offended. In those cases, you might give them the benefit of the doubt that while they disagree, they’re not malicious at least.

But you should still stress to them that, as a matter of practice, it is only civil and respectful to minimize offense as much as possible consistent with advancing what one takes to be the true and the good. While all of us should feel entitled to argue abstractly and adamantly for why something should not be a matter of offense, for as long as people with reasonable arguments (or a significant number of people) really think it should be seen as offensive, we should at least honor our antagonists’ feelings in our behavior and word choices as much as possible, even if we cannot honor them with the honest content of our ideas.  For example, I think insults from “stupid” to “cunt” are all abusive things to hurl at people and should be unacceptable in arguments. But I can tolerate people defending the terms for as long as they’re not using them at me or others as part of the debate about them. And while I will argue until I’m blue in the face that there should be nothing inherently offensive about criticizing theological beliefs as false, in the process I shouldn’t make the point by personally denigrating my defensive, theologically inclined interlocutors themselves.

Finally, if you think I am naïve or you think I am just interested in accommodating bigots, I encourage you to read my post civilly calling out someone for a racist action last month and then take careful note of just how many of my points he conceded about why what he did was wrong in his apology. I followed precisely the recommendations laid out above to (with the help of others) elicit that relatively thorough recognition and denunciation of what he did wrong.

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