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Do Our Intentions Really Matter?


Do Our Intentions Really Matter?

Scott Lilleston

Imagine you and a friend are at a park together throwing a frisbee. Your friend tosses the frisbee and it hits you right in the face. Seeing your bloody nose, she cries, “Oh, I didn’t mean to hurt you! That wasn’t my intent!” You demand an apology, but she has already decided that it wasn’t her fault (after all, she never intended to hit you in the face!) and she has difficulty saying that she’s sorry.

It seems that the conversations buzzing in the media and news have taken on a similar bent these days. This has left me wondering: why is this same scenario happening all of the time when it comes to the intersection of our identities and oppressions or privileges?

When can we drop the conversation around “intent” and instead focus on impact?

Ultimately, what does the intent of our actions matter if the impact is one that furthers the marginalization and oppression of those around us?

In essence, this is a simple lesson of relationships: if I saw something that hurts my partner, it doesn’t matter whether I intended the statement to mean something else. My partner is now hurting. What matters at this point is that I need to learn how my language hurt my partner. Perhaps most importantly, I need to reflect, with empathy, on what happened and do my best to not repeat the same mistake in the future.

This lesson becomes much weightier and profound when we begin to consider how our identities intersect with those around us. More specifically, the ways in which our privilege and experience of marginalization or oppression intersect.

This is a matter of social justice.

It is absolutely critical that we realize just how profound and wide-reaching the impact of our actions can be on another’s life. Our impact is far more important than our intent.

It’s a matter of social responsibility and justice to pay constant and close attention to how our actions and language impact another’s sense of identity and self. We need to listen when we are clearly being told that the impact of our actions has caused harm, regardless of what we meant to do or say.

So, starting this moment, let’s begin by listening deeply to those around us in order to truly begin to understand their experience. Let’s reflect on how our actions or language has left an impact on someone else. Let’s apologize when we make a mistake. Let’s commit to doing better next time.

It doesn’t matter whether we believe, deep down, that we are not racist, homophobic, and so on, or that we intended our actions to be hurtful. If our actions are furthering the oppression of another individual or group, then that is what we need to pay attention to.