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.