Intent vs Impact: Why Your Intentions Don’t Really Matter

Imagine for a moment that you’re standing with your friends in a park, enjoying a nice summer day.

You don’t know me, but I walk right up to you holding a Frisbee.

I wind up – and throw the disc right into your face.

Understandably, you are indignant.

Through a bloody nose, you use a few choice words to ask me what the hell I thought I was doing.

And my response?

“Oh, I didn’t mean to hit you! That was never my intent! I was simply trying to throw the Frisbee to my friend over there!”

Visibly upset, you demand an apology.

But I refuse. Or worse, I offer an apology that sounds like “I’m sorry your face got in the way of my Frisbee! I never intended to hit you.”

Sound absurd? Sound infuriating enough to give me a well-deserved Frisbee upside the head?


So why is this same thing happening all of the time when it comes to the intersection of our identities and oppressions or privileges?

Intent v. Impact

From Paula Deen to Alec Baldwin to your annoying, bigoted uncle or friend, we hear it over and over again: “I never meant any harm…” “It was never my intent…” “I am not a racist…” “I am not a homophobe…” “I’m not a sexist…”

I cannot tell you how often I’ve seen people attempt to deflect criticism about their oppressive language or actions by making the conversation about their intent.

At what point does the “intent” conversation stop mattering so that we can step back and look at impact?

After all, in the end, what does the intent of our action really matter if our actions have the impact of furthering the marginalization or oppression of those around us?

In some ways, this is a simple lesson of relationships.

If I say something that hurts my partner, it doesn’t much matter whether I intended the statement to mean something else – because my partner is hurting.

I need to listen to how my language hurt my partner. I need to apologize.

And then I need to reflect and empathize to the best of my ability so I don’t do it again.

But when we’re dealing with the ways in which our identities intersect with those around us – and, in turn, the ways our privileges and our experiences of marginalization and oppression intersect  – this lesson becomes something much larger and more profound.

This becomes a lesson of justice.

What we need to realize is that when it comes to people’s lives and identities, the impact of our actions can be profound and wide-reaching.

And that’s far more important than the question of our intent.

We need to ask ourselves what might be or might have been the impact of our actions or words.

And we need to step back and listen when we are being told that the impact of our actions is out of step with our intents or our perceptions of self.

Read the rest at Everyday Feminism.


6 thoughts on “Intent vs Impact: Why Your Intentions Don’t Really Matter

  1. Thanks ever so for this! 🙂

  2. So does the friend say “I’m not a frisbee to face thrower?”
    How do you manage to link an accident to racism? Talk about a fallacy, that’s not a limb it’s a leaf on a twig on a branch off the limb.

    And of course it all goes back to Karl Ma, I mean intersectionality.
    So the concept for a consensus driven multicultural and inclusive community is to tell people who have wrong ideas about the world that they essentially just hit me in the face with a frisbee?
    Intent is 100% what matters.

    Intent is the most important thing out there. It isn’t someones intent to be rude by locking their car doors if they are from the country and are lost in the city. It isn’t someones intent to be hurtful by expressing nervousness about driving through the country when they’ve been raised in a city. People say stupid things all of the time. Now, I’m aware conflict profiteers like yourself have these awesome ideas that make a complex world boil down to white v. the world, but in reality situations are fluid.

    What should happen is for everyone to check themselves “check your checking of privilege” and listen to one another. Just because someone says something offensive and idiotic it doesn’t mean they can’t be told why it is offensive and idiotic with compassion as a teachable moment in an attempt to include them in the diverse discussion.

    Either you at least hear where people you disagree with are coming from or you demonize them. Of course, if you are a social conflict theorist you think everything is about rightous dmeonization of generalizations so….. there’s that. It doesn’t sound like you’re interested in moving forward, it sounds like your version of justice is blaming people who disagree with you and using their exclusion as an opportunity to grand stand your own exhibit called “inclusion”.

    Racism is wrong. Using privlege theory arguments to stereotype people and bash them isn’t any solution. You don’t need “justice” you need understand, forgiveness, and education.

    • I think it’s important to note that nowhere in the piece does it say that we can’t tell someone they are being “offensive or idiotic with compassion as a teachable moment in an attempt to include them in the diverse discussion.” I think that is in fact the goal, and I have written about that in a separate discussion here:

      The issue, though, is that regardless of how we may approach the conversation (whether with hostility or kindness and compassion), the conversation STILL needs to be about the impact of a person’s words or actions and not about their intent simply because those who do the hurting (no matter how great their intentions) should never dictate the process of healing, recompense, or justice.

      It’s clear to me that you think the premise from which the piece is working and I am working is BS, so there’s little that I can do to convince you otherwise, but here’s the deal:

      Racism is wrong. But racism is not simply some interpersonal slight or feeling. It is built upon a wider system of oppressions and privileges, whether or not you want to deny they exist or refer to them as “theories.” Thus, justice, a term you seem to abhor, must not only help individuals heal, but it must also seek to overturn (best case) or reform (worst case) those systems.

      To do anything less simply puts a bandage over a major wound and calls it good.

      • That is a decent answer. I don’t agree but it was well thought. This is also your blog so I don’t want to take it over. I would simply say this, being inclusive and understanding to all isn’t victim blaming. I think this scenario above is relative to your approach. I think your intent is good but your means harmful. I think you seek to help people, but in turn, also hurt people. If your world view is based in the idea that groups of individuals can be generalized and placed in a paradigm of oppression/conflict, then there is no peaceful outcome. It is also not reality, it’s a straw man. You don’t need to validate or agree with someone in order to understand them. Until all people are willing to check themselves there will never be a dialogue. Overturning things is simply code for more of the same. It doesn’t help anyone, in fact, it could very much hurt everyone. So I respectfully disagree but appreciate your response.

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