Calling a Ceasefire in the War on Intentions

My condolences to the families of the casualties. I meant no harm.

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“Your intentions don’t matter, your impact does,” is a statement that, if you spend much time in social justice spaces, you’ve probably heard more times than you can account for. Maybe you’ve said it yourself, or heard me say it.

It’s a standard-issue knowledge grenade handed out to social justice infantry everywhere. And it’s something new recruits pick up quickly and are ready to lob at enemy forces at the first sight of “intentions.”

“It doesn’t matter that you weren’t trying to be racist…” They say, pulling out the pin with their teeth. “What you said was racist!” Toss! Fire in the hole! “And the fact that you’re even defending your intentions is a way of defending White Supremacy!” Boom!

We’ve been at war with intentions for as long as I’ve been doing social justice. And it’s a war we’re winning, at least by the accounts of the people on our side. We’ve amassed a tremendous army against intentions, with more people enlisting every day. Ask any of them how they feel about “intentions.”

The problem with this analogy, and with the general way the anti-intentions sentiment is expressed, is that this isn’t a war. And the they we’re grenading aren’t the enemy. Truly, “they” aren’t even a “they.” We’re a we. But we’ll get to that later.

First, what led to us occupying a war mentality where good intentions, and anyone who is expressing them, are bad?

Why We Targeted Intentions

If there truly were a War on Intentions, yours truly would be a beleaguered General reporting from the front lines. For over a decade now, I’ve led tens of thousands of people to battle myself, and my orders have been passed down to millions of soldiers.

And because I’m now totally done with this analogy, I’ll explain exactly what I mean.

I’ve facilitated (and co-facilitated! – I don’t want to take all of the credit/blame) trainings and workshops for tens of thousands of people around the world, and “intentions” inevitably would come up in some form or fashion, and we’d immediately nip that bud. (Ooo! Gardening! What a more delightful metaphor!)

I’ve also written several articles and created other resources addressing intentions in a social justice context that have been shared and read millions of times. There’s even a whole chapter on intentions in my first book.

You’ll notice I’m not linking to things here. That’s not an accident.

This essay is me beginning the process of weeding all of those things out of my work, and I’m no longer wanting to spread the seeds. (If you want to roll in the dandelions, I bet googling my name plus “intentions” will take you to a field full of them.)

Why share this at all? Two reasons: one, I want you to know that my current feelings on this subject have evolved over a decade, and I didn’t come to this lightly; two, I don’t need any of you stumbling upon my past work and casting me in your play of Hypocrisy Theatre.

Before I get into how I feel now, let me briefly walk you through how I felt about intentions before (and how a lot, most, and maybe almost all social justice people feel currently).

Here’s why we, in the social justice movement, are so anti-intentions:

  1. Focusing on someone’s positive intentions distracts us from the negative impact. Even if someone didn’t mean to hurt someone else, use a phrase that reified oppression (or marginalization, or domination), they did. That happened. And acknowledging the harmful impact or effect is what is important, not whether or not they were trying to cause harm.
  2. It centers the conversation on the wrong person’s feelings. Often, when intentions come up (and we put them down), it’s when a person says or does something that negatively impacts a marginalized person in relation to whom the speaker/doer holds a dominant group identity (e.g., a White person saying/doing something that hurt a Person of Color). Any space we give to that person’s intentions would prioritize their feelings, instead of the hurt person’s, which recreates the relevant societal power inequity (i.e., we’re marginalizing the marginalized person, and centering the centered person).

I could keep listing reasons that I’d bring up in trainings, or that I’d hear others cite. And if you hop onto your favorite social justice or intersectional feminist website and search “intentions” you’ll likely find longer lists.

But a lot of the other reasons are, deep down, rooted in the above two. And those two reasons are all you need to completely unroot the validity of any “intentions” that get shared in a social justice context.

The Outcome

Whether they were our intention or not (see what I’m doing here?), many of the outcomes of us categorically dismissing the importance of intentions have come as a surprise to me.

For one, this idea really, really caught on.

10 years ago, in a training, it was more likely than not that I was the only person who would have been deploying the “your intentions don’t matter, your impact does.” (Or other similar ones that all meant the same thing.)

Intentions naturally come up all the time in social justice contexts. Someone misspeaks, or does a thing that causes harm (or, hypothetically, something that could have caused harm), or learns new language (then reflects on what they used to say), or they just sense that they might be messing up. Then phrases like, “I didn’t mean it that way…” roll out. Or “I didn’t know that was bad.” Or “I thought I was being supportive.”

Starting around five years ago, I was no longer the only one intervening. If a person in a training transgressed the “no intentions allowed” line, before I could open my mouth another participant in the training had likely already put them in their place. Even, sometimes, before a transgression occurred, a group member would share that “intentions don’t matter, only outcome does.” A preemptive strike.

As far as tenets of social justice dogma go, “intentions don’t matter, impact does” is as close to universal as we get.

It quickly became a flag we could use to signal that we’re on the right side, the side of social justice. That we are one of the good ones.

“Hell is paved with good intentions.”

Samuel Johnson said that. Here’s another one:

β€œMost of the evil in this world is done by people with good intentions.”

That second one was T.S. Eliot. I’m sharing these not because I think they make my current case, they don’t.

I also don’t think they used to make my case, either. But they make a third, different case. I think these quotes are emblematic of why what is so often an uphill climb in social justice – convincing people to learn something new or unlearn something deeply ingrained – was, when it came to our anti-intentions efforts, more of a mudslide.

Us, in social justice spaces, saying, “intentions don’t matter” is like giving intentions a hug compared to “God save us from people who mean well.” (Vikram Seth in A Suitable Boy)

We weren’t telling people something new, or pushing back against a harmful societal norm, or helping people recognize an oppressive believe they held and showing them a different way of thinking about something – and, to be honest, it felt like at least one of those things. It really did feel novel, or like new information, or like what we were saying wasn’t something people have heard a million times.

We were just telling people something society had already told them, blowing into a sail that was already full of a hurricane gust of wind.

People are naturally suspicious of good intentions. It’s something ingrained in us from society. We don’t need any encouragement on that front.

If someone says they mean well, it’s more likely to raise the hairs on the back of our neck than to give us a warm reassurance in our chest.

“Hell isn’t merely paved with good intentions; it’s walled and roofed with them. Yes, and furnished too.” (Aldous Huxley)

So why do we make such a huff of intentions in social justice spaces? If people come into them suspicious of intentions, why would we even need to bring it up?

Intentions Make the Easy Complicated

Pick any situation you might be in where you’re talking about social justice things with other people. Whether it’s a training, workplace, lunch with a friend, or the aisle of a grocery store. Here are a few things will be true regardless:

  1. You won’t feel like you have adequate time to get into everything, to fully explain or explore everything, or the ability to cover all the bases
  2. The topics will be murky, and require a lot of effort to clear up
  3. Everyone involved is going to have (at least slightly) different intuitions about what’s effective, what’s not, and what might be getting in the way

Sound familiar?

Bonus thing: there’s a really good chance that at the end of the conversation you feel like you actually took steps backward, or merely identified more problems instead of solving them.

All this goes to say that social justice conversations are tricky. The deck feels stacked against them going well, or being successful, as it is.

Now let’s say that while you’re talking about all that stuff, someone’s feelings get hurt. Someone feels attacked, ignored, further marginalized, revictimized, traumatized, or some aspect of their personhood is put on trial.

Because of 1 - 3 above, the chances of this happening are high, almost guaranteed. Of the hundreds of trainings I’ve led, it’s probably single digits how many didn’t have someone, at some point, either feeling hurt themselves, or recognizing the hurt they might have done to someone else in the past. These are tough conversations about painful subjects. It’s bound to happen.

Conversations about social justice are like spinning plates. We have a bunch of moving objects that need to be properly attended to, and perfectly delicate nudges, or things come crashing down.

Throwing in the wrinkle that the person responsible for the pain “didn’t mean it” is adding another plate.

Or, to ditch the metaphor, it’s another layer of cognitive complexity. It takes a complicated conversation and makes it that much more complicated.

Ditching intentions altogether, and having a really clear black and white restriction against them, irons out that wrinkle. It gives us permission to silence someone (often someone speaking from a majoritized voice), and allows us to easily pick sides – the side of the aggrieved, and, in the cases of social justice, the marginalized.

It takes one more complicated thing, in an already complicated series of things, and makes it easy.

Because not standing clearly and unequivocally on the side of the marginalized person in social justice – and within social justice dogma more specifically – is dangerous footing.

When Intentions Obviously Matter

Say two young brothers are shingling the roof of a dog house, and one of them ends up with the claw side of a hammer in the side of his skull. And, hypothetically, one of the following two things led to that outcome:

  1. Brother A was swinging the hammer carelessly, and hit Brother B by mistake.
  2. Brother A looked at the claw side of the hammer, wondered what would happen if he hit Brother B in the head with it, then hit Brother B with the hammer on purpose.

The outcome in both is the same: Brother B is bleeding and now knows what the sensation of metal on skull feels like. Does it matter what Brother A’s intentions were?

Of course it does! We’d never say “it doesn’t matter whether he meant to do it; what’s done is done.”

If it’s #1, you patch up Brother B, and everyone goes back to work on the shingling.

If it’s #2, then Brother A’s name is Zak, and it’s been 25 years and I still turn my back on him if he’s holding a hammer.

Beyond me airing my family’s dirty laundry (Zak, for the record, never went on to strike again – his hammer-to-head curiosity sated at age 5), what does this have to do with the topic at hand?

Well, maybe it’s my head injury talking, but I don’t see how different any social justice mishap is from the shingling hijinx I just shared.

Intentions Matter When You’re Trying to Determine Next Steps

If someone meant harm, the next steps after that harm landed are necessarily different from when someone didn’t mean that harm.

Honestly, typing this now, I’m bewildered that this was ever something I advocated against, or a level of nuance we don’t generally and universally hold in social justice contexts.

If someone was intentionally being racist (i.e., they were saying something or doing something with the express intent of making members of a certain racial group feel inferior, unsafe, marginalized, or alienated), the ways you should respond are vastly different than if what they said was accidentally racist, or, even more stark of a difference, something they intended to be kind, or inclusive, or even anti-racist.

The only way we can respond differently, and know what next steps are appropriate, is if we know the person’s intentions.

When it Makes Sense to “Punish”

I’m using “punish” here in a really broad way. I’m not advocating any type of a punishment, or even the mertis of punishment in general. For all instances of harm in social justice spaces, I think our best path forward is restorative justice.

But, colloquially, we could call that a form of punishment. And what I’m saying here our feeling the need to enact any form of “justice” in response to a harm caused, should consider the intentions of the person who caused the harm.

In the above hammer example, responding with some form of punishment makes sense. Not only did the harm happen, but it was intended. So depending on your parenting toolkit, “time outs” or “groundings” or whatever would make sense to be applied.

But if it truly was an accident, #1 above, grounding the kid because his hammer slipped doesn’t make sense, right? Cutting off his Wi-Fi certainly wouldn’t make sense, because WiFi hadn’t been invented yet. Something altogether different is in order in that case (maybe a conversation about tool safety).

Of course, we should always tend to the person hurt. That’s not what I’m questioning here, or suggesting we reconsider.

But whether or not we need to tend to the person who did the hurting – how we do so – is a decision that must consider their intentions, or we’re ignoring something integral to the harm that was done (and the likelihood that harm will take place again in the future).

Benevolence to Maliciousness as a Scale for Responding

Consider an Intentions Scale of 0 to 10, with 0 being “Purely Benevolent”, and 10 being “Insidiously Malicious.”

If someone says or does something that we’d chalk up as being enacting oppression, or problematic, where they stand on that scale should influence how we respond. Based on this scale, we can factor in all sorts of things:

  • How much time is necessary to allocate to this response
  • What approach you take in responding, both to that person, and to anyone present and/or affected
  • Whether or not people need to be removed from the setting
  • If restorative justice practices (or similar reparative work) are needed

And this is true regardless of the outcome. Indeed, the outcome could be the exact same in three different situations, but a different response merited based on the intentions of the person responsible.

For example, let’s say you’re leading a training on gender justice and someone says, “Pronouns don’t matter,” and that leads to a non-binary person in the room feeling targeted and alienated.

If you investigate the intentions, they might explain that they were a 1 on the scale: “Oh no, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it that way. I meant ‘pronouns don’t matter… to me!’ I’ll happily use any neopronouns or whatever pronouns someone prefers. It’s not something I personally care about, and I’m here to support people in whatever way they wish.” In which case, you can tend to the feelings of the person who felt targeted, and likely move on from there.

However, if you dig in and find out the person was somewhere near a 5, and they meant “Pronouns don’t matter… because there are bigger problems we should focus on.” In that case, you clearly have a different situation on your hands.

If you respond the same way you did in the above example where someone was 1 on the scale, you’re ignoring pertinent details. Details that inform the likelihood that this harm will be caused again, for example.

And if you ask them what they meant, and they say, “Pronouns don’t matter, and anyone who says they do is a lying SJW cuck,” well, we’re in different territory altogether, and you might be reading my email inbox.

Intentions Obviously Matter

There is something uniquely humane about intentions. It’s something we get to have, and to express, that a lot of other species (maybe every species, so far as we understand them) don’t.

Thanks to language, complicated senses of self and others, and our awareness of a future tense, we can mean to do one thing, and have something else happen instead – and notice the gap!

When we see it in someone’s eyes, or hear it verbalized, knowing what someone wanted to happen – regardless of whether or not it did – lands on us. We feel it. It’s the thought that counts.

Or we don’t. We shut ourselves off to it. We’re cynical about what they were meaning, or what they were trying to say, or how they wanted us to feel, and we turn a cold shoulder. But every time we do I suspect that, on some level, we feel the chill as well. In disconnecting ourselves from them, and what they’re feeling, we disconnect from that feeling in ourselves.

To put all that another way, saying “I don’t care what you meant,” requires you either:

  1. To not actually care (which is hard, I think, requires practice, might not feel that great, and can easily lead to cutting off other ways you care about that person); or
  2. To care, but to say you don’t (which definitely doesn’t feel great, and creates cognitive dissonance).

In Social Justice Land, our cynicism about intentions might be leading to some unintended consequences.

In the beginning of this essay, I shared the two big rationales for why we are so hard on intentions (one, that it focuses our attention on the intentions instead of the impact; and two, that it centers the conversation on the wrong person’s feelings).

Those goals, and the rule of “intentions don’t matter, impact does,” while admirable for a lot of reasons, have been translated into a few dogmatic tendencies that I don’t think serve our overall mission.

The Exceptions to the Rule

For example, there are two exceptions to our anti-intentions rhetoric, ways we uphold the importance of intentions within activism (even if this isn’t exactly a helpful upholding).

For one, we’ve gone beyond simply telling people their good intentions don’t matter, to telling them they have malicious intentions that are different from the ones they say they have. I’ve referred to this as “mind-reading oppressors,” a tenet of SJD. The short version is that we’ll imbue someone with biased or oppressive intentions as explanations for their otherwise innocuous behavior when they say isn’t motivated by that. For example, something they did was bad because it was secretly “White Supremacist” or intended to be racist, despite their saying it wasn’t, and the behavior, on its face, not being that.

For two, whenever someone questions the efficacy of a particular social justice organization, tactic, goal, or person (insofar as they’re engaging in activism) – that is, they say “Hey, I don’t know if the outcome of this is really moving us closer to social justice – we suddenly shift into full intentions matter mode. “They’re trying, and it’s better that they’re doing something than nothing.” Or, worse, following with the previous example, “By questioning the efficacy of that, your intention must be to uphold that form of oppression, or derail efforts we’re making to dismantle it.”

Now, I’m not sharing these as examples of Hypocrisy Theatre, but instead trying to highlight that we still, regularly, as individuals and as a movement, recognize how important intentions are. We have retained norms and language for upholding intentions, investigating them, and prioritizing them – just in specific situations.

And while those two examples might not actually be helping us in the long run, I do think that having a relationship with intentions will.

Certain Suffering

Another thing has happened as a byproduct of our being anti-intentions in the service of not being distracted and centering certain voices. It’s something that I believe was a completely unintended consequence, but nonetheless an thundering outcome: we’ve created a clear delineation of whose suffering we’re allowed to attend to, and whom we should disregard.

Specifically, we have taught ourselves that we should only be tending to the suffering of the marginalized person(s).

The “tending to” part was the goal, but the “only” part I suspect snuck in, at least for many of us. It wasn’t so much that we were saying “don’t care about anyone but the marginalized person” as we were saying “if we care about the dominant group member we might accidentally ignore the marginalized person,” and further amplify societal norms of oppression, domination, and marginalization.

And we didn’t want that. And I still don’t! But the byproducts of this, something we’re seeing all over the place in Social Justice Land, are also something I don’t think we want, or wanted.

As a result of this, we’ve learned not to care about the pain felt by dominant group members, their feelings, or what’s going on behind the scenes in their mind. Not just in specific instances, but in general. We have an informal rule against feeling compassion for someone’s pain if they’re not marginalized, and we’re encouraged to dismiss it altogether.

We have popular language that mocks the suffering of dominant group members – “White tears,” “cis tears,” “first world problems,” “fragility” etc. – which we use to we callously close the door to any conversations about “those people’s” feelings.

Those People

In conversations about intentions and impact, it’s easy for us to slip into “Us” versus “Them” language. We might, for example, say, “If we care about those people’s feelings, we’ll get derailed. We need to be here for the oppressed, the powerless. We can’t care about the people with power.”

In this case, “those people” stands in for anyone who isn’t marginalized, or the particular aspects of their identities that aren’t.

A lot of “those people” stand against the goals of social justice. They see the strategies, policies, language, and more, and disagree. They’re actively trying to block our way.

And a lot of “those people,” despite holding dominant group identities, are doing everything they can to stand with the goals of social justice. They agree with the mission, and are making efforts to help us advance toward living social justice. They’re not really a “those people” at all – they’re “our people.”

Now, which one of those two groups do you think is likely to be unfazed by whatever we do, unharmed by our neglect of their wellbeing?

And which one of those groups would you say is uniquely vulnerable to our cold shoulder? Our callous disregard for their feelings? Our mocking their pain? What I’m saying is guess which group we have the power to hurt. The answer completely revolves around intentions.

When we know someone’s intentions are to support social justice or equity, we also know they are making themselves vulnerable. For us and with us and – most importantly for this topic – to us. They’re exposing themselves to us. Trusting some small part of their wellbeing to the care of the community.

How can we say those intentions don’t matter?

Our Intentions

Quickly, let’s zoom out to the big picture about our intentions, the goals of the social justice movement. I’m struck by three questions.

If our intentions are to create equity for all, a world where every person is able to be healthy, understood, educated, safe – regardless of their identity, or position, or background – whose suffering are we ultimately able to disregard, and still say that our intentions are aligned with our outcomes?

When we notice the outcomes of our intentions, and they might be creating suffering, at what point do we, as a movement, take pause and consider a different strategy?

Finally, how much room do we truly have in this world and movement for “those people” at all?

Reintegrating Intentions within Social Justice

I hope you didn’t read any of this as me saying outcomes don’t matter. They do.

Outcomes, effects, impacts, etc. – they matter. It matters how you made someone hurt with what you said, did, didn’t say, didn’t do, ignored, glossed over, and more. Recognizing that, and creating situations for different, more healthy, more happy outcomes in the future, is a big project, and something I [still] believe rests under the mantle of social justice.

What’s changed is that I don’t see how we can do any of that while ignoring intentions.

There’s room for both. There always has been. We’ve recognized this is limited (and increasingly dogmatic) ways, or with certain caveats. And a lot of us have felt this on some level, that our intentions do matter, or the intentions of people we’re talking to (they matter if they were benevolent, and they matter if they were malicious).

By writing off people’s intentions we’ve been writing off people. Lumping them into a “them,” where everyone who caused harm goes, whether it was careless, intentional, or a backfire of a good intention. And we treat them as all being the same, increasing the number of problems and decreasing the number of problem solvers.

We can hold space for intentions while recognizing the outcomes of the actions. Not only is this humane, but doing so is necessary for us to notice the gap between the intended outcome and reality, and figure out how to build a bridge.

Inviting intentions is adding another plate to the mix, something else we need to spin and tend to. And it will require us to hone skills and competencies, be patient and compassionate, find ways to hold nuance and remedy conflict and repair wounds. It will make it hard for us to silence people, to shut them down without feeling bad about it, or to shut them up and feel good.

And all of that sounds like living social justice to me.

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