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Some Thoughts on Intention and Magic

“I didn’t intend you hurt you. I am so sorry. Here’s what I meant to do — I meant to do something good, but I can see that I failed to do it, and in fact I did something that hurt you. I was tired/ harried/ uninformed/ careless. I am really sorry. Please let me know if I can do anything to undo the damage or to make things better. I’ll be more careful in the future.”

“I didn’t intend to hurt you. So why are you being so mean to me about it? Here’s what I meant to do — I meant to do something good, so the fact that I actually hurt you is irrelevant. I was tired/ harried/ uninformed/ careless — so it’s not fair or right for you to tell me how I hurt you and why you’re angry about it. Let me tell you, at length, how your criticism is hurting my feelings, and how you should have expressed it differently.”

These are not the same statements.

Notice the lack of apology in the second statement. Note the lack of any concern being expressed for the damage that was done. Note how the hurt feelings of the one who did the injury are being made a higher priority than the injury itself. Note the lack of any expressed intention to change the behavior.

It’s often said in social justice circles that intention is not magic. This is true, although it’s somewhat oversimplified (as pithy slogans often are). Intention is not magic, it doesn’t make injury go away — but it’s also not trivial. I, for one, am a lot more willing to forgive an unintentional injury than an intentional one. If someone steps on my foot by accident, I’m going to be a lot less pissed off than if they stepped on my foot with premeditation and malice.

But in order for me to forgive an unintentional injury, I need to believe that the person who injured me actually gives a damn about it. I need to believe that they feel genuine remorse for the harm they did, and a genuine intention to do better in the future. They don’t need to pour dirt on their heads and chant “Mea Culpa” a thousand times (although if they hurt me very deeply, I need to see some proportional concern about that). What I need to hear is, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you, but I understand that I did anyway, and I care about that and feel bad about it. I’ll work to do better in the future.”

If, on the other hand, someone does an injury — and they don’t show any concern for the harm they’ve done or any interest in changing their behavior — then I have to assume that they very likely will do it again. And that demolishes any “get out of jail free” card they might have gotten for the “unintentional” part. Morally, the whole point of saying “I didn’t mean to hurt you” isn’t to rationalize and deflect responsibility and make yourself feel less bad. Morally, the point is to convey regret for the injury, and an intention to do better in the future. If it doesn’t convey that, then “I didn’t mean to hurt you” isn’t about making the injured person feel better — it’s about making the person who did the injury feel better. And that’s totally bass-ackwards.

In fact — and here’s the kicker — if someone is making the second statement, I have to seriously doubt whether the harm they did was, in fact, unintentional.

If someone responds to “You hurt me” with “Why are you being so mean to me? I meant to do something good, so the fact that I actually hurt you is irrelevant. It’s not right for you to tell me why you’re angry. Let me tell you how your criticism is hurting my feelings,” I think it’s very likely that they they’ve had this conversation before. Especially when it comes to social justice stuff. I think that if someone is getting defensive about their slut-shaming language, or is getting pissy about the word “cisgender,” the chances are very good that they have had (or at least have seen) this conversation before — and are choosing to ignore it. And that means that the hurt is intentional. That means they know that what they’re doing is hurtful, and are choosing to do it anyway.

Intention is not trivial. Good intentions do have power. But in order for good intentions to have power, they have to signal concern for the hurt that was done, and a willingness to make things right, and a commitment to do better. Without that, intention is more than just not magic. It’s bullshit.

Comments

  1. hawkerhurricane says

    Thank you for this excellent description. The next time I have to explain what is meant by “Intent is not magic” I will refer to this article.

  2. markd555 says

    Good article.
    All too often skeptics mistake logic for compassion. You cannot logically explain away someone else’s feelings. You don’t argue them down explaining how their feelings are illogical. You don’t debate how someone else is feeling.

    But I see that stupidity every day.

  3. dannorth says

    Lack of sincerity may be a big part of it, like those people who preface a statement by “it may not be politically correct to say this…”.

    But also there seems to be a culture of never admitting faults or mistakes. I was raised on “a fault confessed is half pardoned” but for some other folks, American conservatives but also many French seem to be like that, the admission of a mistake is seen as weakness.

    It makes for difficult exchanges with such folks. And I have no solution to that.

  4. John Horstman says

    Word! I’ve started thinking about this like so:
    Context determines the meaning of any action or statement. Intent is part of context but not the entirety of context, so while intent certainly plays a role in the creation/interpretation of meaning and thus harm, it does not define the entirety of it. Therefore, while intent may very well help mitigate harm, the extent to which it can do so is entirely contingent upon the specific circumstances in question, and the null hypothesis should be that intent does not mitigate any harm, with the working hypothesis adjusted to account for the context in question (and only the context in question – the related defensive response, “But my [marked social category] friend doesn’t have a problem with this!” tries to use a situation that isn’t the one in question to justify the harmful action).

  5. Al Dente says

    I have a particular bugbear about apologies. I will not accept an apology that says “I’m sorry if I hurt you.” This is putting the onus of the injury on the victim. “You’re feeling injured so I suppose I should apologize.” The proper form for an apology is “I’m sorry that I hurt you.”

  6. Azkyroth Drinked the Grammar Too :) says

    So where does “I hear you telling me I hurt you. I don’t want to hurt you, or anyone, and I feel bad that you’re hurt. I find limited resonance at an intuitive level with your claims about how hurt you are and why, but I don’t have any intellectual reason to disbelieve you, so I’ll try to internalize it. However, it fits into a pattern I’ve observed that’s created in me the subjective experience that I have no reasonable or meaningful control over whether I’ll produce such hurts, except by not interacting with the world on an equal footing with others or at all, and I’m apparently supposed to accept being made a second-class citizen on that basis, and I feel kind of cynical about that. The same way I feel cynical about the elaborate, insultingly-obviously-ad-hoc justification pattern-recognition tells me is forthcoming for why my being hurt by the way you’re responding is TOTES DIFFERENT, and how you’re about to start gaslighting me about my own motivation and mental states by angrily informing me that what I actually feel and am expressing is substantially identical to the second line. So, I’m sorry. Or, you know, trying to be?” fit in?

    Because when I don’t apologize the way people want that’s usually where I’m coming from. >.>

  7. latsot says

    @Al Dente:

    Notpologies like that enrage me, too. But actual, sincere, proper apologies make me uncomfortable as well. Receiving them, that is: I’m British so apologising is like breathing to me anyway. But having people apologise to me always makes me feel like I’m punishing them. I don’t want to punish them. I want them to understand that they hurt me and how they hurt me and I don’t want them to do it again to me or anyone else, but I don’t want them to feel bad about it. Or rather, I suppose I don’t want them to feel any worse about it than they already do having understood the hurt they did to me. They can punish themselves if they want, but I don’t want to punish them.

    I’m not sure why I have this double standard. I feel a little bit as if others are imposing on me when they apologise, but I apologise all the time to others and think it’s the right thing to do. I don’t know whether other people feel the same way, but I’d find it really difficult to not apologise either way when I get things wrong.

    Humans are spectacularly fucked up, aren’t we? Although in this case, perhaps it’s just me.

  8. latsot says

    “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.”

    It’s a phrase I’ve never really understood. What’s it supposed to teach us? That good intentions don’t necessarily have good consequences? Well, that’s a worthwhile lesson but why the imagery of hell and paving? Why not have a phrase that reminds us that we have to be careful about the consequences of our actions or that intending good doesn’t necessarily work out well? It’s always struck me as meaning that good intentions are somehow bad things or possibly that it’s wrong to have intentions at all. Various religions certainly have some previous in that latter.

    I think good intentions are invaluable. But they have to be backed up with knowledge, compassion and thought. I might intend well, for example, in telling a victim of violence to just get over it, suck it up, put it behind her, walk it off.

    You can fuck your good intentions if you meddle in things without trying to understand them first, for example. You can fuck your good intentions if they’re good from the point of view of one group but harm another. Or to put it another way, intentions are only good if they are honest, sincere and well-considered. If they go wrong, then an apology seems legitimate. Apologies for actions resulting from ill-considered intent don’t have much weight, I think.

  9. says

    Yet again, you’ve written something I’ve long thought, but written it more succinctly than I could. :) I’ve long thought that intent does matter, but that people overuse it, trying to get out of responsibility for their actions. I can forgive honest mistakes, because we all make mistakes. But it always bothers me when people try to excuse their discriminatory actions that inevitably lead to harm by saying that their intention was something like “following tradition” or “just following our culture”, i.e. they think that just because they weren’t actively thinking about how much they hate Group X while discriminating, then that erases the harm. Thanks for writing.

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