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?

Yeah.

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.

Advertisements

Power, Voice, and the Race Card

I have a tremendous amount of privilege, and I have done very little to deserve any of the privileges that I have.  I was born into a wealth in a white family in a country that is built for wealthy, white people.  I am a (mostly) heterosexual man in a culture that greatly privileges and benefits straight people and men.  My first (and only) language is English, the language that has, unfortunately, become the language of power in this world.  I was raised Christian in a culture that privileges Christians above all others, and as such, I can speak the language of Christianity.  In the words of Louis CK, “How many advantages could one person have!?”

One of the most incredible privileges that comes with my identities is the ability to have my voice valued and heard regardless of what I say.  That’s something that I talk a lot about in my work.  After all, I am a white, straight, male who earns his living as a diversity consultant.  The irony of that, which I make sure I express whenever I speak professionally, is that the things I am saying are said all the time by other people, but we just don’t listen to those voices.  Every single day, women must live the realities of sexism and sexual violence, and they speak out against them all the time, but we often tell them that they are being “overly sensitive.”  People of color point out all the time the ways in which our racially-stratified society hurts and oppresses them, yet when they do, we tell them that they are playing the “race card.”  LGBTQ folks speak all the time of the ways in which the society which is built for straight people and tells Queer folks that they are somehow dirty and wrong affects their lives and their self esteem, but again, they are accused of simply trying to use their experience to advance the “homosexual agenda.”  However, whenever I, in all my privilege, say these things, people often listen.

Now there are a host of problems with someone using their privilege on behalf of those without privilege to try to advance an agenda (which I try to check in with myself regularly to make sure I am not doing), and that can be discussed at a later time.  However, the point is that my voice is valued.  The people who are originally saying the things I say don’t have that privilege.

Continue Reading

The Relativity of Privilege

For a while now, I’ve been wanting to write about privilege, especially after I received some great feedback from one of my posts on White Privilege.  Based on the suggestion of a friend, I was going to write this week on the concept of Straight Privilege, but after reflecting on some of the regular conversations I have with folks in the work that I do, I thought it might be better to start in a more general place.

In my post on my own religious bigotry, my friend Julia commented, mentioning the importance of having “an accurate spectrum to contextualize [one’s] suffering in comparison with others.”  Right there, and in a much more profound and concise way that I ever could, Julia got right to the heart of social justice work.  So often in working with young people around the country, I bring up the concept of privilege (perhaps white, wealth, male, straight, Christian, or abled privilege), and I immediately hear the chorus: “But I’m not privileged!  I grew up [insert tough circumstance].”  And in a lot of cases, they’re right . . . they do lack privilege in the particular area that they are describing!

To understand the concept of privilege, though, is to understand the relativity of privilege.  Now, if anyone knows privilege, it’s me.  I’m a straight, white, able-bodied male from a wealthy, Christian, American family.  To quote Louis CK, “How many advantages can one person have?  You can’t even hurt my feelings!”  Hell, I’m even tall and relatively good looking, if I do say so myself (thanks mom and dad for those good-looking genes as if it wasn’t enough for you two wealthy, white people to produce kids!).  There aren’t many ways in which I can complain of being shortchanged, let alone oppressed.

That’s not the case for most folks, though.  In fact, the majority of people in the world lack privilege in important areas of their lives.  Understanding issues of social justice, then, means understanding the ways in which our privilege is relative to those around us.

Continue Reading