The Impact of “Intention”

What I’m about to write about may not be a revelation to every single person who reads it, but I wanted to share some thoughts on a concept that wasn’t eye-opening personally either, until it was explicitly pointed out to me. This post will be me doing that “explicit pointing out” for anybody who might be reading, because it is an incredibly important idea to understand in the bigger picture of equity, kindness, and empathy.

  • I didn’t mean to.
  • It was an accident.
  • That’s not what I meant.
  • You misunderstood me.
  • It was a joke.
  • That wasn’t on purpose.

These are some of the things I’ve heard people say after somebody took something they said or did the “wrong way.” Whatever the situation, they hadn’t done it on purpose, therefore, they had done nothing wrong.

…And, if they had done something wrong, they should be forgiven immediately.

….And, if they aren’t forgiven immediately, it is the fault or problem of the person who is upset, not their own.

Problem solved. At that point, the person can “wash their hands” of it all and move on.

It’s not a weird thing, honestly. This thought-process makes sense in many situations. If someone MEANT to hurt someone, they should be condemned, punished, what-have-you….and if they didn’t, they should be “forgiven.” Right? On paper it doesn’t seem that big of a leap. I used to think that too, actually. Erring on the side of forgiveness is generally a “nice” thing to do, so why wouldn’t I?

The problem with erring in that direction is that it absolves people from taking responsibility for the IMPACT that their words or actions resulted in. It doesn’t recognize reality or consequence, it recognizes perspective. And only the perspective of the perpetrator.

Yes, I realize “perpetrator” is a pretty strong word. But it fits. Look. (Thanks google).

Notice that in no part of this definition does it mention intent. You don’t need intent to incur consequence.

I’ll share with you the example that was shared with me to illustrate this. (From the Beyond Diversity workshop hosted by WMEP in Minneapolis).

Imagine— two people talking. One of them “talks” a lot with their hands. (We all know a few people who are definitely like this). The speaker’s hands fly around animatedly, clearly highlighting the intensity of the words they are sharing. Aaaand in the midst of their flight, they land squarely against the face of an innocent passerby, who just happened to be a little too close. The speaker, 100% accidentally, gave this person a black eye. Despite it being an accident… The person who was struck ends up hurting for days and, for the rest of the week, they have to explain that NO they did NOT, in fact, get into some crazy bar fight.

Let’s go down the rabbit hole further. What if this person had a job interview this week? What if they had been abused in the past, so in addition to the physical wound, they end up reliving a psychological one? What if this black eye makes their partner feel they are lying to them about something, so it causes a huge fight?

One accident could cost a lot, couldn’t it? Even if it wasn’t on purpose.

And here’s where it ties into social justice, racism, homophobia, and all the rest of it.

I have seen lots of people getting frustrated lately when they say something that was ignorant and then get called out on it. Most of the time if somebody says something outright hateful, they knew what they were doing and if they get called out on it, it doesn’t really matter to them, because they did it on purpose. So the real crux of this conversation has to do with ignorance, because of its generally unintentional nature.

Ignorance and stupidity are not the same thing in my mind. The way I think of it is that ‘ignorance’ can be cured with new information. ‘Stupidity’ is more of a state….not likely to change.

BUT. Even though that’s how I think of it, personally, I’ve noticed that a lot of people who get “called out” for saying or doing something ignorant act as though they feel like they’ve been called stupid. It embarrasses them and their embarrassment usually goes one of two directions.

  1. They say they’re sorry and they try to do better in the future.
  2. They get mad, call somebody a snowflake, and then place the onus of responsibility on the person whose feelings they hurt, instead of owning that responsibility themselves for being the person who caused those feelings.

In the second instance…many people feel justified in that response because their anger and embarrassment allows them to ignore any feelings of sympathy or empathy that they might ordinarily have for someone experiencing pain (even when it’s emotional).

Orrrrrrr, they don’t feel guilty or responsible, because they didn’t exercise intentionality in their action. They tell themselves that, since it was an accident, they didn’t do anything wrong.

And maybe that IS technically better than outright being awful to someone….but just like being too animated with your hands and smacking someone in the face….it doesn’t matter if you meant to or not. You still left a bruise.

So here are a few examples of what I mean. Some of them are super common, but I’d rather keep them simple for now.

  • “When are you getting married?”
  • “Can I just….touch your hair real quick?”
  • “What are you?”
  • “So when are you having your first kid?”
  • “Where are you from?! Nooooo…. I mean oriiiiiiginally?”
  • “Merry Christmas!” (BUT specifically ONLY MERRY CHRISTMAS).
  • Etc etc etc.

(Some of those examples may seem innocuous and leave someone reading thinking “Ugh. Millennials. They are just way too sensitive.” That’s fine….because I’m going to talk about that in a different post. So let’s move on for now).

I have heard each of these things said by people, completely without malice, yet the impact of the statement was painful to the recipient. Then, when those people were informed of the painful impact of their words or actions, they responded defensively and angrily to the feedback, instead of owning up to it. Because that’s harder. It’s harder to admit being wrong than it is to be defensive.

It would be nice, maybe, to absolve the perpetrator/instigator from their obligation in these instances, because of the fact that they might really not have meant to be hurtful. But that’s actually the easy way out. It is way, way, way, way more work to own up to having done something wrong, internalize the new information, and then move forward actively using that new knowledge in the future.

Side note- It’s a little funny to me that Millennials are often called lazy, when most of us are willing to do that kind of work. But maybe since it’s “emotional” work and not hard manual labor, it doesn’t count? Anyway. I digress.

So many people equate their intentions with their responsibility in a situation, when in reality, it should be our impact that informs the amount of responsibility we assume. If we all collectively thought about things more in this manner, don’t you think we would be a little more careful? A little more conscientious? I do.

My two-year-old threw a toy dinosaur at me the other day. It HURT. Do you think that he threw it at me on purpose, specifically in order to hurt me? No. He’s two. He just likes throwing things and learning about gravity. He loves me to pieces and would definitely not want to cause me pain. But he did, so afterwards, I told him that it hurt and he gave me a boo-boo. I took the dinosaur away for ten minutes and he had to say sorry and give a hug in order to make amends for the hurt he caused. I want him to understand that his actions, and eventually words, have consequences and responsibility associated with them, whether they are intentional or not. He still forgets and throws things…but not dinosaurs and the more we go over the lesson, the better he gets.

If my two-year-old can learn how to take responsibility and do better in the future, I feel pretty confident that the rest of us can too. The only thing that he has going for him that we (as adults) don’t is that he doesn’t yet have to maneuver around as well-developed an ego as we do. C’est la vie. We have other advantages.

Thank you for reading… stay healthy, safe, and happy ❤ 

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