Friday, December 23, 2016

Intent versus impact...

and other faulty ways of experiencing ourselves and our behavior has been on my mind lately. This all has to do with working to better understanding how the process of invisibling work and seem to be so effective.

I briefly touched on the intent/impact notion in a previous post but I didn't do any work toward tying it into the invisibling process.

Audre Lorde knew full well that a big part of working against oppression meant working on ourselves. By that it's meant that we must work to identifying and modifying the ways of thinking and doing that are oppressive that we've taken into ourselves. We're all, in greater or lesser degree, infected by oppressor logic and thinking and perceiving and behaving...facing that stuff and accepting it and working to comprehend it and change it...that's hard and scary and painful.

It's profoundly tempting to opt out of doing that by embracing denial or other enticing reality avoidance maneuvers. And we all do that from time to time...but...each time we do we betray not only reality, but also ourselves, our ideals and if we persist then sooner or later we'll also betray those who are victimized by oppression. Apprehending and dealing with what's real is a pain...but the alternative is much worse. 

So...I've been really wallowing around with trying to come to some greater understanding and comprehension of the curious and misleading phenomenon of the fascination with intent. For this sort of erroneous thinking to be so persistent and extensive, I wondered if maybe it isn't based on more powerful things than simple ignorance or crummy thinking ability (or meanness).

And...well...maybe some of it is.

One study I found relates to this issue of our being "wired" or naturally biased toward cognitive/emotional emphasis on intent instead of impact.

Most of us tend (I include myself) to assign more weight to someone's "intent" when they do something than we do to the "impact" or outcome of what they do. The old "but I didn't mean it that way" kind of stuff.

That kind of emphasis on "intent" is very widespread, when in fact, it's rather weird (in a way) . Maybe it has more to do with how we are as beings than it has to do with whether we're paying considered attention to reality.

Sure enough, this article over on the Scientific American website suggests this sort of biased way of thinking may be "wired" or built into us. Aspects of this show up in humans as young as 10 or 12 months of age. Some studies show that:
"Intentional acts are even seen (and experienced) as objectively more harmful than unintentional acts – even when the end results are actually identical."
That's a pretty powerful statement. Think of it this way, if you or I get run over by a truck and killed...then we're dead...and...whether the driver of the truck intended to run us over or not makes not one whit of difference in whether we're dead or not. Dead is dead...but...apparently we're prone to somehow comprehend or perceive being dead by intent as being more harmful than being dead unintentionally. Whoa.

That's pretty bizarre when you think about it. Would you rather be accidentally killed by a friend or deliberately killed by an enemy? There's strangeness in there that needs more thinking about. Hint...it's better to not be killed at all.

There are other writings about intent versus impact here and here. I noticed when I looked over some of the articles about intent/impact that none (that I saw) made reference to the Scientific American writing about our bias in that direction. That's unfortunate because being aware of a built in tendency in our thinking can assist us in countering it. And...it can be countered since it's only a tendency, not some sort of mental law kind of thing.

We seem to conflate or erroneously mix together the intent of the perpetrator with the outcome for the victim...when...in fact...outcome and intent are not connected in that way.

The state of mind or motivation(s) of the perpetrator of harm aren't related to the magnitude or intensity or impact of the harm or even whether the action is harmful or not but we tend to squish those two things together in the ways we perceive/think.

If I accidentally punch you in the nose or deliberately punch you in the nose...for you and your nose...my "intent" is irrelevant...your nose gets punched either way. But somehow, we apparently are geared to tie the harm a nose endures to what was going on inside the puncher who did the punching. Hmmm...

That's not good thinking. That is not perceiving reality accurately.

So...how might this stuff play into the invisibling of injustice?

Well, if we focus on intent and ascribe great importance to intent then we are ooched in the direction of distorting our comprehension of the impact...maybe even to the point of invisibling that impact.

If I didn't mean it...then the harm doesn't mean much. We might minimize it, maybe even to the point that we don't even perceive or register the harm. If our perception of the harm dwindles or disappears then that rather smells like invisibling, eh?

Also...notice that when we focus on intent then we're centering the attention onto the perpetrator of harm rather than on the victim of harm. Hmmm.

Notice too that in the notion of white privilege, a presumption of being "well intentioned" seems to be associated with "good white people"...even though such folks may be recipients of that which is taken from others (focus on intent and not impact?). A magical sort of thinking that suggests that if we don't think bad things then we can't do bad things (or benefit from bad doings?)

If I intend no harm, then I can do no harm, or, whatever harm I do won't be awful because my intentions are good, or, if my intentions are good then I can't be blamed it the outcome is bad. Notice how weird and silly that stuff looks when it's clearly expressed.

Now...we have to also consider the factor of whether we "really" didn't know what we did would cause harm. Did we "really" not know or could we have known if we had spent the effort/time to figure out whether it would cause harm.

Often we tend to think that if our intentions are good then we're sort of protected against doing terrible awfuls and that can easily lead us into not spending time and effort considering the impact of what we do. Maybe this bias in our ways of thinking serve to lead us toward being ignorant and not attentive to factors that are extremely important.

What if our culture encourages us to be inattentive to (or to disregard) the harms inflicted by well intentioned? What if our culture encourages us to think that if we mean no harm (consciously anyway) then we're "innocent"?

If I didn't mean to cause harm then no harm happened or any resultant harm was inconsequential. Once again, that sort of smells like invisibling. Also notice that this sort of teaching gains extra power or effectiveness from the fact that it goes in the same direction that we seem to be inherently biased toward...focusing on intent instead of impact.

There's an old saying: "The road to hell is paved with good intentions." It's one that can alert us to the fact that intent and impact are not the same thing and believing that "good intentions" protects us from doing great harm is both dangerous and false.

(As always, I'm floundering around trying to figure this stuff out and...I'm limited by my being socially positioned as a white male...therefore...my comprehension/understanding is necessarily constrained by that positioning. So, any omissions, errors or screw-ups you might detect in this post and that you're willing to let me know about will be respectfully appreciated. Thank you.) 

3 comments:

Have Gone Vegan said...

Definitely I think we're hard-wired in valuing intent, as I even struggled a bit with this post. Maybe it's related to my need to know the why of something in order to accept the what. As an example, a friend of mine would often say no to an invitation and the why for him would be irrelevant, whereas for me the why was more important. I didn't really care whether he said yes or no, as long as I knew why it was yes or no. Which, is similar to intent versus outcome I guess.

I think intention IS important, but that doesn't or shouldn't equate to no harm is done if we meant no harm. Harm is harm, unintended or not. But yes, I get your point on the center of attention being on the perpetrator rather than the victim, so will have to mull this over a bit more... :)

veganelder said...

Thank you for commenting HGV. You make an interesting observation about the use of intent as a tool for us to engage in "understanding". I'm a little leery of that phrase you used "accept the what" though. Perhaps I'm not understanding. If I think about a victim killed by a truck (as in the example in my post) I'm not sure how "accept the what" figures into that? The victim isn't (as far as I know) going to be engaging in any process of understanding and for anyone else struggling to "understand"...none of those efforts will change the status of the victim (who is dead). Any help appreciated.

Have Gone Vegan said...

Yeah, "accept" wasn't a good choice of words. "Understand" would have been better, although it doesn't help answer your question yet. So let me see if I can maybe help by answering a couple of your questions in the post, and then I'm gonna talk it out, so to speak, to see if I can better understand it myself...

"Would you rather be accidentally killed by a friend or deliberately killed by an enemy?" Absolutely the former, even though the impact is still the same. Why? Because the latter would have involved malice, and made the incident even more awful because there would have been a greater probability that it could have been prevented. The law, too, takes into account intent, and distinguishes, for example, between manslaughter and murder. As it should.

"If I accidentally punch you in the nose or deliberately punch you in the nose..." Yes, the difference matters. Not in terms of impact of course, but how I feel about what happened, and how I feel about you. Accidentally punching me means I'll likely forgive you, whereas if you do it deliberately, well, I would possibly hit you back, and at the very least, decide you're no longer worth interacting with.

But maybe it's more a matter of WHEN intent matters, and to what degree. Perhaps in the more individual instances like the examples above, intent plays a bigger factor because the instances are more isolated, more personal, and not part of a bigger pattern. Hopefully, not too much punching or getting hit by trucks will occur. But when we get to more complex issues or larger group patterns of behaviour like racism, impact does matter more than intent.

It's when we talk about harm that I disagree with some of your statements. When you punched me, for example (how dare you! ha ha), you still harmed me, whether it was intentional or not. I still registered the harm, harm was done, the harm was still awful (my nose bled!), and I most certainly DID blame you for being a klutz and hitting me. But, I would have been a lot more pissed off if you had done it on purpose, so to me, intent IS a mitigating factor. However, nothing can erase that harm took place.

So I think we can agree that intent and impact are two different things, but I would argue that intent does still sometimes have a bearing. Going back to a larger issue like racism mentioned above, impact more or less overrides intent here, because the behaviour involved is part of a more systematic behavioural pattern of not only individuals, but also groups. Thankfully, getting punched doesn't happen consistently. Racist behaviours, though, do, and then intent isn't as important. An individual may have good intentions, but racist comments and attitudes are still harmful, regardless of intentions. Multiply all those individual acts so that it forms a larger group pattern, and impact is multiplied as well.

Bear with me, I'm still thinking out loud here, and may be repeating myself... So in certain cases impact matters more, and intent matters less. It's almost an inverse relationship. Intent has greater significance in isolated individual instances, but less significance in more common and bigger patterns of problematic behaviours like racism, or probably any of the isms.

That's all I can come up with for now. Hope it helps a bit. But yeah, punch me again, and you're in for it, pal! ;)