Update: I have written a companion piece to this post, describing practical ways in which valuing intentions have manifested in my own life. You can find it here.
So often in social justice movements, I see this chant being leveled like some magic bullet: Intent does not matter, impact does. What we’re trying to say when we say rattle off this phrase, often mechanically, is that someone’s intent does not change the impact of harm done or offense caused. While this is a fair point, we need to have a conversation that moves beyond this surface-level zinger that often works to shut down a conversation, express solidarity among marginalized people, and focus on harm done. And don’t get me wrong: shutting down a frustrating, abusive, derailing conversation is a worthy goal. Expressing solidarity, and focusing on harm done are also worthy goals. But that doesn’t change the fact that we can think harder, more critically, and more deeply about what is actually happening with this phrase: ” Intent does not matter, impact does.” as it’s being circulated among our communities. In other words, we need to consider the impact of this statement in critical ways.
As Melanie Tannenbaum writes “there’s a fundamental issue in this “intent vs. impact” distinction. Pitting intent versus impact presumes that the two are orthogonal — when, in fact, they very much are not. When it comes to our attributions of guilt, blame, suffering, (im)morality, benevolence, pain, or any number of other outcomes, our perceptions of intent are – and have always been – a critically important factor in our perceptions of impact. When participants are told that the actions of one individual have harmed another, the perceived intent behind that action drives whether those participants want the offender to simply apologize and compensate the harmed person (careless/accidental harm) or if they want to seek retribution and punish the offender (intentional harm). Intentional acts are even seen (and experienced) as objectively moreharmful than unintentional acts – even when the end results are actually identical.” Indeed, there are good reasons for why people focus on intent in addition to impact.
I fear, that in our zeal to value the impact on the victim or survivor or marginalized person, we are ceasing to value intent at all. I want to make a distinction here and say that intent does not always negate impact, but it can definitely impact…well, impact. In other words: intent has an effect on the impact caused, and it is difficult, if not impossible, to separate the two.
And actually in our zeal to insist on a strict separation between intent and impact within several social justice and radical communities, we are willfully ignoring how intent is fundamental to how much compassion we can afford people in their own journey of growth and in our own journeys of connection and community building. If we cannot value intention – and that includes intentions around remorse, new understanding, and growth in compassion in other people, then we are dangerously close to an excommunicative, harsh, punitive justice model that seeks not to better communities, but to cut off members for transgressions that they can learn from. Such a model actually unfairly equivocates between different levels of harm, different levels of intent, as having the same impact, and assigns a cold label to everyone: “Guilty”. The truth is, such a model is not fair to communities as a whole, and does not leave room for improvement: this punitive model only leaves room for punishment.
In no way am I saying also that abused, traumatised, marginalized survivors of any violence have to forgive, or perform transformative justice, or listen to apologies or intent. What I am saying is instead that
valuing intention can be a radically compassionate act under some specific circumstances that can help build communities instead of tearing us apart, that I use as a guiding principle in my own life these days, especially considering my own interaction with my family, with abusive people in the community, as well as and there have been some great examples of such compassion in recent social justice media (see ngọc loan trần’s “My mother didn’t come to my wedding and why I don’t blame her”, as well as Alex-Quan Pham’s “3 Reasons Queer Asians Can’t Discard Their Families – And Why They Don’t Have To” . )
ngọc loan trần writes that: “It would be unfair of me to assess how much my mom loves my partner and I by whether or not she was at my wedding. It wouldn’t make sense and it wouldn’t be fair to my mom. Intuition tells me this is an issue of oppression, of the psychic violence of imperialism and war—not whether or not my mom loves me.
The relationship I have with my mom now is significantly different than what we had 5 years ago or even just this past June. What I know now about not having my mom come to my wedding is that while I can be upset and frustrated, I can’t bring myself to fault her. These are what relationships are like. These are the kinds of bonds where we risk, where we are (made) vulnerable, where we change that make it worth it.”
To me, this reflected my own frustrations with my relationship with my own mother (see here and here), the hurt I felt when she could not possibly understand some of the issues I was navigating, and the complete the lack of hurtful intent behind any single thing she did, the kind of emotional chasms carved between our experiences through generational differences, and through what ngọc loan trần describes as “the psychic violence of imperialism and war – not whether or not my mom loves me”. I would argue that in my case, this psychic violence extends to centuries of colonialism in my home country, including sexist, queerphobic, slutshaming practices exacerbated through castist practices that were further exacerbated through European colonialism.
I cannot reasonably look at my mother and scream at her going “your intentions don’t matter” when she says something that, on the face of it, just sounds ignorant. I cannot reasonably do that to any family member. Don’t get me wrong: the fights still happen. But I am starting to believe in a real way that I am being unreasonable. People are shaped by their experiences; what my mother has learnt I can only imagine. And similarly, she cannot relate to my life in any real way – but I see her trying really hard to. It is exasperating and hurtful to realise that elements of my life “hurt her”. It feels manipulative. It is manipulative for her to say this. But at the same time, her responses hurt me in ways she does not understand.
But here’s the thing: my mother understands my pain, even now, better than I understand hers. She understands pain, period. And, she understands love a lot better than I do. We may not understand each other, we may not understand each other’s lives or our intentions, but here is the reality: my mother has done immeasurable things for me, with the understanding that she really has no fucking clue who I am. (No really, she really doesn’t.) If that’s not love, what the hell is?
The least I can do is value her intention: it’s all our relationship is based on, and, it is also the compassionate choice in this case. As Alex-Quan Pham writes:
“2. Our Families Are Going Through Their Own Oppression, Too
The reality is that our families are already put under the strain of historical trauma and infinite structures of oppression.
Our families are already under the threat of being ripped apart; there isn’t need for any help from us.
Queer liberation means nothing if our families are still being victimized at every turn.
3. Our Families Are Not Lacking – We’re Just Told They Are
Rather than focusing on the ways that our families need to change, we should emphasize the ways that our families have found ways to survive and support us at the same time.
Leaving our families behind won’t save us. In fact, leaving our families behind may only serve to bolster oppression’s divide-and-conquer tactic.”
I would even argue that sometimes, queer people of colour in rad spaces inadvertently contribute to the narrative that our families are lacking; we have internalised this narrative of “intent does not matter” in dangerous ways that threaten to rip our communities apart. We must be vigilant of ways in which we use political rhetoric in our homes, and the effect (or dare I say, impact!) it has on our families, communities, and connections.
Intent matters. Sometimes. When does intent matter? How does intent matter? How can we ensure we do not cruelly dismiss our own feelings of hurt while still understanding that people can grow to be sorry, to come from a place of love, to intend to be better? I admit that this is not possible in all cases. But I do think as communities, it’s a practice I aim to strive for: to leave room for people to grow, as much as I can, and to meet their truest expression of their self with my truest expression. Indeed, I’m calling for a practice to read for intention when we can afford to do so, and not chucking “intent” out with the trash out of some misguided attempt to uphold empty political rhetoric.
The following is my personal guideline for when I actively, intentionally, choose to value someone’s intent, even if they have harmed me.
1. I process my pain around a particular incident, around a particular person. I do this through writing, and through insightful conversations with a supportive network of close friends. In processing my pain, I actively work to not fetishise it, and I also actively work to make my healing my own: I do not put this work of healing into the hands of those who have harmed me. I do not rely on people who have harmed me to fix the harm that was done. I stop relying on them because the trust simply is not there, and because I have always felt unhappy granting that much power over my happiness to anyone. My healing is my gift to myself, and to others I meet who i can give to. My healing is for me, by me. It is one of the most empowering ways of building closure, knitted through myself, by myself. This closure encourages a rooted strength, one that seeks to mend my hurt heart, to a place before scars. I do not nurse wounds to make them grow, neither do I pick at scabs. I process my pain around a particular incident or person, and I heal. I focus on my worth, on what I bring to others in my life. When healing, I seek not to project their actions onto new people I meet (while still recognizing obvious patterns of power and control that operate on lines of sex, race, gender, or other axes).
2. I contextualise their actions in a wider context of their character, our relationship, our connection, and any apologies they make or statements of growth regarding their understanding of harm done. I do this to see if their harmful action is part of one of their definitive character traits, a moral belief they hold, or a pattern in their behaviour with people. If I find that there is sufficient potential to grow and that they have already done some growth work through sincere apologies and efforts to reconnect, I will then work on searching my own heart to see if there is room there to value their intention for new growth. I do not focus on the past as much. I look to see where people are, and where they are growing towards.
3. I have processed my own pain over what happened to the point where meeting them, interacting with them, opening space in my heart, creating a conscious connection with them does not instinctively hurt me.
In other words, when I find that I am able to process my pain over what happened, I choose to take some steps to value their intention. The more trauma there is, the harder this step is – and the trauma can be from anywhere, and from anyone. Deeply traumatised and hurt people have a really hard time trusting or feeling able to interact without fear of pain, or pain itself. When I get to this point with someone, I am able to understand the hurt that was done to me, and also recognize and value the other person’s position. This step honestly takes me the *longest* to get to in any process of valuing anyone’s intention. It takes me the longest because there is a part of me that is a shadow-me, a me that never quite forgets and never quite forgives. Call it my Scorpio rising. Call it my nature. Call it emotional record stuck on self defense instead of growth. This is my hardest step.
4. I am able to trust this person’s words, be they sincere apologies, promises for growth, or a refined understanding of the harm that was done – and I’m able to trust without suspicion in my heart. What I mean by this is, I don’t feel any sense of loss, suspicion, feeling gaslit when I trust someone in this context. If I am able to do this, then I know I can value their intention in a genuine, and self-secure way regardless of if they hurt me again, intentionally or not.
5. I meet them where they are at, and focus on potential for the relationshi p to build in a new direction, with more emphasis in shoring up the weaker spots in our relationship. I don’t believe in ignoring problems into solutions. Problems don’t magically disappear just because we don’t talk about them. But if I’m valuing someone’s intention, I’m doing it a) not at the expense of my own healing, and b) because I feel this relationship has something to still offer me. The only place where intention is useful is when you can see a relationship getting better, and this sounds a bit paradoxical because the only way you can see a relationship getting better is… well by reading for intent to be better.
But I sincerely believe reading for intent is important in our communities to move to a less disposable way of treating each other. Intent may not always matter as much as impact, but intent always matters for renewing, growing, and building a friendship or connection. And intent is also necessary to value if we are able to grow as communities. This of course complicates our current discourse around abusers and survivors: after all, what does it mean for a community to value the intention of growth of an abuser?
But if we too rigidly follow the “Intent doesn’t matter. Impact does!” slogan, we risk never making room for allowances, and we risk depriving ourselves of the ability to cultivate a gaze that can discern intent. If we never look for intent to grow, under the guise of valuing impact, we will never find that potential for growth; the only option under this slogan becomes to cut people off. And, rad or not, social justice or not, no community can grow and thrive in the context of constantly cutting people off.
“Intent doesn’t matter. Impact does!” is a guide, not a rule. In fact, nothing in social justice praxis should be taken as rules, or decontextualised, or used indiscriminately. I no longer believe in my own social justice that intent does not matter. Indeed, more and more so, I’m finding that reading for intent – and being intentional about building relationships – has helped my communities flourish. It is in this context of community growth and healing that I find valuing intentions can be a radically compassionate act.