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Why your intentions don’t really matter, but outcomes do

by Sam Killermann · 21 comments

in Social Justice

"Ingrid's Intentionality Elixir" Comic

I’ve created a few graphics about when it’s okay to say “gay” and the one argument that keeps coming up goes something like “How can you regulate language? What’s offensive to one person is not to another.  What matters is your intentions.”

Intentions don’t matter, effect does.

I will elaborate on my response to that question more in a bit, but first I want to pose another question, and posit an answer.

Why the fascination with intentions?

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There are a couple of things at play here that lead to the focus on the intentions rather than the outcome: the ideas of “political correctness” and “victim blaming,” and, most importantly, how they interact.  Before I can explain the interaction, let me explain what they are.

Victim Blaming 101

The phrase “blaming the victim,” coined by psychologist William Ryan in his mid-70s book about race and poverty, is tossed around a lot these days surrounding instances of rape (and date-rape).  The concept hasn’t changed much in the past forty years.  So, what is it?

Victim blaming is when a perpetrator of some crime deflects the fault back on to the person they committed the against, effectively justifying the crime and absolving themselves of any guilt.  As I mentioned before, the most common time you’ll hear about this these days is in cases involving rape, and the most common argument is “she was asking for it” (usually because of how she was dressed or because of the previous relationship with the offender).

Sound screwy to you?  Then you’re in the minority.  Most people seem to think that rape victims are at least partially to blame for being raped.  That says a lot about a lot, but tuck it away for a minute while we focus on the other part of this equation.

“Political Correctness”

I don’t think the graphics I make or anything I do here or in my live show is encouraging being “politically correct.”  I support being inclusive.  I wrote an entire article about the difference between being inclusive and politically correct, so I’ll let you read that if you want to hear more.  For this article, all that’s important is knowing that a lot of people oppose my graphics (and my life in general) because they oppose the idea of being “PC.”

The opposition to “political correctness” appears to be strong across the political spectrum.  Regardless of left or right leanings, people don’t like to be told what to say, and they don’t like being censored.  I echo those feelings.

The problem is how this gets twisted into some confusing and contradictory outcomes.

Victim Blaming + Political Correctness = Intentions > Outcomes

If math isn’t your thing, the heading here means that victim blaming and political correctness interact in such a way that it leads folks to believe and support the idea that intentions are more important than outcomes.  As I mentioned before, outcomes are what matter most (more on that in the next section), so this is a problem.  But how does it happen?

The Situation

Let’s consider an example related to the graphic that spawned this article: knowing the “right” label to use.  A well-intentioned person calls his gay friend “a homosexual,” because he’s concerned that gay is an inflammatory term (happens all the time).  He is trying to be a good dude, and a good friend.  But his friend corrects him, pointing out that “gay” is a better term, and “homosexual” has negative, science-experimenty, uncomfortable vibes.

The Reaction

The well-intentioned friend is now spurned, because he feels that he was trying his best to be inclusive, and his friend is just (a) nit-picking, (b) impossible to please, (c) asking too much, or (d) has a problem with straight people.  He argues, either verbally with his friend or nonverbally with himself in his head, that he meant well, and his friend should recognize that.

The Problem

People, in general, don’t like to be told what to say — this goes for well-intentioned people as well as jerks.  When our well-intentioned person went out of his way to say what he thought was the “right” thing, we was stretching himself in two ways: he was saying something he wasn’t comfy with, but saying it because he thought it was “PC” (i.e., “right”); and he was taking a risk to try and be a good dude to his friend at the expense of failing and feeling like a jerk.  And when that happened we jumped from the Political Correctness frying pan into the Victim Blaming fire.

Being corrected by an individual when he already feels like he’s being “corrected” by society at large (being “PC”), is tough medicine to swallow.  Throw in the fact that the reason he was being “PC” was due to empathetic concern for his friend’s feelings and wants — his intent was to make his friend feel safer/comfier/faster/stronger (sorry, went Daft Punk there) — and you have a recipe for emotional confusion.

To protect himself from feeling like a bad person (he’s not, mind you, but people are quick to take a correction for a particular behavior as code for “you’re a bad person”), he has to deflect blame to someone or something else.  He can get pissed at society for wanting him to be “PC,” or he can get pissed at his friend for being impossible to please.  This is how victim blaming works.  Making this seem like his friend’s fault will make him feel better about himself — after all, his friend is the gay one, he has to expect to be misunderstood or mislabeled.  He’s basically asking for it.

Why do outcomes matter more than intentions?

So here’s the real doozy.  This is a fight I fight every day.  Why am I fighting a war against well-intentioned folks?  Well, I’m not.  I think well-intentioned folks are awesome.  I identify as a well-intentioned person.  But I’m going to stick by my guns: intentions, in the grand scheme, don’t mean squat.

When good intentions go bad

The first (and biggest) issue I have with intentions is how often good intentions go bad.  And a really common reason they go bad is because we, as individuals, have individual wants and needs that are different from one another.  How you manifest your good intentions and how I manifest mine are likely different, and how the object of our intentions receives them will likely be just as different.  We often treat others how we want to be treated, instead of how they want to be treated (read more on that here).

You see this pan out especially bad when there is a cultural divide.  What is good or nice or helpful in one culture is not necessarily good or nice or helpful in another.  In fact, it might end up being just the opposite.  Intentions are flawed.

But it’s the thought that counts

Nope, actually it’s not.  How can you count on another person knowing what you’re thinking, and knowing that you mean well?  Even amongst close friends arguments are often caused due to the slightest bit of misunderstanding, why would you not expect this to happen with strangers?

Let’s say I bought a gift for my good friend that I thought she would absolutely love (true story).  Now let’s say that this gift turned out to be something that triggered an incredibly visceral, damaging memory from her past (also true story).  Should she wear this thing and tote it around because of how thoughtful I was, or should tell me what happened and decline the gift?  She certainly felt pressured to do the former (because it was a gift, and beggars can’t be choosers, and it’s the thought that counts, and other cliches), but thankfully for her well-being and our friendship she did the latter (end of story).

Intentions are capricious and theoretical

In any relationship (between two individuals, a teacher and a class, between one group and another) there are going to be countless interactions, all bearing an immeasurable weight of intentions.  Those intentions are bound to change from interaction to interaction and be interpreted (or misinterpreted) based on the receiver’s mood or disposition.

What’s more troublesome is that intentions are theoretical agreements that are made between the intender and the intendee, without the intendee’s awareness of the agreement or the terms.  You wouldn’t mentally sell someone a car, mentally draw up all the paperwork and mentally collect the money, then, after presenting this deal to the person in real life and in past tense (i.e., it already happened), snap when they aren’t okay with the “deal” they just made, would you?  No, you wouldn’t.

Outcomes are consistent and real

On an individual level, outcomes are relatively consistent and predictable.  If someone says X to me, I’ll likely respond Y.  Or, more refined, if someone says X to me, and I’m feeling Z, I’ll likely respond Y.  For example, if someone calls me a “fag,” and I’m in a good mood, I’ll respond Socratic-ly.  It doesn’t matter if they said it “to be funny,” or “because you’re wearin’ them flip-flops.”

What’s even more important is that outcomes happen externally.  It doesn’t matter if you didn’t mean to hit that bunny with your car, you did.  You were a well-intentioned driver and now you have a dead bunny.  What are you going to do about it?  You can try to adjust your driving (pay more attention, drive slower, etc.), or you can blame the bunny (shouldn’t've been there).  In either case, it happened, regardless of your intentions, and now you get to choose how to move on.

Moving beyond good intentions

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When people ask me what I do for a living, I like to respond I help good people be better people.  Well-intentioned people are good people.  We just have a little ways to go to be better people, and it all takes place after the outcome, not before it.

Don’t take it personally

It was not my intention to include as many cliches as possible in one article, so whoops.  But seriously: if you’re a well-intentioned person and your good intentions backfire, don’t take it personally.  It happens.  The outcome may have been bad, but that doesn’t mean you are.

There’s a difference there.  We are the sum total of our experiences, we aren’t defined by one mistake.  It’s easy to think that, to fall into that trap, but as soon as you take it personally when someone doesn’t react well to your good intentions things are only going to get worse.

Learn from your mistakes

You probably think I mean that, in a follow up to the last point, you should try to avoid whatever created that outcome to not have it happen again, right?  Wrong.  Focus less on intentions and the other people and what happened and more on yourself.  If you don’t take it personally when you screw up, and you don’t get frustrated trying to be inclusive, you’ll do a much better job at all of it.

Remember, the same action with the same intention can result in an infinite number of outcomes.  The only constant is you, and how you react to the reaction, regardless of how it goes.  Learn what your triggers are, learn how you can lessen them, and don’t allow yourself to continue tripping over the same roots.

Open yourself up to failure/learning

It’s funny that people harp on me about how intentions should matter more and etcetera etcetera etcetera when a majority of my time each day goes to cleaning dead bunnies off my car (metaphorical dead bunnies in email and comment form — I’m not a bunny-murderer).  I’m a well-intentioned person, and everything I do professionally is a manifestation of those good intentions, but the outcomes are often bad (shining example).  But I’m here to fail/learn, and I’ve learned how to fail/learn gracefully.  Heck, I even ask for it, and a lot of the best stuff I’ve created here has been the result of a zig-zag of failures and learning (thanks to fantastic article comments and emails).

Realizing that you’re likely going to fail and being okay with that is what helps make failing and learning become failing/learning.  The two are so blurry to me that only a little slash separates them.  You’re going to screw up.  Count on it.  I’m going to go out on a limb and use another (another) cliche here and remind you that everybody falls down, but it’s what you do when you get back up that matters.

Written by Sam Killermann

Sam is a writer and performer who uses those skills as an ally to advance progress in the realms of LGBT equality and social justice. He tours the country speaking to college students about stereotypes, prejudice, and oppression, and writes for this site when he's at home in Austin, TX.

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  • Amy

    I just love you. You always manage to clearly articulate explanations and concepts and arguments in a way that I am never able to do.

    In my very, very, very rural town, I give trainings to various organizations about how to be more welcoming to and inclusive of the LGBTQ community; often, a substantial amount of time is dedicated to the basics – “LGBTQ 101″.  When it comes to things-people-always-wanted-to-know-but-never-had-an-opportunity-to-ask, I swear the participants in my trainings are all working off the same script; I hear the same things over and over again …. But no matter how much I work on refining my responses so I’m prepared when someone asks one of the inevitable questions, I usually feel like my answers are lacking. There never seems to be enough time (frequently the Q & A part of the trainings gets cut short), and there’s always the opening-the-floodgates “problem”: Participant A starts the ball rolling by hesitantly asking a question, and before I’ve had a chance to finish one sentence of my answer, Participant B, feeling inspired by his or her brave friend, jumps in with another question, and Participant C adds a “Well, what if…” to their question, and so on. Don’t get me wrong, I try to keep the trainings informal, and I always encourage interaction & participation; but all too often, on my drive home while I’m processing a given day’s event, I realize I never actually got to answer Participant A’s original question.

    … Which is where you come in. I’d been including your original “Genderbread Person” as a supplemental handout for participants; after consistently seeing the “lightbulb” go on when people looked at it, I just incorporated it directly into my presentation (and, consequently, I was able to delete 4 or 5 power point slides filled with bulleted lists & definitions that were attempts to explain the same information contained on the Genderbread Person diagram). I’ve found articles & graphics on this site that answer just about all of those inevitable repeat questions – and answer them thoroughly, creatively, and concisely. Several of them are now included in my presentations, and I’ll probably add more as you continue to create & post stuff. I promise that I always always always include your pieces unaltered and in their entirety, with direct links, and I give you full credit and list this site at the end of my presentations in the “Resources to Check Out” section.

    Thank you, thank you, thank you SO much for your handy-dandy helpful website!!!

    • Samuel Killermann

      Aw, Amy, thanks for taking the time to share that comment.  I can relate to your struggles, coming from a social justice training background.  The snowballing questions certainly become tough to address.  ”Firm but sweet” is my approach.

      And I’m truly happy to hear that the site has been helpful to you.  The way you’re using what I’m creating here is EXACTLY what I created it for.  Seriously.  When I redesigned the site I joked about adding a tagline “Helping people better help people be better people.”  After I present/perform, there are inevitably a dozen students/people who have just as many questions.  I do my best to address them all, but I thought it’d be easier to just refer them to specific articles on my site.  ”You don’t really understand gender? I’ve got just the thing for you.”  And so on.
      Not sure if you follow us on Facebook, but I’m hoping to launch a Q&A “Dear Abby” thing here where people can write in with questions and I’ll answer them in articles.  If there are any particular questions you find yourself answering a lot and you’d like to have me take a whack at them, just shoot me an email!

  • Caspar

    Actually, this article really made me think about stuff. I used to think intentions were all important, but you’ve highlighted some interesting things. I’d love to send this article to some of my mates…

    • Samuel Killermann

      Good to hear, Caspar, and I’m happy you read it.  I was worried that the title of the article or the opening paragraphs would be enough to turn away someone who had a strong stance against it.  

      Share away!  I’d love to hear some more feedback.

  • Hillary Carter

    I think the response is just as important. If you respond like a confrontational jerk when someone just tried their face off to NOT offend you are no longer the victim. Say, we’re friends and one day you, curious about horses, come to the barn with me. I bring my horse out of the pasture and you say, “Wow, Hillary, he’s beautiful! I love his yellow coat.” If I respond, “Ummm, actually, Sam, that color is called palomino,” would you come to the barn again with me? What if I said, “Thanks, Sam! It’s funny I call him my yellow boy, but technically the color is called palomino.” Which one goes over better?

    I hate it when people say “oh well you don’t have a family.” Yes I do. My choice not to reproduce doesn’t mean I don’t have brothers, nephews, cousins, etc. So I politely told our HR gal that while it doesn’t break my heart, it hurts a little to hear people say family when they mean kids. Worked well. I know she wasn’t trying to offend me, so I tried to be considerate when correcting her. Be a decent person, goes two ways.

    • Samuel Killermann

      That’s a really solid point, Hillary!  It’s amazing how much the slightest difference in phrasing and framing can change things.  It’s an interesting take on the opposite side of this article, which I really like.  I’m going to investigate that further and perhaps write a response piece to this one along the lines of “How to respond to someone when you think their intentions are good, but they missed the mark.”  (working title)

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  • Ed Furst

    “The more I get to know people, the more I like dogs”  -  Anonymous

    • Samuel Killermann

      Ha – Anonymous knew something I didn’t.

  • Chrisf

    I have a version of your “… everybody falls down, but it’s what you do when you get back up that matters.”
    The next best thing to a great performance is a graceful recovery.
    Long story. But since it happened on the downbeat at the start of the first public show, I felt I could do nothing but go on! Did it so well, so many times in practice. Oh, well. :)

    • Samuel Killermann

      Ooo, I like that version a lot.  I think I’ll adapt it for the future.  It’s much more elegant

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  • Twish

    Hmm. I like this article. A lot. It makes a lot of sense and challenges our idea that somehow intentions can make up for outcomes (which they obviously can’t).

    But I disagree that throughout the article you seem to disregard intentions at all, as if they are secondary to outcomes. You say that ”
    What’s even more important is that outcomes are real.  They aren’t theoretical.” as if intentions are non-real just because they are internal to a person, which is obviously necessarily not the case. Love is internal to a person(outwardly projected, granted, but so are intentions), but I pity any person who believes it is not real simply because of that.Let’s reiterate your example: Imagine a Mutual friend TOLD you that whatever gift you gave your friend would be inadequate, so you maliciously went out to buy it for her. Deliberately. She looks at it, admits it’s not a great present, explains why, and returns it. So it’s all good, because the outcome is good? I disagree. It might be my point of view, but I don’t think so. Here, it’s the bad intentions which seem to count for everything. I think we need to stop thinking of intentions and outcomes as if they were two, separate things, while really they’re not. What we need to start looking, I think, is /actions/. Actions seem to be a bundle of intention and outcome. A good act is one which /is/ good and /does/ good. We can’t justify having either part missing, because it is no longer a good action. If half an apple is rotten, it is a rotten apple.I also agree with Hillary, but I won’t go into that here, save it for another day! Twish. 

    • Samuel Killermann

      Hi Twish, 

      Sometimes I go way out to one extreme because I find that the impact of the extreme can hit harder.  Sometimes that doesn’t work.  I see your point here: intentions are certainly real.  I’ll have to revise that bit.  Thanks :)

      However, I think most people already do think about intentions and outcomes as one mashed-together thing, the way you are describing actions.  I’m advocating that we separate them further, because, as you mentioned with the negative intention part, they really are separate.  

      Let’s consider a couple of extreme examples:

      Bob hates gay people.  He makes a bet with another person who hates gay people and the loser has to donate $100,000 to the Human Rights Campaign.  He loses and donates the money.Bill supports gay rights.  He says that if he ever wins the lottery he will donate $100,000 to the Human Rights Campaign.  He wins and donates the money.

      The intentions between these two folks are polar opposites, but the outcomes are the same.  And, without further investigation, the HRC would probably want to name Bob and Bill Allies of the Year (if that’s a thing).  Does the fact that Bob’s money comes from a negative place make his contribution less helpful?  Or Bill’s being positive more helpful?  No, not really (unless you count the fact that Bob is less likely to be a repeat donor).

      • Twish

        Hmm. Yes. I see your point, what you’re getting at.100k is 100k wherever it comes from. From a bird eye view, yes, the outcomes are the same. 

        But on a personal level, surely they’re not the same? One generates anger, the other peace. 
        If someone offends me intentionally, I take it much more personally than if it’s unintentional. If someone is giving me money because I need it, if someone offers me money to mock me (Not quite sure how this would happen but go with it), I’d probably be humiliated and offended. Sure, the ‘outcome’ in each case is the offence and the humiliation but they are so intertwined with the notion of the intention that you can’t say that the intention is unimportant.Hmm. I think I’m kind of what you’re saying differently though.Don’t get me wrong though. I agree with the article. At the end of the day, if you have a dead bunny, you can do something about it or whine about how you never wanted to squish the thing.Hmm. I’ll keep thinking about this though, and I’ll post again.  

        • Twish

          And why do I lose all the formatting when I post? I spend time trying to make it look half decent then it all squishes into one big paragraph =.= haha

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  • saan

    I really liked this article, but I feel
    that you’re oversimplifying a thing or two. I’m sorry if this will be
    a bit unclear and convoluted, it is due to the nature of the issue.

    When you say “don’t take it
    personally” you assume it’s up to an individual to determine how
    they’re gonna feel after their good intentions turn into bad
    outcomes, and they potentially get called out for it. Unfortunately,
    this is not the case, I feel, especially when it comes to language.
    The whole “you are what you say” thing is a cultural
    construct, a language ideology that is, in a way, very tied into the
    fact that people are very focused on intentions. To quote Hill (The
    Everyday Language of White Racism, p.38), the language ideology of
    ‘personalism’ “holds that the most important part of linguistic
    meaning comes from the beliefs and intentions of the speaker [and] it
    is very widespread.” What this basically means is that if I SAY
    something racist, many people will take that to mean that I AM

    Now I really don’t think I am racist,
    but I have said my share of racist things in my life, often by
    accident (e.g. “dark” and “black” kind of
    converge in my native language, and I mix them up in most
    inconvenient of contexts. dark jokes =/= black jokes). However,
    whenever I, well, slip, I feel very guilty because I am really
    worried about what others will think about me. I don’t think I just
    have to keep telling myself that if I say something bad, it doesn’t
    mean I’m a bad person – I also have to keep telling myself that if
    someone else says/does something bad, they’re not necessarily bad
    people. Everyone should be telling themselves that, until our
    negative reactions to words stop becoming, immediately upon hearing
    them, negative reactions to people who spoke those words.

    You’re right, we often value intentions
    too much, so we often immediately assume that there are bad
    intentions behind bad outcomes. Therefore, I feel that although
    outcomes are the ones that ultimately matter, we do have to
    acknowledge intentions. Knowing whether an intention was good or bad
    will not change the outcome, but it can influence our opinions of the
    person we’re judging based on that outcome. And people often are
    judged based on the outcome, so in a way, we might also be too
    focused on the outcomes.

    An example (and my “you’s” are some
    hypothetical you’s): your neighbor runs over your dog (or a bunny).
    They might’ve done it because they were trying to avoid running over
    a group of children playing on the road. They might’ve done it
    because they are super mean and don’t like you/your dog/bunny. The
    outcome doesn’t change depending on their intention, your dog is
    dead, and just the fact that your neighbour killed your pet might
    make you foster some negative feelings against them. But knowing
    their intentions, will make you feel differently about the whole
    incident. Or something less morbid: you’re hanging out with a group
    of people at a bar, some of them you know, some of them you don’t
    (friends of friends). You hear one of those friends of friends say
    something like: “Dude, that was so gay” or they call someone a
    fag. You immediately feel a bit negative about them, maybe especially
    so because you might not have an opportunity to discuss their word
    choice with them right away. Now, the thing about language is that
    it’s easily heard out of context, or spoken without a very conscious
    choice of words. Often our brains will repeat things we’ve heard over
    and over again, without really thinking about the meaning of what
    we’re saying, and it takes time and effort and practice and failing
    to get language conscious. It also takes time to get ideology
    conscious and at least try to separate immediate emotional responses
    to words/acts from immediate responses to people.

    My point: outcomes are real, but so are
    people’s judgements and outcomes of those judgements. But those
    judgements are partially based on (one’s perception of) the other’s
    intentions. So intentions do matter, especially when they do differ
    from the outcomes.

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