Intent is not magic, but it *does* matter

I don’t know why, but recently I’ve been seeing posts around the internet about intent and its role in harassment/discrimination/etc which, to my eye, are throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

I am 100% on board with the “intent is not magic” message. If you hit me in the face, then my face hurts, regardless of whether you did maliciously or by accident because you turned around to throw something and didn’t realize I was right behind you. Your good intentions don’t erase the pain and give me a magically unbroken nose. And if your intentions were good, then the proper reaction to finding out that you hurt someone else should be to feel horrified and apologize for what happened. If you get defensive? If you bluster on about how you didn’t mean to like that changes what happened? Then you’re doing it wrong.

(This example is actually not theoretical for me. During the karate seminar in Okinawa, I accidentally rammed somebody in the cheekbone with the end of my bo while trying to slide it out of the way for people to sit down on a bench. I felt terrible, to the point where even now, nine months later, I want to apologize to her again. And I wish I spoke more than ten words of German, so a language barrier wouldn’t have gotten in the way of my attempt to make amends.)

But what I am not on board with is an actual sentence I read the other week, which is: intent doesn’t matter.

It does.

Intent doesn’t erase the damage, no. But it goddamned well ought to inform what happens next. If you hit me in the face by accident and were mortified the instant it happened, then I don’t need to lecture you on how hitting people in the face is bad: you already know that, and just need to be a little more careful. If you hit me in the face because you weren’t aware that face-hitting hurts, then somebody needs to explain that basic point to you, and you need to take a good hard look at your habits to figure out what things you’re doing are likely to result in face-hitting. If you hit me in the face because your society says, yeah, face-hitting hurts but it’s totally okay so long as it’s done to the right targets, then you need to rethink not just your habits but your morals, and the change needs to be not just to you, but to the cultural environment that taught you to behave that way. And if you hit me in the face because you hate my guts and want to see me hurt . . . then I need to get the hell away from you, because the odds that any positive change can be effected there are nil.

In all of these cases, my face still hurts, and you should still apologize. And maybe I’ve been hit in the face enough that for my own well-being, I need to get the hell away from you without pausing to find out whether that was just an accident. But to say that intent flat-out does not matter — to say that there’s no point in figuring out the causes behind actions — that, to me, is taking the point waaaaaaaaaaaaay too far. (And both “intent doesn’t matter” and “I don’t see why we should figure out motives” are actual arguments I’ve seen in the last week or two. I’ve debated whether I should include links, but I decided I’d rather keep the focus on the concepts, rather than the people promoting them — especially since one of those posts was not recent, and for all I know the writer has changed their views.)

The minute we give up on intent, we treat every injustice done to us as a nail, to be hit with the exact same hammer. And that’s not going to get you very far with screws or rubber bands.

We should not put intent above the effects of a hurtful action. We should not act like it’s a magic shield against responsibility for your actions, and the person who was hurt should stop whining already. But we shouldn’t throw it out entirely, either, and it disturbs me to see people saying we should.

EDITED TO ADD: From Mrissa in the comments, an excellent link that says this better than I did, including the concept that “intent is data.” And data is useful.

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