Intention Matters — Sometimes

The idea of intent and its role in harm/recovery has been more argued about than discussed on the internet.

Like all of us, I’ve got my own take. And of course, my take is best *wink*.

That said, I’ve noticed that arguments about intent tend to lack a lot of nuance. Now, nuance is often a word used in Twitter wars to mean ‘let me use lots of words to show how I’m right, and you are wrong.’ But as an educator, I’ve found that nuance (meaning ‘exploration of the way context and perspective change how we understand something’) is critical. I can’t help people learn if I reduce shit to soundbites. I need to expand it, explore it, put in all the context, and nuance the shit out of it.

So this is me, nuancing the shit out of intent. But before I get into it, let me give you the ‘TLDR’ version. (Actually, the TLDR version came first on a Fedi conversation, and this essay is an outgrowth of that.)

I think the role a person has in a discussion is what determines whether intentions matter?

For the harmed person, intentions don’t matter at the beginning, and being reminded ‘but good intentions!’ contributes to the harm. They MAY matter at the end when they are rebuilding (or not) their relationship with the parent.

For me, as an educator, intentions matter bc they let me better communicate with the parent.

For the parent intentions don’t matter bc at best they distract from the issue at hand and at worst are a manipulative lie.

So if you don’t want to read a long essay on intent, when it matters, why it matters, so on and so forth, that’s it. There’s your take away — whether or not intent matters doesn’t depend on what is happening. It depends on who you are in that situation.

For the rest of us, let’s back up a bit. Before we can get into when/whether intent matters, we need to ask ourselves

what is intent

Now, this question could be (and is) many essays all on its own. It’s actually a philosophical question. With lots of offshoots — how do we understand our intentions? How can we know the intentions of others? etc, etc. (If you ever questioned whether philosophy matters, here’s your answer. Philosophy is critical — and so is knowing when it’s stopped being critical, and become another distraction.)

Merriam-Webster (I love those folks) says that intent is “the thing that you plan to do or achieve: an aim or purpose.”

According to Wikipedia, intentions are “mental states in which the agent commits themselves to a course of action.” (2 sentences into the Wiki page and you fall head-first into Western philosophy and a bit of psychology).

Both of these (and other sources) generally say that intent is a state of mind. Our intentions are what we are thinking about when we do something. (‘Intention’ is related to ‘intent,’ after all.)

This is important because one phrase that gets thrown around is ‘good intentions.’
If an intention is ‘what we are thinking about when we do something,’ what is a good intention? Is it simply thinking about doing good when we do something?
If so, what is good? (Yakko and Wakko pop out of the local water tower to yell, “Helloooooooooooooooooooooooooo philosophy!”)

Yeah, we’ll just leave that little ticking time bomb alone for a moment, okay?

On the other hand, we might say that a good intention is ‘an intent to do something that [we consider] good.’
(that ticking time bomb didn’t go far, did it?)

We can’t discuss ‘good intentions’ without discussing ‘what is good.’ That /immediately/ becomes all kinds of philosophical and (importantly) subjective.[fn of course, some philosophers believe that there can be /objective/ good and evil. But since no one can agree on what those are, in practice, it’s subjective. Philosophy is awesome in its place, but in this one thing, Aristotle got it right: theory must give way to practical reality.]

Now, we could get into this deep, in-depth, subjective, philosophical discussion of what is good, what makes something good, etc.

But that’s not a discussion most people want to have. We especially don’t want to have it while in the middle dealing with trauma and toxic shit.

This is why we have an internet meme that bypassed the ‘intent’ issue entirely. I’m sure we’re all familiar with it–[fn. You’ll note I didn’t actually offer any answer to ‘what is a good intent?’ Sometimes asking the question is more important than finding the answer.]

Impact > Intent

Impact is greater than intent.

With one phrase, we have refocused the discussion away from intent and onto outcome. This makes the discussion MUCH easier to have. We left all that sticky philosophy behind under the other heading (or so it seems) and can focus on hard, practical reality.


Well, there are a few problems with this. One is that many people took it too far. Somewhere along the way, it went from ‘impact is *greater* than intent’ to ‘only impact matters, bringing up intent is making excuses.’

I leaned hard on the whole ‘impact > intent’ for a while myself. In facing up to my own racism, internalized ableism, settler mindset, etc., it helped me divorce from the knee-jerk reliance on my intention. I could better listen to what other people were saying.

But when it came to addressing the harm done to me, I found it a lot less useful.

And as an educator, I found it a damn pain in the ass. The idea was great, and the presentation… often became a barrier.

relationships, sex, and ableism

I spent nearly 10 years doing educator work on relationships (primarily polyamory and other nonmonogamies) and sex. I’m about 3 years into focusing on disability education, with a focus on autism. And when and how I could, I’d put on my teacher glasses and do some work educating on other social justice issues (largely on Quora, but a bit other places). That’s a lot of time dealing with people who knee-jerk reject what I was saying.

Time spent finding ways to get through to them anyway.

Most folks who spend time as an educator-activists learn that you need to meet people where they are. You need to understand them and understand how they understand the world, how they communicate. Or they will never understand you. If the folks I was trying to reach didn’t understand me, I wasn’t getting anywhere.

At the same time, writing polyamory for polyamorous folks, I found many questions I couldn’t answer without addressing the intent. What is cheating and what is a misunderstanding? What is sexual assault and what is miscommunication? Is there a difference? Is it ‘rape’ regardless of intent? Or is ‘rape’ intentional and we need another word for ‘I thought you were into it!’? How about abuse? Among folks who deal with abuse and abuse recovery, abuse is usually defined as ‘intent to control or deny agency.’ So what happens when the ‘abuser’ doesn’t intend to control, but someone is still denied their agency? What do we call it? How do we address it?

All these questions and more were a major part of my work the past 5+ years.

These questions were also personal for me. How did I label, define, and explain things other people had done to me or I had done to others? Or what we had done to each other?
In some ways, it was even more frustrating when I would talk about these things on social media. Like clockwork, some well-meaning person would pop up to tell me that ‘intention doesn’t matter/doesn’t mean much when people are being hurt.’

And when I’m trying to help someone recognize abuse and figure out if their relationship is abusive, fuck, yes, ‘intent’ and its role (or lack of) in defining abuse matters! When I’m trying to work out for myself how I feel and process the harm my parents did, intent bloody well mattered. And no one had a bloody right to tell me it didn’t! It was my harm, wasn’t it? My recovery process? Fuck off with that shit.

So it wasn’t long before I was mostly done with impact > intent. I still pulled it out as a teaching tool sometimes. But overall, I moved on.

What Did My Audience Need to Hear?

I still agreed with the reasoning behind ‘impact>intent.’ But it wasn’t enough to tell people they shouldn’t focus on intent. People focus on intent for a reason — actually, for two different reasons. And getting them to let go of intent meant addressing the ways and reasons they were caught on it.

People who were being harmed (usually in abusive or toxic relationships) wanted to know if the harm was intentional. They thought they needed to understand the intent before they could decide how to respond.

People who were told they had been/were being harmful were caught up in cognitive dissonance — they never intended harm, so how could harm have happened? ‘I would never hurt them; I love them!’ ‘I only want what’s best for you.’ so on and so forth.

Both these groups needed to let go of intent. But just saying ‘impact > intent’ didn’t help them do that. They needed someone to hear them before they could move on.

“Look, hon, whether they mean to be shitty or not doesn’t matter right now. You need to get yourself out of this situation. Later you can decide if they meant to be abusive or not, if you can forgive them or not. Right now, you need to take care of yourself.”

“I know you love your kids and would never *want* to hurt them. But you’re human: you make mistakes. You did hurt them. Now, what are you going to do about it?”

Many (though far from all) of the people who were suffering needed to me acknowledge that the people who harmed them weren’t monsters. That people with good intentions could harm them, and someone who loved them could also destroy them. “I’m sure they do want to help. They don’t realize their ‘help’ is hurting. It’s not their fault, but you still need to take care of yourself.”

And most people who had done harm needed someone to point out the cognitive dissonance they were fighting through. “You never meant to hurt them; you wanted what’s best for them. But you can’t force them to have what you think is best. If you love them, you need to accept them as they are.”

It’s About Returning

In Judaism, we don’t have ‘redemption’ like most folks (Christian or not) raised in Christian societies. (That’s most of Europe and the Americas. I don’t know about the rest of the world.)

We have teshuva, returning. We all begin as good souls, our best selves. Through life — harmful teachers, trauma, poor choices, etc. — we lose track of our best selves and can do a lot of harm.

When we have harmed, we want to return to who we were, to the best self that we lost.

But there is another meaning to ‘return’ in this context. Because we have achieved teshuva when, put in the same situation again, we do the right thing. We return to the moment of our error and don’t repeat it.

What I, as an educator-activist, want for the people I help is this returning. For the Autism Mommy(TM) to be faced with a critical autistic activist and this time listen. For the once unacknowledged racist to speak out again the racist jokes at their job. For the homophobe to welcome their queer family, the transphobe to say, ‘what are your pronouns?’

When they have done these things, when they have returned to the moment of their harm and changed course… When the guy who three years ago on Quora was denying trans people exist and today is using his experience in his field to address trans inclusivity and the best way to achieve it…

This is teshuva.

And it isn’t just about the people who did the harm — It’s also someone whose partner is gaslighting them, ‘returns’ to the moment of being gaslit, and finds their truth to push back. Someone who is subjected to harassment and doesn’t internalize it again but says, ‘I need to cut these shit people out of my life.’ Someone can finally say, ‘I love you mom; but I’m not coming to holidays again until you stop ______________.’

These folks, also, are returning to their best selves.

Sometimes, to help people return to their best selves, I need to remind them (and those around them) what their best selves are. What those ‘good intentions’ actually were, and how they are falling short of them.

All This is Really Personal, Isn’t it?

Most of my work has been personal. One-on-one or with small groups. Sometimes put up in public for other people to see but, yeah, I am always writing for or talking to a few specific people.

Right now, in this essay, I’m writing for me-ten-years-ago. The me who was just getting comfortable answering questions and talking about polyamory. Who wouldn’t dream of calling myself an ‘educator’ (or an activist). Who was just starting to do the work and figure out how and what it meant.

Who was caught up in my own trauma and if I should (how I could) forgive my abusers, embrace my queerness, own my autistic self.

Which is why there is one more thing I need to address. One more time when intent matters.

Welcome to Recovery

Some folks who have gone through trauma recovery will know where I’m going with this.
There comes a point in recovery when you need to decide what your ‘relationship’ with those who harmed you will look like going forward. This is true whether we’re talking about harm from an oppressive society and social structure, an abusive parent, a shitty boss, whatever.

In some cases, the decision is easy. If you can get another job, you’ll likely say ‘fuck you’ to the shitty boss and never see them again.

But some harmful folks we don’t want to separate ourselves from (parents) or can’t separate ourselves from (the society we live in).

For some of us, at that moment, intentions may very well matter. For me, knowing that my parents didn’t intend harm was a major reason I tried to reconnect. If I thought that they intended harm, I would have been so out of there much sooner.

My answer to an oppressive society has been more complicated. Because large parts of this society, and the structure this society was built under, *do* intend me harm. Queer, autistic, Jewish, AFAB me. But more than the intent to harm, what made my decision was the intent to seduce. The society we live in intended to seduce, recruit, and assimilate me: to make me an agent of harm not just against myself but against other people. That intent, to me, matters very much.

Remember — people who say that intentions matter are often talking about forgiving folks with good intentions. But there are bad intentions too.

And if someone has bad intentions, then we damn well should be taking those into account!

Wow, you made it!

Even for me, this is a pretty long essay, thanks for sticking with me to the end. I hope I gave you some stuff to think about, maybe a new way of looking at things.

If you have thoughts about intent and it’s role (or lack of) in education and/or trauma recovery, you’re welcome to share in the comments.

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No, I’m Not Making Aliyah — And that Doesn’t Make Me a Bad Jew

Continue to:
Local Action: Start Where You Are
What Is Hierarchy and Why It Isn’t Evil Incarnate
What Is Harm?