Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Intentional Pain

 Read this interesting article in the Wall Street Journal the other day.

It was all about how the federal government has slowly eroded the use of intent in determining whether or not someone has broken a law. Basically, when federal laws were created, the need to prove intent was paramount in getting a guilty verdict. But over the years as the types of crimes have expanded, so have the laws, and the focus on intent has waned. I suggest you check it out for some good information.

Intent is a tricky thing in America. I was taught as a child that ignorance was no protection under the law. That meant that when I screwed up, I couldn't plead ignorance and expect  reprieve from my parents. They would remind me that my ignorance would be no protection in the real world, and then proceed to punish me. Hell, I remember a teacher asking me to solve a math problem using skills she had never demonstrated to us, then grading me harshly because I didn't know those skills. And when I protested the inherent unfairness of this situation, she told me "You should have known..."

But, for many Americans, intent reigns supreme. The consequences of their actions must be weighed by their intent. If they hurt someone unintentionally, their punishment should be muted by their lack of intent. If they destroy something without intent, the destruction must be considered alongside their intentions. If they commit a racist act, it must be weighed against their unknowable heart's intent.

It's a mess.

But, after reading the Wall Street Journal, I see why the idea is so persistent. It's been ingrained in many Americans, particularly those who have grown up with a certain level of privilege, that it's not just about results, but intent. This is a luxury the privileged enjoy that many others do not because we are taught early, either by elders or life, that in many situations our intent doesn't matter. All that matters are the results and how those in power see those results.

Unfortunately, if you approach life from an intent-based perspective, it is very difficult to see racism or racial animus in today's world. This country has done a decent job of scrubbing most of the so-called "overt" racism from the surface, at least compared to how this country once behaved. Now, only those who take the time to properly study and consider the power structures in this country can see it, and many white folks aren't interested in examining power unless it results in more power for them. We are at an intellectual impasse because we have two competing views on how the world should work.

Not really a new thought, but one worth considering from a different angle..



spacemonkey said...

Hmm. Making 'intent' a pre-requisite for guilt was never meant to excuse negligence. And, it was never meant to rid anyone of their responsibility to make amends when causing 'unintentional' harm.

To me, there is and should be a difference in how we judge someone who has, say, plotted and planned to murder someone and someone who accidentally hit someone with their car (even though the outcome is the same). But, if you're driving drunk and recklessly when you hit someone, you're certainly guilty of something -- even if your intent was never to kill them.

Similarly, I think there is and should be a difference between going out your way to destroy someone's property, destroying it because of reckless negligence and destroying it due to a genuine mistake. But, even if it's a genuine mistake, you have a responsibility to replace that property. If you don't, you may not be guilty of the same thing as intentionally destroying it, but you're still guilty of something.

So. My point: if white people haven't taken the time to properly study and consider power structures, are they not guilty of some kind of 'reckless negligence'?

And if, after giving proper consideration they still unintentionally cause harm, do they not at least have a responsibility to make amends (rather than just shrug it off with an "I'm sorry, I didn't know")?

Sarah W said...

Thanks for this, and your post on colourblindness. All my life I've thought of myself as liberal, against racism, homophobia, sexism... If I did something insensitive it was 'an accident' or 'the fault of society, not mine'.

I never intended to say something racist, but if I'd really cared about being NOT racist, I should have put myself in the other person's shoes long enough to see why my thoughtless comments might offend them.

I blamed the fact that nearly all of my friends were white on the fact that my school and university where white-dominated. But I never really questioned why this was, or fought for it to change.

And when I eventually realised that I was subconcioously stereotyping black people, that part of me expected them to be less intelligent or more violent, one of my first responses was 'well I didn't INTEND to be racist - it was my subconcious, it was the media'.

But really, to the POC who I've misjudged, who I've said ignorant things to, who may have felt excluded by the whiteness of the student body at my uni, it doesn't make a tiny bit of difference that I didn't intend to be racist. :( Thanks for helping me understand that.

Raving Black Lunatic