Friday, March 1, 2013

Quick Post: Intentions and Bad Cookies

Depression is horrible. I know this is a pretty controversial sentiment, right up there with bee stings aren't fun and Boys Don't Cry is "not a feel good movie." Depression is so horrible that when combined with a persistent illness it's very difficult to drag one's self out of bed some mornings, or even some afternoons. However, things are expected of me. Health and mental well-being are great concepts and all but they don't serve the capitalist machine or help me fulfill my get-a-piece-of-paper-to-signify-my-intelligence plans so I need to prioritize. Since that's hard to jump right into from a position of "if I lay here all day and don't move, maybe I'll feel better tomorrow" I'm doing some blogging first to get warmed up for the important things like journal entries that aren't graded on content.

Here's a slightly more controversial fact: intentions don't matter. It's kind of depressing when you think about it (or maybe that's just me) because intentions are given so much importance in our social interactions. "It's the thought that counts" may be as well recognized for its passive aggressive implications as it is for its honest sentiment but it's still a cultural standard for our feelings on intentions. In America, at least, we've really embraced this concept that well-meaning gestures are much more important than shallow but practical ones. When a surprise goes wrong because your partner turned out to be allergic to the chocolates you bought it's still supposed to be better than if you had ruined the romance by asking beforehand. Romance is a good intention, surprise is a good intention. Here's a better cultural standard: "the road to hell is paved with good intentions."

We treat intentions like some kind of magic spell. Simply by informing someone that our intentions were good and pure there's some kind of expectation that the mistakes we made in the actual implementation should be less painful to us. Imagine if surgeons used this logic. "I only meant to cut out the cancer, I didn't mean to lacerate all those internal organs. Hey, there's no call to get upset, I didn't do it on purpose!" The well-intentioned speakers expect to get away with their mistakes, in fact they will actually be upset if something that they didn't intend to be harmful is called out when it actually causes harm, simply because they're well-intentioned. Consequences aren't nearly as important as disposition for the person that doesn't have to receive the consequences.

Would someone ever forgive a drunk driver for causing a loss of life solely on the basis that their only intention was to get home before the police caught them? It's absurd to imagine.

So what does this mean for those of us in oppressed groups? We're continuously bombarded with messages about who we are, what we want, what is expected of us, and some of those messages are harmful. Actually, I would say the vast majority of what oppressed groups hear in the world is constructed in a way that causes harm to their sense of self and well-being. That's part and parcel of being oppressed, it is itself an aspect of oppression. Some of those messages are aimed at us by people that honestly just want to help. The concerned uncle that's sure just telling you to "suck it up" will help beat back the depression, the police officer that tells a group of young women to watch what they wear when they go out at night, and the politician that tells an African American audience that the best way to reduce gun violence is to have stable monogamous marriages are all probably genuine in their desire to help produce a solution to problems they see. They're still wrong to say it, the effects of their words can still lead to incredible suffering for the people that they're unconsciously disempowering. They ARE at fault for these words.

My point is simple: you are judged based on what you actually say, not what you mean to say. Your words are harmful based on what people hear, not what you think they SHOULD hear. If you are striving to be a genuinely good person this means you have to take responsibility not just for your words but for the effect they have and respond in kind. Don't be defensive, don't try to shift the blame to how the other person perceives what you said, just accept that they have had a reaction and you now need to operate from that situation instead of the one you envisioned. This applies to everything: misgendering, racial insensitivity, slurs you didn't know where slurs.

There are no rewards for trying not to be a horrible person and not making it. There's no way to request that reward in a well-intentioned manner. No one wants to give you a cookie just for trying, and if someone does it's probably full of salt.

1 comment:

  1. You know what's so much better than intentions? Communication. I think something our society needs is to look more towards communication as a starting point, rather than intent. Ask questions, be truthful and for the love of this green earth - if you have a problem with someone do your best to talk to that person.