Intent: Just How Magic Is It?


There’s a saying in the progressive community that intent isn’t fucking magic. It comes from this fabulously snarky post about how not intending to hurt someone doesn’t magically keep them from being hurt.

“Intent is not magic” is one of those simple, catchy phrases we use to get a point across, kind of like “consent is sexy” or “the personal is political.” Like all simple, catchy phrases, it does a great job of creating and perpetuating a meme, but not so great a job of explaining a concept or situation in its full complexity. Luckily, for that we have blog posts!

There is, obviously, lots of truth to the claim that intent is not magic. If something harmful you do accidentally–such as the example used in the blog post, outing a trans person–has consequences for the person you did it to, that person has to deal with those consequences whether you meant to do the thing or not.

But where “intent is not magic” really comes into play with regard to social justice is when people try to use intent as a get-out-of-bigotry-free card. That is, they think that because they didn’t mean that joke to be sexist, it magically isn’t anymore. Because they didn’t mean to be homophobic when they referred to a crappy party as “gay,” then they magically weren’t being homophobic.

When it comes to bigotry, intent doesn’t really factor into it very much. There are Twitter accounts that collect tweets of people literally going “I’m not racist but I just don’t like black people” or “I’m not sexist but women are stupid.” Racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry are more about which ideas you believe in and which structures you support than they are about how you would personally classify your beliefs and actions.

When you say or do something bigoted (intentionally or otherwise) and hurt someone, they’re often hurt not because they think you meant to hurt them, but because what you’ve said or done is just another in a long series of reminders of their place in the world–some more malicious or severe than others, but all microaggressions that research shows have tangible health consequences.

But doesn’t intent make a difference sometimes? After all, I’d feel much better if my friend forgot to come to my birthday party by mistake or because they were taking a sick friend to the hospital rather than because they didn’t want to come but didn’t care enough to change their RSVP. I’d be much more okay with a friend borrowing a dress and ripping it by accident as opposed to on purpose. Saying something that triggers me because you don’t realize it’s a trigger for me is different from triggering me on purpose.

Intent matters a lot for one particular thing: judging someone’s character. Yes, a person who is deliberately, unabashedly racist is probably a “worse” person (whoever you measure that) than someone who says something racist because they’ve never learned that it’s racist. It’s much worse to trigger someone on purpose than to do it accidentally.

The thing is, though, that your character is rarely what’s up for discussion in these situations, and making the discussion all about you and your character is counterproductive, not to mention egotistical.

When someone says something bigoted, what I want to discuss is why it was hurtful, how it props up bigotry, and how you can learn enough not to do something like that in the future. I don’t want to discuss your character or what’s in your heart of hearts. Unless someone proves themselves to be a crappy person–say, by calling me a cunt or telling me that I’m probably a feminist because I’m too ugly to get laid–I generally assume that most people are decent people. That happens to be one of my beliefs about the world. But it’s not really relevant. You can be a decent person and be wrong about gender or race, just like you can be a decent person and be wrong about how evolution works or why the sky is blue.

It’s definitely the case that many people will be less upset if you say something bigoted to them out of ignorance rather than out of malice. But it’s important to keep in mind that once the person is already upset, they’re already upset. At that point, the best thing to do is to apologize and seek understanding of what you did, not provide them with a complete audit of your intentions and how not-bad they were. You can, if you’d like, embed your not-bad intentions within your apology: “I had no idea that was so hurtful and didn’t mean to say something homophobic, but I understand why you’re hurt by it and I’m sorry.”

You know how they say that you can’t talk someone into loving you? You also can’t talk someone out of being upset with you, unless that talking includes some concrete steps on your part to make amends for what happened. “You shouldn’t be upset because I didn’t mean it that way” isn’t going to cut it.

Note, again, that not meaning to say something homophobic does not mean you haven’t said something homophobic. Just like not meaning to break a nice vase doesn’t mean it’s not broken.

On a similar note, not intending to hurt someone is different from intending not to hurt them. If someone accidentally breaks my nice vase, I might be glad in the back of my mind that they didn’t do it on purpose, but I might still be annoyed that they weren’t being careful around my nice vase, especially if they are often clumsy and break people’s things by accident. The analogy holds up for saying/doing bigoted things, too. People who say/do them rarely do so just once.

I’m not going to respect you just for not meaning to say hurtful things. That’s one of those bare-minimum-of-being-a-decent-human-being things. Actively seeking information on how not to be hurtful, on the other hand, is a rarer and more important habit to have.

Arguing about intent distracts from the more important conversation. Don’t turn these conversations into referendums on whether or not you are a good person. Personally, I think you are, or else I wouldn’t be trying to have those conversations with you to begin with.

Intent can make a difference sometimes, but it’s not magic.

Comments

  1. unbound says

    I agree with what you’ve said here. Simply saying “I didn’t mean it that way” doesn’t really cut it. We should always be seeking to understand other people’s point of view and improve how we interact with each other.

    I do think it is worth mentioning the reverse. When someone did do something wrong without intent and actually offers a sincere apology, it is really unfair of the offended party to remain upset with the person (which I’ve seen all too often as well).

    • says

      When someone did do something wrong without intent and actually offers a sincere apology, it is really unfair of the offended party to remain upset with the person (which I’ve seen all too often as well).

      Maybe it is unfair, but just as good intent doesn’t necessarily prevent hurt feelings, neither does an apology. Sometimes the offense is great enough that an apology doesn’t just magically make it go away. I think an appropriate thing to say in that situation would be, “Thank you for your apology. Unfortunately, I still feel very upset with you and [would rather not talk to you/need to take a break/etc.]. I hope you can understand.”

      Feelings aren’t always fair, but they’re always valid. I don’t have the responsibility to pretend not to be upset with someone anymore just because they apologized. I might want to try to work on those feelings so that I can get to a place where I’m no longer upset, but even if I choose to do that, it won’t happen immediately.

  2. says

    Wonderful comment I saw a while back that sums part of this up well: “I don’t care about your intent when you say something racist. I care that people who are constantly being harmed by racism just got harmed again, and my first goal is not to teach you, it’s to make sure all those harmed people know that what you just said is not okay.”

    • embraceyourinnercrone says

      Thank you for putting it so succinctly, I’m about to get unsuccinct..

      Almost everyone has made comments that are bigoted, cis-sexist, racist, homophobic, sexist, ablest, etc.

      Not necessarily out of any desire to be those things but simply because they are lucky enough not to have that/those particular axes of marginalization affect them.

      But whether it was intended or not it caused the other person hurt. And just because you didn’t mean what you said in a consciously racist (for example) way doesn’t make it OK.

      And unnoticed by the person who said the bigoted thing is that this is probably one of many times a day, week, month or year that the person who was hurt has to hear something like that.

      Or to borrow something that made more it clear to me:
      ~ I realize not everyone will like or agree with these, YMMV ~

      (This is from a comment by Hershele Ostropoler on the Readercon-Harassment-Etc thread, on John Scalzi’s blog whatever.scalzi.com)

      If you step on my foot without meaning to, you need to get off my foot.

      If you step on my foot without realizing it, you need to get off my foot.

      If everyone in your culture steps on feet, your culture is horrible, and you need to get off my foot.

      If you have foot-stepping disease, and it makes you unaware you’re stepping on feet, you need to get off my foot.

      If an event has rules designed to keep people from stepping on feet, you need to follow them.

      If you think that even with the rules, you won’t be able to avoid stepping on people’s feet, absent yourself from the event until you work something out.

      If you’re a serial foot-stepper, and you feel you’re entitled to step on people’s feet because you’re just that awesome and they’re not really people anyway, you’re a bad person and you don’t get to use any of those excuses, limited as they are. And moreover, you need to get off my foot.

      If someone says “Hey! that thing you just said was bigoted in some way”, stop, listen, maybe ask for more information (depends on the situation, its not their job to educate the person who just hurt them), learn from it and try not to do it again.

  3. says

    Intent is a good fall-back because nobody can really know what is in someone’s head. However intent can often be inferred by examining reasonably foreseeable consequences. It’s what courts do.

  4. spartan says

    I agree with the logic behind ‘intent is not magic’ but many times disagree with it’s usage and application. This blog network is peppered with comments that some religious people would find harmful, although I don’t think there are many that someone should legitimately find harmful, but obviously the fact that someone somewhere was harmed is not sufficient on it’s own. For example, I think it is entirely questionable and debatable whether the words ‘hysterical’, ‘crazy’, ‘blind’, and ‘lame’ should be banished entirely from our vocabulary. It’s not that I don’t think these words can be used in a harmful way, it’s that I think the person who would take offense at some usages of these words (‘that concert was crazy’, ‘justice is blind’) is not following the same methodology they use for navigating every day language which includes multiple definitions and usages of these words; I think even people who dislike these words know exactly what is being conveyed, and it’s not along the lines of ‘justice is like a blind person’ or ‘that concert is like being mentally ill”. If I say, ‘I have a theory concerning why the Tigers lost last night’, no non-idiot is going to select one definition or usage and reply with, ‘oh no you don’t, you’re wrong, a theory is a well-evidenced scientific finding’. And intent is pretty magical when it comes to determining what is being conveyed with language that is ambiguous as a lot of it is, we do it every day.

    These may not be good examples as the ones you provide in your post are less ambiguous and I don’t disagree that ‘it wasn’t my intent’ doesn’t get one 100% off the hook, but I do think ‘intent’s not magic’ does have its limitations.

    • says

      For example, I think it is entirely questionable and debatable whether the words ‘hysterical’, ‘crazy’, ‘blind’, and ‘lame’ should be banished entirely from our vocabulary. It’s not that I don’t think these words can be used in a harmful way, it’s that I think the person who would take offense at some usages of these words (‘that concert was crazy’, ‘justice is blind’) is not following the same methodology they use for navigating every day language which includes multiple definitions and usages of these words

      I don’t think anyone disagrees that this is a debatable issue. Personally, I use the word “crazy” in a casual sense, but I would never apply it to another person. If I were talking with a friend and said “I had such a crazy night” and they said, “Actually, could you not use the word crazy that way? It just makes me think of the way people put me down for having a mental illness,” I would not use that word around them. Why should I? It hurts them, I care about their feelings and about helping them be comfortable around me, and there are plenty of other words to use.

      The reason some people object to such usage isn’t because they actually think that you’re trying to say “people with mental illness are bad” when you say “I had such a crazy night,” it’s that that word reads to them like a slur. It’s been applied to them like a slur. It’s been thrown at them by parents, friends, partners, and others to dismiss and belittle them and make them feel like they don’t have the right to feel the way they do. Hearing that word feels viscerally bad, and they’d rather not hear it if they can avoid it.

      If you then refuse to refrain from using that word around them, you will become a person who makes them feel bad. It won’t seem to you that you’re doing it intentionally, but you are refusing to do a very simple thing that would keep them from feeling bad. This is entirely your choice! But they are entitled to feel upset and to avoid interacting with you in that situation.

      But yes, you’re correct that it’s a very limiting view to simply claim that intent doesn’t matter. Of course it does! Sometimes. :)

  5. Pen says

    I have a really strong view about this because I systematically move in very international multicultural circles. I know how very, very error prone communication is, and how, most of the time, you are necessarily groping for intention through something that is mostly noise. And how you have to hope others are doing the same for you.

    This has a lot to do with social justice. First off i think people grossly underestimate the extent to which they belong to different cultures from those they’re addressing, especially on the internet. Secondly, what offends people, typically, is signs or symbols which are cultural signals of offensiveness – they’re learned (or, for quite justifiable reasons, haven’t been). Third, the demand that someone from another culture should perfectly master one’s sign system or have the worst thought of them almost always happens as a display of naivety, parochialism and, usually, power. It all too easily becomes a bigotry in itself.

    It’s interesting in the light of Miri’s campaign against misusing terms for mental illness. As an example, in Britain ‘mad’ still means ‘mentally ill’. So you’re all going to stop using it to mean ‘angry’ if I say it offends me? Or will considerations of power, numbers and, heck, intent, crop up?

    • says

      Well, there’s a difference between using a word that someone considers a slur because you’re just being casual (i.e. “You’re so fucking crazy hahaha”) and using it because it’s accepted usage in your culture.

      If someone said “cunt” and I told them that that word offends me, and they explained that they’re British and the word has a very different connotation there, I might still be hurt by the word, but I wouldn’t consider it their responsibility to stop using it. I’d probably also be a lot less hurt.

      Now if the explanation was rather “Oh, come on, I didn’t mean it in a sexist way, relax,” my response would be rather different.

      Likewise, if a British friend asked me to say “angry” rather than “mad” when speaking to them personally, I’d do my best to remember to do that. I would not change how I write my blog, though, because I speak American English and write from a (partially) American perspective.

      Tricky issues, to be sure!

      • AMM says

        If someone said “cunt” and I told them that that word offends me, and they explained that they’re British and the word has a very different connotation there, I might still be hurt by the word, but I wouldn’t consider it their responsibility to stop using it. I’d probably also be a lot less hurt.

        I wouldn’t.

        For one thing, the usage in question is 100% a slur. The only claim I’ve heard is that it’s supposed to be a non-gendered slur because it’s also used against blokes, but it’s mostly blokes who are making that claim. There are also UK folks who don’t buy that excuse. Keep in mind, just because something is part of someone’s culture doesn’t mean it isn’t sexist/racist/etc.

        For another, if they’re using it outside the UK (and an international forum counts as ‘outside the UK”), then they have to accept that other people are going to take it differently. (I’ve gotten in the habit of using “trousers” instead of “pants” because the latter has a different meaning in the UK.)

        Finally, if it hurts other people to use it, isn’t that a reason not to use the word, regardless of whether you think those other people have a right to feel hurt? You may feel that your reasons for using it justify saying something that hurts them, but then you don’t get to use the “I didn’t mean to hurt you” excuse.

        • Pen says

          In France ‘cunt’ is the most common expletive on everyone’s lips, just ahead of ‘whore’. But in the minds of the people (everyone) using these words at a rate of once a sentence, they don’t hold their literal meanings. They mean approximately the equivalent of ‘damn’ and ‘fuck’ respectively.

  6. smrnda says

    My take on intent, if you happen to say something that you don’t *mean* to be offensive, and it turns out you offend people, if you really care you’d probably find out how/why the person was offended and then try to adjust your usage.

    I mean, when it comes to social justice, the whole notion of an ‘ally’ is a person who listens to a group of people and gives a shit about what they think and what they feel.

  7. Azkyroth Drinked the Grammar Too :) says

    The thing is, though, that your character is rarely what’s up for discussion in these situations, and making the discussion all about you and your character is counterproductive, not to mention egotistical.

    Even when the other side explicitly formulates their criticism in terms of your alleged character?

      • Azkyroth Drinked the Grammar Too :) says

        Mostly an abstraction – I have vivid memories of on several occasions unwittingly saying or giving credence to, on Pharyngula and a few other blogs, things that were problematic in context and being not only told that I’d fucked up (not in dispute), but treated to a lot of breathless, sneering speculation about my intentions in making those comments and my general beliefs and attitudes, then bludgeoned with “Intent Is Not Magic!” when I, in addition to apologizing, pointed out that those specific claims were contrafactual.

  8. John Horstman says

    Intent only makes a difference with respect to FUTURE behavior, specifically how to go about changing it (or to recognize that it won’t change and make a decision from there). In your example of a friend borrowing and ripping a dress, if that person intended to rip the dress, you won’t be loaning hir clothes any more (and may choose to disassociate with hir). An accident may lead to a different evaluation of future behavior. You care more about the intentional ripping because it’s a violation of a widespread norm that prohibits intentional destruction of personal property – the violation of the norm results in severe dissonance between both general and personal expectations of human behavior and actual outcome. You may well decide that someone who intentionally breaks your stuff is someone you don’t want around. You may also decide that someone who doesn’t intend to break your stuff but also frequently does so accidentally is someone you don’t want around, or at least not around your stuff. The full phrase should really be, “All things being equal, intent is not magic.” I really don’t care in the slightest if you’re intentionally tearing my clothes every time I loan them to you or if you’re doing it accidentally – I’m not loaning you clothes any more once that pattern is established. In both cases, the damage to the dress is done, and it’s the same.

    As another example, intent is a good thing to consider in criminal proceedings, becasue punitive measures are (supposedly) about altering future behavior, for which intent is relevant.

    On a similar note, not intending to hurt someone is different from intending not to hurt them.

    Very, very true.

  9. AMM says

    On a similar note, not intending to hurt someone is different from intending not to hurt them.

    This is so true!

    When someone says, “I didn’t mean to be racist (or misogynistic, or rape apologetic, or whatever),” my reaction is, “but you didn’t mean to not be racist (or …), either.”

    There’s intent that reflects serious effort, and then there’s “intent” that is just laziness, an unwillingness to commit to either good or evil. (Cf.: Divine Comedy)

  10. Francisco Bacopa says

    I would totally love to recover the word “cunt”. There is no other word that refers to the vagina and vulva so collectively. But it’s used in American English as a sexist insult and used in British and Australian English as a gendered insult. In the US “cunt” reduces a woman to her genitals. In the UK and Australia it’s even worse as “cunt” is a universal insult for a stupid or disagreeable person.

    • says

      It would be nice, but I’ve found that it isn’t really words that have the negative connotations but the things they represent. If a word refers to a female, for instance, it’s eventually going to pick up the negative connatations of femaleness that exists in our culture. The most obvious and ridiculous example is the fact that I can go up to a male and greet him with a “hey, man,” and it’s seen as friendly, but going up to a female and saying, “hey, woman” is generally insulting. “Hey, girl” is more accepted, but it’s at the same time patronizing. Another example are the massive amounts of terms we go through to describe people who have some form of disability. Lame, crippled, handicapped, disabled, etc. have all gone from professional terminology to varying levels of slur once they hit the public consciousness. Same with words to describe any other socially disadvantaged group. The words aren’t magically made offensive, it’s made offensive because society in general simply views being part of one of these groups as enough of an insult. That’s one reason I feel that policing offensive slurs is futile in the big picture until we as a society get over our prejudice about the concept of being disabled, mentally ill, not white, gay, trans, or what have you.

    • smrnda says

      I don’t find the lack of such a term to be immensely problematic. Pubic region? I know that’s not exactly an easy one or two syllable word, but it would seem to work just fine.

  11. wscott says

    Mostly an abstraction – I have vivid memories of on several occasions unwittingly saying or giving credence to, on Pharyngula and a few other blogs, things that were problematic in context and being not only told that I’d fucked up (not in dispute), but treated to a lot of breathless, sneering speculation about my intentions in making those comments and my general beliefs and attitudes, then bludgeoned with “Intent Is Not Magic!” when I, in addition to apologizing, pointed out that those specific claims were contrafactual.

    @ Azkyroth 7.1.1: Yeah, been there. And let’s face it, there are a lot of passive-aggressive assholes out there that use “I mostly agree with you, but…” as a blind to hide their true dickishness. So when I genuinely do agree with someone 90%, but bring up a point about the 10% where we disagree, some people will sometimes assume I’m being That Guy. [shrug] All you can do is try and remember it’s not about me.

    intent is a good thing to consider in criminal proceedings, becasue punitive measures are (supposedly) about altering future behavior, for which intent is relevant.

    @ John Norstman #8: Partly, yes. But future behavior aside, it’s also about the punishment fitting the crime. An involuntary manslaughter victim is every bit as dead as a homicide victim; but we treat the killer very differently, based entirely on their intent. Significantly tho, “I didn’t mean to kill him” does not mean you didn’t do anything wrong; it just means you may be guilty of a lesser offense. Intent isn’t magic, nor is it a get out of jail free card. But it is sometimes mitigating circumstances.

  12. left0ver1under says

    When it comes to bigotry, intent doesn’t really factor into it very much. There are Twitter accounts that collect tweets of people literally going “I’m not racist but I just don’t like black people” or “I’m not sexist but women are stupid.”

    I suspect that denial is also a cause of annoyance, almost as much as the contents of people’s statements. It isn’t appreciated when speaking as if one knows everything and can do no wrong.

    At times when I say something that could be potentially offensive, I’ll preface it with, “I’ll probably sound racist or sexist, but…”. People tend to be more willing to listen or consider controversial views if said with a little humility, self-deprecation and admission of possible error.

  13. sw says

    If I’m ever explaining my intent, it’s generally because someone has misinterpreted what I was saying. It’s like “OK, I see how you’ve taken that joke I’ve just made, and it’s not how I meant it, so hopefully if I clear that up you’ll see where I’m coming from”. If the person was to clarify afterwards and say something like “no, I understood that was what you meant, I still don’t think you should have said that” then really I might as well stop there because we’re not likely to negotiate a position we both agree on.

  14. Oob says

    Random aside: Your example of “clumsiness” suggests clumsy people can actually do something about it, as though it’s a result of someone just not caring about their surroundings (don’t get me wrong, this is an assumption a lot of people make). As a clumsy person, I can’t. I’m just all butterfingers. I’ve tried, I really have. My efforts to be more careful end up backfiring (usually in that I pay so much attention to avoiding one object I end up breaking the one I wasn’t paying attention to, the one I didn’t even know was there), so eventually I just stopped and accepted what I really am, an uncoordinated monster.

  15. mary2 says

    Thanks for this piece. Nice nuanced discussion about the subtlities of ‘intent’.

    I get frustrated with both extremes. The fact that whatever you did was an accident does not make the consequences any less real for the person or thing at the other end of your action. From the ‘outcome’ point of view intent is irrelevant.

    On the other hand, intent can be very relevant. I’m with you Azkroth. People (especially on blog sites) can go straight for the jugular with the character assassination if you dare to disagree with them: presumably the thinking is that ‘nobody could possibly disagree with me (or legitimately make a mistake) unless they are [pick nasty intent of choice]’.

  16. spazmatt527 says

    I’m not sure how I feel about this, because I think you’re not accounting for the fact that the offended party is guilty of *making an assumption* about the meaning of certain words.

    Perhaps, when you overhear something, assume that you know they were trying to be offensive, and find yourself starting to get upset, maybe instead you should…I don’t know…double check to make sure your assumption is accurate?

    “Intent isn’t magic” absolutely applies to the physical world. “I didn’t intend to shoot you in the woods, I was hunting!” doesn’t magically bring the person you shot back to life.

    However, communication is different. How many times have we heard that communication is hardly about the words that we use, but rather how we say them, tone of voice and intent?

    If you misunderstand someone, don’t get mad at them; seek out correct understanding and then proceed from there.

    Don’t make your triggers and your emotional baggage MY responsibility.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Part 1 is the heavy part, where you say “I hurt you, and I own that.” Impact is important, despite it being undervalued in many contexts: consider “It’s the thought that counts”. Even though you didn’t intend to step on someone’s toe (literally or figuratively) it still hurts, and it’ll only hurt more if you try to minimize that. Intent isn’t magic. […]

  2. […] Part 1 is the heavy part, where you say “I hurt you, and I own that.” Impact is important, despite it being undervalued in many contexts: consider “It’s the thought that counts”. Even though you didn’t intend to step on someone’s toe (literally or figuratively) it still hurts, and it’ll only hurt more if you try to minimize that. Intent isn’t magic. […]