Intention doesn’t matter

I was having a class conversation about Northam in Virginia a couple of weeks ago and one of my students literally said, “intention doesn’t matter.”  I think my jaw pretty much dropped on that one.  Obviously, with certain bad acts, we take the consequences very seriously regardless of the intention, but, damn, do go so far as to suggest that the mental state of the actor doesn’t matter?!  What the hell.  Stop for a minute and consider what it would be like going through life responding only to actions and not the intent behind the action.  Think about how you would parent; how you would relate to your significant other, etc.  It would be a very different world if we were not constantly taking others’ intent into account when judging their actions and our response.  I responded in class that our entire criminal justice system is hugely based on the concept of intent.

I enjoyed having a mini-rant on this with DJC last week, but this great post from Jesse Singal on “mind-reading” from writers was terrific and hit at exactly this point, thus inspiring this post.  Singal:

Let’s pull a couple quick excerpts from two recent articles in Vox, shall we? In “Liam Neeson’s comments show how racism and denial work hand in hand,” Alex Abad-Santos, explaining why it was problematic that Neeson admitted in an interview that he had once fantasized about finding and murdering a black man after a friend of his was raped — even though he made it explicitly clear he is now deeply disgusted with and ashamed of his mindset at the time — writes:

One of the most pertinent moments in Neeson’s follow-up interview with [Robin] Roberts came when he confidently asserted that “this was 40 years ago” and stated that he isn’t racist.

Despite Neeson also saying that he worked to get rid of his racist feelings, his reminder that decades have passed since this incident might be interpreted as a declaration that racism and bias are problems that go away with time. If that were true, racism wouldn’t exist today.

The phrase “might be interpreted” is doing so much work here! Who, exactly, would interpret Liam Neeson saying of an evil and embarrassing personal moment “this was 40 years ago” as him meaning to make the much broader and less personally focused claim that “racism and bias are problems that go away with time”? How is this a good-faith interpretation of the plain text of his statement? It doesn’t feel like one. (Sort of a side point, but also: In a certain sense racism does gradually, generally, and with exceptions “go away” with time, even if hitting the zero mark is, of course, impossible; both explicit and possibly implicit prejudice have diminished over the years, setting aside the issues with the implicit association test.)

I love Vox when reporting on policy, but a great example of how Vox definitely gets off-base and absurdly woke when wandering into social justice territory.  I blame Ezra.  Anyway, continuing…

I think “mind-reading style” points to something slightly broader, but Bovy’s diagnosis is definitely correct and related. Feelings journalism/The mind-reading style requires nothing but [gestures vaguely] feelings. I feel that when you said “Dogs are mostly not yellow,” what you were really thinking was that “No dogs anywhere are yellow” — that that whole Dogs are mostly not yellow shtick was a cover for your dumb true feelings about no dogs being yellow, which as we all know is a ridiculous and offensive position, and which, as soon as I hit Publish on this, will gain me attention for having called you out on your asininity. All without me having had to pick up the phone, send an email, or learn anything new about the world!

So that’s part of it. But there’s also, I would argue, an ideological component: a movement within certain segments of the left to downplay the importance of intentions more generally…

It’s good that Goldberg pointed out that there is a strong case to be made that sometimes the intention to not have hurt someone isn’t enough. This is a point worth lingering on for a moment rather than blowing past — of course it’s true that “I didn’t mean to” isn’t always a wholly exculpatory utterance.

But it’s also obviously true that intentions do at least matter somewhat in many situations, and maybe more than somewhat when we expand the discussion past whether someone intended to be offensive and into the realm of whether they even intended to mean something very specific. [bold is mine; italics in original] I don’t think Neeson intended to imply that racism always goes away with time; I don’t think Templer intended to imply India is some sort of Disneyland East that exists solely for Western amusement.

There’s power, though, for some people, in promoting a norm in which writers can interpret in such a fast and loose way. It opens the door to all sorts of wild, imaginative interpretations of what figures — usually controversial ones the internet is eager to dunk on — said or meant. It opens the door to ever more takes, to ever more outrage…

The solution here isn’t complicated: Writers (and editors) should give themselves a bitless license to mind-read, to interpret acts of speaking and writing in overly imaginative ways. That isn’t real criticism or journalism, anyway, and writers should want to do real criticism or journalism.

Great stuff.  Obviously, no one is arguing that we need to ignore the consequences of actions/statements and whether they are harmful or hurtful.  But to argue that intent does not matter is to fundamentally undermine the basis of how humans successfully interact with each other and navigate the social world every day.  And liberals ignore this at their peril.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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