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Intent vs Impact: Why Your Intentions Don’t Really Matter

I’m just a soul whose intentions are good. Oh lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood.

Nina Simone, 1964

These words reflect a common sentiment in society; that we all have good intentions and are sometimes misunderstood. Some might even argue that a person’s intentions should be the yardstick for determining whether their actions are good or bad, or at least should determine the consequences for bad actions. Yes, intentions matter; but how much? In criminal law, the intention of an accused person is very important. In fact, it is a major factor for distinguishing between crimes like murder and manslaughter, assault and battery, etc. However, beyond the courtroom, in a world where everyone is convinced that their intentions are always good, it simply cannot be the yardstick for determining good or bad. It matters why you did it, it matters more what you did, and it matters most what impact your actions have on the rest of society.

One day, I was in a public space chatting with a male friend when he nudged me to look at something. I turned my head and saw a woman sitting about 10 feet away from us. She was eating a sausage roll and had a bottle of soda on the table in front of her. Seeing as the woman was fat, I already knew what he was driving at – still, I feigned ignorance and muttered “what?”. He replied “I just think it’s bad for her health that she’s consuming so much junk. She doesn’t look good”. There it was, fatphobia, thinly masked as concern for a stranger.

It’s not just fatphobia that comes in a ‘good intentions package’ as oppression these days is often benevolent – it smacks you across the left cheek and gives you a kiss on the right cheek. Misogynists, who police women’s bodies and slutshame at the drop of a hat, claim to do it for the benefit of the woman. Ethnic bigots swear that their bigotry is an act of self preservation and when people use ableist slurs, they tell you to relax because they’re only joking. Indeed, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

When we insist that our intentions are good without recognizing that what we have done is bad, we ignore the impact of our actions on the rest of society. My friend was so sure that because he had good intentions for commenting on the looks, health and eating habit of a total stranger, he couldn’t possibly have been an ‘oppressor’ in that moment. He refused to believe that he was in any way, contributing to an oppressive system that judges and treats people unfairly simply because they are fat. By insisting on his good intentions, he was gaslighting victims of fatphobia, avoiding responsibility and suppressing any opportunity to have a necessary conversation on the problem of fatphobia. Without recognizing his privilege as a slim person, he made that moment all about himself when it was in fact about that woman.

The impact of your words/actions trump your intentions and to understand that, you must

  • acknowledge the problem
  • recognize your privilege

Let us take for example the problem of the patriarchal society we live in. In Nigeria specifically, we have seen patriarchy translate into measurable harm on people, especially women and girls. Many girls in Nigeria do not have access to proper education – according to a 2010 report by World Bank, the female adult literacy rate was 59.4% compared to the male adult literacy rate of 74.4%. Child marriage is still very rampant, with 44% of girls married before their 18th birthday, not to mention the rise in domestic violence, sexual violence, femicide and the many other ways women are oppressed.

So when a Nigerian man makes a joke on twitter about belonging to ‘Patriarchy FC’, it doesn’t matter if he thinks that he made an innocent joke, that phrase represents a problem.  It summarizes centuries of oppression and the different colours of our pain as women. He sees a joke but we see a problem and making that moment all about his intentions is in itself a privilege – a privilege bestowed on him by virtue of his identity, a man. Therefore, the impact of his joke trumps whatever good intentions he claims to have.

Intentions are important and it would be pretentious to imply that every person who does something hurtful had the intention to hurt. However, the impact of the things we do should not be excused by our intentions no matter how good we claim they are. If you are ever told that you have been offensive with your words or actions, no matter how good your intentions were, it is important to listen. Listen to how your actions may have caused harm and how you can do better in the future rather than insisting on your good intentions because that is just what they are; good intentions and nothing more.

Your intentions will be good. Without consideration and forethought, however, your actions could still be evil.

– (Michael A. Stockpile)

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