The Problem of Intent
October 14, 2019
I haven't been back here in a while, due to various circumstances I won't go into here. If any of Rob's class is watching this space, I just want to say hi. Hope you enjoyed the essay of mine that he assigned.
Anyway, I woke up this morning thinking about the word "intent," as I have been off and on for some time, for reasons relating to the circumstances mentioned above (more on that in a later, catch-up post). My ruminations finally solidified yesterday after watching an episode of Red Table Talk on Facebook (another reason I haven't been back here in a while—Facebook, not Red Table Talk). It's a good episode with Chelsea Handler talking with Jada Pinkett Smith and Adrienne Banfield-Jones about white privilege and parts of it are really painful to watch, mostly the bits from Handler's documentary, in which she interviews white women, mostly poor and conservative, about whether they think white privilege exists (they don't). Handler's own previous dumbassery on the subject is also pretty painful, but she's getting it right now, and that's what matters most.
But there's a point in the video where she tells a story on herself, illustrating her former dumbassery and the person who calls her out said, "It's not about the intention, it's about the reception." A little further on, Handler acknowledges that white people don't want to learn because it's uncomfortable to learn not to be an asshole or a bigot to other people, "you gotta go head first into deep things and get in trouble and say stupid things to learn how to say smarter things." All of which is true. Not just say smarter things, but know smarter things, I would add. The process of learning to be a good ally to people who don't have your privilege is hard and embarrassing and upsetting. It's heartbreaking and guilt-making to realize you've been walking through the world hurting people (if you're not a Rethuglican who enjoys that kind of thing; but I digress.)
And then Jada Pinkett Smith says that key thing that I've been thinking about for ages now: "I think we gotta make some room for people to say stupid stuff sometimes," because racism has been going on for so long that most of it is unconscious now. People don't realize they're being racist unless it's pointed out to them (and that's where other white people need to get off their asses; it's not Black people's job to do that). She continues, "Not every—you know, not every action is racist." So while it may feel racist to the object of the action, it may not to the actor and it may not have that intent behind it.
This is why intent matters—also. Not by itself, but in addition to reception. Because if we are doing our damnedest to be a good friend and generous person, to do the right thing, to not be racist, sexist, bigoted, insensitive, ableist, oblivious to the experiences of others, and we fuck up along the way, a little compassion helps fuel the struggle for everyone. There's a mental health element to this too, and Handler prefaces her part of the discussion with what seems like her irrelevant experiences in therapy to make this point. She spends a long time talking about her own struggles with pain and anger and how realizing how angry she was was because she was in pain was the thing that broke her open, finally, and got some real work done. When we're operating primarily on a foundation of pain (and here I walked away to go make my bed, because, yanno, pain), then the world becomes our enemy. Everyone becomes our enemy. Everyone is out to hurt us, to insult us, to fuck with us, plotting against us to make us miserable, being mean to us. Everything everyone says or does to us that hurts us (and when we're already in pain, this doesn't generally take a lot) is intentional. Because people are bad and mean and hurtful and fuck all ya'll anyway. I hate people.
And that's clearly bullshit. It feels right when we're hurting, and damn if there aren't days when I get up in the morning and look at the news and think What the ever loving fuck is wrong with you people? about nearly everyone in the world after seeing all the hurt we do each other. But to think the whole world is your enemy, that every person you meet, every friend you make, will ultimately betray and hurt you creates a huge number of problems and solves nothing. First, believing we are somehow important enough for individuals in our lives (never mind the rest of the world) to spend their time machinating about how to hurt us is one of the best examples of narcissism I can think of, and utterly delusional. That's like gaslighting yourself. It's also an example of flawed perceptions and expectations. It's our expectations of others, ultimately, that wounds us: expecting perfection, expecting an intimate and automatic understanding of our POV, expecting unearned unconditional love, expecting all the attention. Love people as you find them, and if they, in their own pain and rage, hurt you, love them from a distance.
Worse than this, though, is that anticipating injury from other people assures that this is all we'll ever get from them. Ever. Because everything they do will be an injury to us if we fail to see their intent and their focus. One of the last times my mom came to visit me here in New York, we were walking along the street and she said, in what was clearly a revelatory moment for her, "wow, people are really so focused on themselves that they don't really pay attention to anyone else." This was coming from a woman who agonized over what other people might think of her if she went out without looking perfectly dressed, perfectly coiffed, perfectly dignified, who was painfully self-conscious about how her disability made her look. I wish she had had more time to enjoy the liberation of that revelation. Because she was right about that. People are all dealing with their own pain, their own stuff, their own troubles, and hurting or judging you is not a high priority on their to-do list.
Unless they are so wrapped up in their own pain that they are going to lash out first, and there are some people who are that hurt, that broken. It's good to remember that it's still really not about you in those circumstance; if they are hurting and judging you, what they see in you that they hate is almost always what they hate or feel insecure about themselves. Those folks have a lot of work to do that you can't do for them; all you can do is wish them well and get out of range. Because in their pain, they create more of it. This is what intentional, unexamined and institutional racism and sexism does to people. It creates a cycle of pain that needs work to be broken.
Again, this is why intent matters. If I'm hurting you out of maliciousness that's one thing; I need a slap upside the head and a boot in the rear. If I'm hurting you out of my own pain, that's more understandable but still not excusable; I've got some work to do on myself, then, and owe you an apology and an effort to do better. But if I'm hurting you by accident, because I'm learning to do better and still making mistakes, cut me a break please. Work with me. Call me out, by all means. I can't learn if I don't know I've screwed up. If it's really egregious, don't spare your anger. I can't rightly ask you to do that and I probably deserve it. But don't use my mistake to make judgments about what kind of person I am at the core, because then you're doing the same thing that bigots do. If you think I'm the kind of person who would intentionally hurt others, then we already have a problem of perception and reception on your end. And that's bad intent.
You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.