Blame and intent

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Some believe that intent of a person does not matter when considering whether someone should be considered blameworthy for using particular language or behavior which is associated with another claiming offense. This piece will explore the concepts of blame and intent and argue for a more skeptical, open-minded approach which individuals should use rather than assailing others with endless choruses of ‘intent is not magic.’

The phrase ‘intent is not magic’ is used by individuals who seem to believe that the feelings and beliefs of a person who is a recipient of a message, rather than the intent of the individual, takes priority. Rather than feeling compassion for others and maintaining an open-minded attitude, some are quick to assign blame and even malicious motives while disregarding the stated or unstated intent of individuals who are believed to be acting in an immoral fashion.

Can we justly hold individuals blameworthy for something which was outside their conscious or unconscious awareness especially if the individuals could not be expected to know particular information? It’s important to understand that while we might consider language or behaviors to send denigrating messages, others may not for some of the following reasons: lack of education, varying cognitive ability, lack of knowledge about particular topics, lack of exposure to persons of different backgrounds/cultures, and differing values or worldviews.

If someone could not possibly know — for whatever reason — that a particular behavior may be construed as offensive, it is inappropriate to assign blame to that individual. Ignorance, in many cases, can be an ‘excuse’ from blame. How would I be expected to know, for instance, that my wearing of headphones while sitting near someone on public transportation is construed as a sign of disrespect? After all, my intent was not to send unwelcoming messages to others, but rather was to enjoy my transportation experience as much as possible while being preoccupied with my own thoughts. Perhaps I am introverted and/or unwilling to speak with strangers on buses. Perhaps I wanted to listen to a recorded class lecture to prepare for an exam.

Claiming offense is often, if not always, extremely subjective. Anyone can claim offense following another person’s words or behavior and, in that process, hold others to unrealistic expectations. Can someone justly claim offense, for instance, because another person placed chewed bubble gum in a napkin rather than directly in a trash container? Clearly some cases of claiming offense can be quite irrational.

Even worse, if claiming offense is entirely subjective (if there is no standard whatsoever by which to justly claim offense) it would be unfair to assign blame to any individual for any given reason because the person could not avoid offending others. How would a person know how to act in the presence of others so to preserve harmony? Speaking to someone with open body language could be considered offensive while, at the same time, speaking to someone with closed body language could be considered offensive. There’s no way out; it is unfair to assign blame when it is impossible for someone to avoid blame.

Misunderstandings — whether in speech or behavior — can result in complicated social interactions when, because of flawed perceptions or a lack of knowledge about a particular topic, persons believe others are being intentionally rude.

Take the time to self-reflect, especially after a ‘triggering’ encounter, and exercise some open-mindedness by asking yourself some of the following questions:

  • Years or months ago, would I have claimed offense when put in this situation?

If no, this shows that persons can be ignorant – just like you were in the past. Because of exposure to new information or a cognitive shift, your way of looking at the world has changed. Can you exercise some empathy, offering a benefit of the doubt, and not automatically see others as blameworthy? Would you have considered your ‘past self’ blameworthy when, you through no fault of your own, weren’t exposed to particular information?

  • Am I picking fights with people? Am I approaching a situation in a confrontational manner?

We may be more likely to claim offense when we are trying to find fault with others or believe others are acting with malice when this isn’t actually the case. Is the world really out to get you? Are people really intentionally being mean to you?

  • What are some other ways I can think of the situation?

Develop alternative hypotheses to explain why a person acted in a particular fashion. Might they have meant to convey no offending messages? Might the person be having a bad day? I won’t, for instance, become angry when someone rushes ahead of me to get on a bus. Perhaps they were in a rush or wanted to escape the cold weather.  Was the person attempting to be nice to you [and perhaps was trying too hard]? I won’t, for instance, become angry when waitresses call me ‘honey,’ ‘babe,’ or ‘sweetie.’ Perhaps they are trying to make customers feel welcome and appreciated while they provide good customer service.

  • Can a person disagree with me and — regardless of whether their assessments are correct or incorrect — not be a horrible person?

Some seem quick to unfairly construe disagreement or opposition to particular ideas as hatred of persons. All who oppose gay marriage, some believe, must hate homosexuals. All who criticize Islam, some believe, are ‘Islamophobes.’ All who do not think the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) is good legislation, some believe, hate women. All who want to cut social programs, some believe, hate poor people…

Consider the possibility (and the reality) that people can hold different opinions than you hold and not be horrible people. Perhaps the person who opposes gay marriage does not want the government involved in any marriages, so she opposes all forms of government-sanctioned marriage. Perhaps those who openly criticize Islam might believe that Islamic beliefs are not grounded in reality. Perhaps people think VAWA is a discriminatory piece of legislation because it does not provide services to men. Perhaps people believe social programs foster dependency and are often exploited by persons who ‘cheat the system.’

All of these people can even be wrong about their assessments and still not be horrible people. Let’s not arrogantly assume that all of our ideological opponents are moral monsters.

I am extremely skeptical when the phrase ‘intent is not magic’ seems to convey, as it often does, that there is no excuse for the behavior of individuals who are associated with others claiming offense. Giving others benefit of the doubt and having an open-minded attitude — rather than hastily and unfairly assuming others to be blameworthy — should be a more productive and charitable approach.

Future pieces may explore when it is appropriate to assign blame and malicious motives to others and how to productively engage those whom we disagree by identifying behaviors we consider to be offensive in a non-confrontational manner with an aim for education. Considering that, please leave your comments below. Don’t assume I am a horrible person because you disagree with me or because I might have not considered something :)

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