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Posted on Feb 28, 2013 in arguments, philosophy, psychology, respect, responding to arguments | 21 comments

Blame and intent

http://bigeducationape.blogspot.com/2012/10/the-changing-blame-game-in-us-education.html

Some believe that intent of a person does not matter when considering whether someone should be considered blameworthy for using particular language or behavior which is associated with another claiming offense. This piece will explore the concepts of blame and intent and argue for a more skeptical, open-minded approach which individuals should use rather than assailing others with endless choruses of ‘intent is not magic.’

The phrase ‘intent is not magic’ is used by individuals who seem to believe that the feelings and beliefs of a person who is a recipient of a message, rather than the intent of the individual, takes priority. Rather than feeling compassion for others and maintaining an open-minded attitude, some are quick to assign blame and even malicious motives while disregarding the stated or unstated intent of individuals who are believed to be acting in an immoral fashion.

Can we justly hold individuals blameworthy for something which was outside their conscious or unconscious awareness especially if the individuals could not be expected to know particular information? It’s important to understand that while we might consider language or behaviors to send denigrating messages, others may not for some of the following reasons: lack of education, varying cognitive ability, lack of knowledge about particular topics, lack of exposure to persons of different backgrounds/cultures, and differing values or worldviews.

If someone could not possibly know — for whatever reason — that a particular behavior may be construed as offensive, it is inappropriate to assign blame to that individual. Ignorance, in many cases, can be an ‘excuse’ from blame. How would I be expected to know, for instance, that my wearing of headphones while sitting near someone on public transportation is construed as a sign of disrespect? After all, my intent was not to send unwelcoming messages to others, but rather was to enjoy my transportation experience as much as possible while being preoccupied with my own thoughts. Perhaps I am introverted and/or unwilling to speak with strangers on buses. Perhaps I wanted to listen to a recorded class lecture to prepare for an exam.

Claiming offense is often, if not always, extremely subjective. Anyone can claim offense following another person’s words or behavior and, in that process, hold others to unrealistic expectations. Can someone justly claim offense, for instance, because another person placed chewed bubble gum in a napkin rather than directly in a trash container? Clearly some cases of claiming offense can be quite irrational.

Even worse, if claiming offense is entirely subjective (if there is no standard whatsoever by which to justly claim offense) it would be unfair to assign blame to any individual for any given reason because the person could not avoid offending others. How would a person know how to act in the presence of others so to preserve harmony? Speaking to someone with open body language could be considered offensive while, at the same time, speaking to someone with closed body language could be considered offensive. There’s no way out; it is unfair to assign blame when it is impossible for someone to avoid blame.

Misunderstandings — whether in speech or behavior — can result in complicated social interactions when, because of flawed perceptions or a lack of knowledge about a particular topic, persons believe others are being intentionally rude.

Take the time to self-reflect, especially after a ‘triggering’ encounter, and exercise some open-mindedness by asking yourself some of the following questions:

  • Years or months ago, would I have claimed offense when put in this situation?

If no, this shows that persons can be ignorant – just like you were in the past. Because of exposure to new information or a cognitive shift, your way of looking at the world has changed. Can you exercise some empathy, offering a benefit of the doubt, and not automatically see others as blameworthy? Would you have considered your ‘past self’ blameworthy when, you through no fault of your own, weren’t exposed to particular information?

  • Am I picking fights with people? Am I approaching a situation in a confrontational manner?

We may be more likely to claim offense when we are trying to find fault with others or believe others are acting with malice when this isn’t actually the case. Is the world really out to get you? Are people really intentionally being mean to you?

  • What are some other ways I can think of the situation?

Develop alternative hypotheses to explain why a person acted in a particular fashion. Might they have meant to convey no offending messages? Might the person be having a bad day? I won’t, for instance, become angry when someone rushes ahead of me to get on a bus. Perhaps they were in a rush or wanted to escape the cold weather.  Was the person attempting to be nice to you [and perhaps was trying too hard]? I won’t, for instance, become angry when waitresses call me ‘honey,’ ‘babe,’ or ‘sweetie.’ Perhaps they are trying to make customers feel welcome and appreciated while they provide good customer service.

  • Can a person disagree with me and — regardless of whether their assessments are correct or incorrect — not be a horrible person?

Some seem quick to unfairly construe disagreement or opposition to particular ideas as hatred of persons. All who oppose gay marriage, some believe, must hate homosexuals. All who criticize Islam, some believe, are ‘Islamophobes.’ All who do not think the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) is good legislation, some believe, hate women. All who want to cut social programs, some believe, hate poor people…

Consider the possibility (and the reality) that people can hold different opinions than you hold and not be horrible people. Perhaps the person who opposes gay marriage does not want the government involved in any marriages, so she opposes all forms of government-sanctioned marriage. Perhaps those who openly criticize Islam might believe that Islamic beliefs are not grounded in reality. Perhaps people think VAWA is a discriminatory piece of legislation because it does not provide services to men. Perhaps people believe social programs foster dependency and are often exploited by persons who ‘cheat the system.’

All of these people can even be wrong about their assessments and still not be horrible people. Let’s not arrogantly assume that all of our ideological opponents are moral monsters.

I am extremely skeptical when the phrase ‘intent is not magic’ seems to convey, as it often does, that there is no excuse for the behavior of individuals who are associated with others claiming offense. Giving others benefit of the doubt and having an open-minded attitude — rather than hastily and unfairly assuming others to be blameworthy — should be a more productive and charitable approach.

Future pieces may explore when it is appropriate to assign blame and malicious motives to others and how to productively engage those whom we disagree by identifying behaviors we consider to be offensive in a non-confrontational manner with an aim for education. Considering that, please leave your comments below. Don’t assume I am a horrible person because you disagree with me or because I might have not considered something :)

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  • Chris

    Very good (wise even). Can’t hardly wait to read the forthcoming piece(s) about your aforementioned “when it is appropriate to assign blame and malicious motives to others.”

  • Pingback: When is Intent ‘Magic’? | Notung()

  • There’s an analogy that I think is very useful for understanding the idea of “intent is not magic” (I honestly can’t recall where I first heard this, and a quick google didn’t turn anything up): imagine that you are incapable of feeling pain in your nose. So you go around punching people in the nose as a greeting — hey, what’s the harm. And then someone points out to you that they are in a lot of pain because you’ve been punching them in the nose. Do you: (a) apologize, explain that you didn’t understand that such a thing hurt, and promise never to do it again? (b) ask why on earth the person is getting upset with you, how could you be expected to know? (c) laugh it off — c’mon, what a wimp, getting punched in the nose doesn’t hurt.

    Response (a) is great! You are acknowledging that while you weren’t aware that it hurt and wouldn’t intentionally do so, nonetheless, there are a lot of people in pain because of you! Response (c) is obviously jerky behavior, I think you’d agree. Response (b) is where “intent is not magic comes in.” Yes, not knowing that you were causing pain does alleviate your responsibility somewhat: but only to a point. Intent does alter the situation somewhat, but is does not magically absolve you of all ethical responsibility: malicious or not, your act caused pain, and your intent does not alter that fact.

    A lot of people go around saying stupid, hurtful shit all the time, unaware that it hurts people, because it doesn’t hurt them. As above, there’s a choice of how to respond when it is brought up. And intent isn’t magic, it doesn’t automatically absolve people of the effects of their actions.

    • josh

      Not a good analogy IMO. The thing is intent isn’t magic but it is hugely important with language. What you intended with a punch doesn’t change the fact that a punch hurts. But understanding what another person meant can and should vastly change the emotional ‘pain’ you might feel at another persons words. Absolutely, we should consider what effect our words may have on others, but there is equally a responsibility to understand others’ words and to mitigate our response to them.

    • Justin Vacula

      The nose-punching, I think, is a poor analogy because it’s obvious physical harm that would not be, by any means, something unintentional, ambiguous or by someone who is not aware that nose-punching is unacceptable. The person knows nose-punching is unacceptable, so there really can be no good intent. In your case, too, the person has been made aware and understands that the action leads to harm…so there can’t be good intent or an excuse. There is no reasonable disagreement, also, about whether nose punching is unacceptable.

      Others’ perceptions, I should add, shouldn’t demand we act in certain ways – placing imperatives on us simply because someone said so. In my piece above, I noted there are unreasonable cases of people claiming offense.

      “A lot of people go around saying stupid, hurtful shit all the time, unaware that it hurts people, because it doesn’t hurt them. As above, there’s a choice of how to respond when it is brought up. And intent isn’t magic, it doesn’t automatically absolve people of the effects of their actions.”

      The people who believe they are slighted, I think, ought to voice their concerns and confront those who slight. If someone ‘brings something up,’ it is important for the slighter to listen and consider what is being said. Again, the person claiming offense can be making an unreasonable demand and is not automatically right just because a slight is voiced (I don’t think you are saying this, but this is an important point).

      As I noted above, I don’t think we can hold people blameworthy for behavior which they did not or could not know could be considered transgressing.

      I plan to post more on these matters. Thanks for your comment.

      (I’d log in on my DISQUS but the public computer I am currently using is blocking me from doing so for some reason.)

      • athyco

        Again, the person claiming offense can be making an unreasonable demand
        and is not automatically right just because a slight is voiced.

        This seems to be a big deal for you, the person “claiming offense” followed by “unreasonable demand” that someone is considering “automatically right just because a slight is voiced.” Why not get precise on what’s lit your jets on this? Where is this happening so that it’s a growing societal concern for skeptics? There are people who’d make the same complaint and use Jessica Alquist as a poster girl, and we know that it’s “injured” religious faith that’s their sticking point. What’s your injury? How would you tell religious believers that they’re wrong to make such a statement but you’re right to do so? What are the specific differences?

    • iamcuriousblue

      The problem is that you use a very far-fetched example to illustrate your point. I’ll give a more concrete example to show where intent indeed does make a difference.

      In all of the cases below, a motorist strikes a bicyclist, and the bicyclist dies. The incidents differ in some key details:

      1) The motorist does not see the bicyclist, but hits and kills her. The motorist was sober and obeying all traffic laws to the best of his ability.

      2) The motorist was drunk and driving recklessly and hit the bicyclist.

      3) The motorist, enraged because the bicyclist cut off a desired lane-change, decides to “scare her a little” and in the process unintentionally strikes the bicyclist.

      4) The motorist, enraged as above, on the spur of the moment decides to deliberately run the bicyclist down.

      5) The bicyclist is the motorists ex-wife. They’ve been going through a messy divorce, and his hatred has grown to the point where he’s devised a plan to find her on her bicycling route and run her down, which he carries out successfully.

      6) The motorist is part of a political movement that is reacting against Critical Mass, and has decided that bicyclists are getting way too uppity. The bicyclist that was struck is part of a larger campaign to instill fear into bicyclists by deliberately running them down.

      Six cases with a common outcome of a dead bicyclist, yet the law would treat them differently based on *intent*. And I would say that this is not just a legal nicety, but represent some real moral distinctions. True, many people might not make much moral distinction between, say, case 5 and case 4, but could you imagine what kind of draconian legal system we’d have if case 1 was treated the same as case 5 or 6?

      Is it too much to extrapolate that just maybe intent makes a real ethical difference in other situations as well?

  • SmilodonsRetreat

    While I agree to a point, I think that there are behaviors that are, intent or not, wrong. US sexual harassment training is very big on pushing the message that “Intent doesn’t matter, but how it was taken”. Which means that an innocent joke can be considered harassment. There was even an incident at a previous employer where a person laughed a joke, then went and complained about sexual harassment.

    I would say that most people need to have a bit thicker skin and quit whining to the universe every time someone says or wear’s something that, in some way, could be considered offensive.

    • Justin Vacula

      Assertiveness and sharing feelings, I think, is important. Persons who feel uncomfortable in the presence of others, no matter the issue, ought to use ‘I statements’ if they are so slighted so that future poor behaviors are prevented (and it might be the case that the perception is flawed, of course). Indeed, the innocent joke can be believed to be harassment when it actually wasn’t (or couldn’t legally constitute it). This, though, is tough for many because confrontation is difficult.

      (I’d log in on my DISQUS but the public computer I am currently using is blocking me from doing so for some reason.)

  • Clare45

    I think a lot depends on how the question or phrase is worded. If you start with “I feel” instead of “you always” or “you never”, the person is less likely to take offense. Sometimes, if you are dealing with mentally ill, paranoid or over sensitive individuals, offense is taken when none is intended. It is hard to avoid offending these type of people. In this case it could be useful to determine if the majority of people would have been offended, or even if the average person would have taken offense. If not, then the problem probably lies with the offended individual. You could still apologise for giving offense, but there would be no need to promise not to do it again, as that would be an unreasonable expectation.

    • Justin Vacula

      These are many great points. I plan to discuss ‘I statements’ in a future post, largely concerning with how to deal with ‘microaggressions’ after the fact. This shifts away from blame and putting the other person on the defense.

      (I’d log in on my DISQUS but the public computer I am currently using is blocking me from doing so for some reason.)

  • The intent of an agent is irrelevant to the consequences of a word or deed. A person that is
    accidently killed is no less dead than a person targeted by an assassin; The same level of offence can be taken at a deliberate provocation, a slip of the tongue that betrays bigotry, a word whose meaning is misunderstood as in niggardly or even a word or phrase that is misheard.

    While the term offensive can be used to refer to smells and behaviors, it is most
    commonly (and in the context of the internet almost exclusively) used to refer
    to speech. So, how can speech be offensive?

    A word is, after all, a sequence of sounds or a particular arrangement of pixels on the
    screen, with no inherent ability to offend. The fact that one does not and indeed cannot find offensive speech in a language that one does not understand should be indicative that what is offensive is not the word or phrase itself, but rather the meaning it conveys.

    The offensive meaning in offensive speech is invariably tied to the worth of the
    listener or of ideas and/or ideal they hold dear. The factual accuracy of what is said is
    almost never the issue, rather how it reflects on the person in question.

    To say that milk is blue is may be incorrect but will probably not cause offence. To say
    that the prophet Mohamed meets the modern definition of a pedophile due to
    having consummated his marriage to Aisha when she was 9 can and has caused
    offense, whatever the facts of the matter. It is pertinent that those who feel offended
    are primarily Muslims.

    Likewise negatively judging a person’s looks, skills or other personal attributes, nationality
    ethnicity, religion, political affiliation or other characteristics they hold dear can cause offense.
    Positive judgments, even when erroneous and based on a stereotype are seldom considered offensive.
    So why is taking offense infantile?

    Well, if someone utters a true statement of fact, to take offense is to be offended by reality.

    If what the person says is incorrect, to take offence is to be offended by human fallibility.

    If the statement is an opinion or an expression of preference, to take offence is to deny
    others their autonomy.

    I believe that the whole taking offense issue is caused by human gregariousness and the need
    to be liked. This I believe is rooted on our hunter-gatherer past where group cohesion was vital for survival and to be an outsider or excluded was to be as good as dead. Most deliberate insults boil down to “I don’t like you”, “you have no worth”, “I wish you ill”. This is also
    the root meaning of most things that cause offense.

  • dmarxian
  • athyco

    tl;dr: If I had only this article to go by, I would have to conclude that you are a horrible writer. That doesn’t mean I think you’re a horrible person. Don’t think that’s my intent.

    (The teal deer abbreviation means you can stop reading now.)

    Why do I think you’re a horrible writer (not person)? One factor is that what you’re written comes across as a mealy mouthed Pollyanna.

    Some believe…
    some are quick to…
    Can someone justly claim offense…
    impossible for someone to avoid blame…
    Some seem quick to… (that’s not my repetition error)
    some believe…
    some believe…
    some believe…
    some believe… (yeah–4x in one paragraph)

    which individuals should use…
    individuals who seem to believe…
    individuals who are believed to be…
    if the individual could not be expected to know…
    to assign blame to that individual
    unfair to assign blame to any individual… (again, not my error)

    horrible person because…
    intent of a person
    feelings and beliefs of a person
    lack of exposure to persons of different backgrounds/cultures
    claim offense following another person’s words…

    Gah..you’re on SkepticInk. And in an article “extremely skeptical” of how “some” write/speak, you mouth platitudes and generalities. Have you ever thought of getting a second or third set of eyes to suggest helpful edits? What does the research say about such things as chilly climate, unconscious biases, and microaggressions? Somewhere on the ‘net I’ve seen reference to a book with a chapter or two about those things.

    Now to “some” content.

    Claiming offense is often, if not always, extremely subjective. Anyone can claim offense following another person’s words or behavior and, in that process, hold others to unrealistic expectations. Can someone justly claim offense, for instance, because another person placed chewed bubble gum in a napkin rather than directly in a trash container? Clearly some cases of claiming offense can be quite irrational.

    Yes, clearly. Only a child raised by wolves would disagree–because he wouldn’t be socialized to understand it. Even though you’re a horrible writer, I don’t think you are a child raised by wolves. So, let’s take your person placing chewed bubble gum in a napkin rather than directly in a trash can.

    (Actually, unless the trash can is lined with a garbage bag, the custodial staff would prefer you first wrap it, so you could end the whole argument by telling the “offended” that it’s a just-in-case considerate habit you’ve developed. If they’re upset because you later leave that nasty thing lying there rather than take it to the trash can, that’s a different problem and a new habit you should develop.)

    Let’s see if there are possible details one should consider and therefore employ adult-level situational awareness. (To begin with, I’m happy the chewed bubble gum wasn’t thrown on the ground or stuck to the bottom of a table. That’s just tacky.)

    1) It’s a plain paper napkin.
    2) It’s a paper napkin with a phone # your friend just got.
    3) It’s the napkin a friend’s mother spent time beautifully embroidering.
    4) It’s an expensive linen napkin at a black tie reception.

    ♦ I think I’m perfectly free to claim offense/harm by any of these cases.
    ♦ You’re perfectly free to ask me why I claim offense/harm.
    ♦ I’m perfectly free to give you my reason.
    ♦ You’re perfectly free to agree with my reason (and then we’re done).
    ♦ You’re also perfectly free to disagree with my reason.
    ♦ I’m perfectly free to ask why you disagree with my reason.
    ♦ You’re perfectly free to refuse to tell me (and then we’re done).
    ♦ You’re perfectly free to tell me.
    ♦ I’m perfectly free to argue that your reason is ridiculous.
    ♦ You’re perfectly free to point out that my argument against your reason is ridiculous.
    ♦ I’m perfectly free to provide an analogy demonstrating that my argument is not ridiculous.
    ♦ You’re perfectly free to demonstrate that my analogy doesn’t fit my argument.
    ♦ Et cetera forever OR
    ♦ I’m perfectly free to say “aha” and agree with you OR
    ♦ You’re perfectly free to say “aha” and agree with me OR
    ♦ You or I or both are perfectly free to say “This is going nowhere” and STOP. OR
    ♦ You are perfectly free to become a horrible person, even to try to disguise it with mealy-mouthed, self-serving “advice” for ideological opponents when you can’t provide evidence that you demonstrate yourself following that advice until/unless prodded into it.

    (Yes, I repeated “perfectly free” over and over to poke at your repetitions. That’s because this piece was horribly written, not that I think you’re a horrible person. Also, that ♦ section would be much better as a process diagram. Oh, also–you made up simplistic, blatantly self-serving examples. I mean, really–open/closed body language? wearing headphones on public transportation? waitstaff (hoping for a nice tip) using endearments? But that’s just another example of your being a horrible writer. I don’t think you’re a horrible person.)

    There are at least two things you don’t get to tell me when I’m offended by your bubble gum disposal method: 1) I don’t have the right to my own feelings and 2) I have to consider yours more highly first. I might do the second, but that’s not up to you.

    I am extremely skeptical when the phrase ‘intent is not magic’ seems to convey, as it often does, that there is no excuse for the behavior of individuals who are associated with others claiming offense. Giving others benefit of the doubt and having an open-minded attitude — rather than hastily and unfairly assuming others to be blameworthy — should be a more productive and charitable approach.

    Oh, it “seems” to convey? That’s a damned uncharitable opinion you have there. “[A]s it often does”? That’s hastily asserted. Where’s your evidence? “[N]o excuse for the behavior”? You’re unfairly assuming that’s what’s being assumed! “[O]f individuals who are associated with others claiming offense”? That’s not strictly a content problem; that’s really horrible writing. You are a horrible writer. I don’t think you’re a horrible person.

    Your vocabulary choices are so slanted that this piece would make a highly efficient inclined plane if the choices weren’t also grating enough to increase the drag coefficient. Here’s one person “claiming” offense “hastily and unfairly” while your suggestion is the “open-minded,” “more productive,” “charitable” “benefit of the doubt.” (That’s another specific example that you’re a horrible writer, not a horrible person. Oh, I’d say at the least a muddled thinker, too, but still not a horrible person.)

    “Intent is not magic” doesn’t tell you that you have to agree that a behavior is bad/wrong/whatevs. It means that if someone tells you they find it bad/wrong/whatevs, you don’t get to avoid an apology/reparation (on a range of minor to major apologies/reparations if you agree that it’s bad/wrong/whatevs). Nor can you keep doing it around them or telling them what or how to think while still claiming, “But I don’t intend to do anything bad/wrong/whatevs; you’re bad/wrong/whatevs for not liking it! In such a case, I’d think you’re an amazingly annoying bore, and they can tell you that. Be careful! They may decide that going on and on about it is enough to judge you a horrible person! They may use naughty words! Sorry–you don’t object to those, do you? My bad.

    (And yeah, that last “bad/wrong/whatevs” repetition was most likely overkill for my point that you’re a horrible writer. But I don’t think you’re a horrible person. I’d probably find you a boringly frustrating person, but not a horrible person. The words “Dunning Kruger” might flash through my consciousness, but I wouldn’t think you’re a horrible person.)

    • Josh

      Thanks for the TL;DR. I’m sorry I didn’t heed your advice.

    • “Intent
      is not magic” doesn’t tell you that you have to agree that a behavior is
      bad/wrong/whatevs. It means that if someone tells you they find it
      bad/wrong/whatevs, you don’t get to avoid an apology/reparation (on a range of
      minor to major apologies/reparations if you agree that it’s bad/wrong/whatevs).
      Nor can you keep doing it around them or telling them what or how to think
      while still claiming, “But I don’t intend to do anything
      bad/wrong/whatevs; you’re bad/wrong/whatevs for not liking it!

      ***… you don’t get to avoid an apology/reparation…***

      People can and do take offence at almost anything. Showing the soles of your shoes or
      feet, touching or handing something with your left hand, speaking to a woman without
      a family member present, folding a business card, trying to shake hands,
      refusing to shake hands, etc, etc, etc….

      If a behavior is harmful in itself, such as stepping on someone’s foot, an apology or
      reparation is in order regardless of intent. If the hurt is not physical and a result of the action, but rather emotional and a product of what the action *represents*, be it loss of “face” or standing, a disregard for your status or an injury to your pride, intent is very important indeed.

      A republican ignorant of custom who fails to address Queen Elizabeth as “Your Highness” is giving offence without malice or intent. And if the same republican is cognizant of custom, he or she may still fail to do so without feeling the need to apologize based on the reasoning that Elizabeth’s desire as Queen to be addressed as “Your Highness” does not trump his/her desire as a republican not to do so.

      If you are engaged in an interesting conversation with someone who, quite politely,
      requests that you do not touch your face whilst talking to them as in their culture
      this represents a terrible insult, you, being a nice and accommodating person,
      might see no harm in complying for the sake of continuing the conversation.

      But the fact remains that what was asked was that you change your behavior in order to accommodate another person’s cultural preconceptions. Their comfort found in not being “insulted” trumps your comfort in not having to be vigilant to your every move least you inadvertently give offence. Why should their comfort be more valued than yours?
      If, on the other hand, you already knew about this person’s culture AND are touching
      your face deliberately in order to provoke them, then you culpable of causing deliberate
      distress and perhaps ought to apologize.

      Drawing a picture of the prophet Mohammed or destroying a communion wafer with a hammer can either be a valorous defense of Free Speech in the face of religious bigotry
      or shameless religious baiting. Telling someone that there is no God can be either an attempt to lift the shackles of superstition or the adult equivalent to maliciously informing a younger sibling that there is no Santa. The sole difference is in the intent.

      So yes, intent is pretty “magical”, whatever that means.

      • athyco

        My example is a foreign exchange student new to the US at my college; He once approached me on the quad, calling my name and waving his middle finger. He’d been told by dorm mates that it was a greeting for his favorite women friends. When I explained it to him, he was hotly embarrassed. He told me his intent; I believed him. I continued to believe him because he never did it again. He found new people to ask for advice on vocabulary and behavior. I never used “Intent is not magic” as an argument with him.

        I certainly would have if he’d done it again to me or another woman but expected me to laugh it off, remain good friends, maybe develop stronger feelings. If he intended to wave an obscene gesture at women in public, his intent to maintain a relationship with me wouldn’t be magical enough to make it happen.

        His dorm mates’ intent was to cause him minor embarrassment in order to bond with him, but they’d laughed and told him he should find it funny, too, when he asked them not to do it again. Their friendly intent was not a magic wand to override what was acceptable to him. They intended to continue the practical jokes, and they used their proximity to corner him, to cajole him, to tease him, to convince him to drop his objection to their behavior. They still wanted to be friends, but not enough to examine how he’d feel harmed in such a friendship. They ended up pushing him away completely.

        “Intent is not magic” is a simple truth. We’re skeptics. Don’t we know that nothing is magic? If you didn’t behave stupidly in the first place or don’t plan to change your considered behaviors, your intent (outside a courtroom) is not even relevant.

        “Intent is not magic” becomes an argument when the harm is ignored as though the status quo or even a strengthening of ties is expected through ignoring the harm. That’s unfair to the injured party. Feel free to ignore the harm and anything said about it afterwards. Feel free to present argument that there has been no harm level reached for you to consider changing your behavior. Take the criticism. Argue with the criticism.

        But if you’ve made it clear that your behaviors aren’t subject to change, don’t include your intent in the argument. The reason for “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions” is that they don’t matter, yes? Therefore, intent isn’t magic.

    • I find it fascinating that you would take so much time to critique my writing style and assume so much about my writing style instead of asking questions. I speak in generalities because issues often (see) aren’t clear-cut and because of individual differences which is of high relevance to this post. I take a humble approach, informed by my philosophical background, and recognize that I can be mistaken and that I shouldn’t generalize from a part to a while and make unjustified sweeping statements. I tend to be verbose at times to better explain myself and to reduce the amount of assumptions I make about people. I don’t think this issue and topic is cut-and-dry by any means, so I speak in generalities where called for.

      So what if I use personal experiences? How are these ‘self-serving?’ Is there something wrong with including my personal experiences in this post? These personal experiences are regular occurrences I thought would be quite helpful.

      I use the phrase ‘justly claiming offense’ because I believe there are just cases and unjust cases of people claiming offense. I will not, for one moment, believe that every case of offense claimed (see, there’s the use again) is morally justified because this would lead to contradictions and relativism. People can claim offense and be unjustified and over-reacting in the process.

      It’s quite petty of you to spend so much time talking about my writing style. If you don’t like it, feel free not to read it and instead go to people who speak in absolutes and leave no room for the possibility of being wrong. I would ask you to please tackle arguments rather than writing style because this is a more productive engagement. Either way, thanks for your time and feel free to continue to post if you desire. Have a nice day.

      • athyco

        I find it fascinating that you would take so much time to critique my writing style and assume so much about my writing style instead of asking questions.

        Your perception is off. 480 words of my answer are about your writing style. (The repetition of “horrible writer” did exactly as your repetition of “some” and “individuals” had done–detracted from the point that 889 words in my comment were about content. As to asking questions, it is unfortunate that your writing style being both general and repetitive in this piece made it difficult. I did set forth, in the 889 words about content, some of my
        disagreements with your premises.

        I speak in generalities because issues often (see) aren’t clear-cut and because of individual differences which is of high relevance to this post. I take a humble approach, informed by my philosophical background, and recognize that I can be mistaken and that I shouldn’t generalize from a part to a whole and make unjustified sweeping statements.

        Correct. They are not clear-cut; they are individual. You have generalized from a part to a whole and made unjustified sweeping statements. Agreed. But your claim of a “humble approach” is provably contradicted by your vocabulary choice. Someone who is humble and recognizes that he may be mistaken does not show such clear bias through word choice. This division of vocabulary choices makes someone who disagrees with you have to fight your straw-versions of their behavior. Throughout the piece, they are described as “claiming offense…hastily…unfairly…assailing…quick to
        assign blame and even malicious motives…disregarding…arrogantly assume…automatically see others as blameworthy…quick to unfairly construe disagreement….” You tell them that they should “take the time to self-reflect…exercise some open-mindedness…exercise some empathy.” Those who behave without “intent is not magic,” as you believe they should, are described with “charitable…more productive…open-minded (3 times)…more skeptical…compassion.” In the very first paragraph your thesis statement begins the process of choosing positive versus negative terms rather than actual argument.
        If you feel this is not true, will you quote for me (considering the length of the piece) three examples in which one who applies “intent is not magic” is described charitably?

        I tend to be verbose at times to better explain myself and to reduce the amount of assumptions I make about people.

        You did not, as I believe the critique of your vocabulary choices shows, reduce the amount of assumptions you make about people.
        Will you show any passage in which you do not make negative assumptions about people who will agree with “intent is not magic”?

        So what if I use personal experiences? How are these ‘self-serving?’ Is there something wrong with including my personal experiences in this post? These personal experiences are regular occurrences I thought would be quite helpful.

        I said that they were “simplistic” and self-serving. I expanded your napkin example for you to demonstrate that. Let’s go with your headphones on the bus example next. Were you sitting with a friend? Do you tell that friend anything before putting in the headphones? Did you sit beside a regular bus acquaintance? Had you had an earlier disagreement with the friend or the regular bus acquaintance? Or was this a stranger?

        Since you have said individual differences are of high relevance, will you agree that offering a simplistic scenario ill suits your goals?

        Will you agree that you may hurt another’s feelings if you had been (a) with a friend
        and (b) didn’t tell the friend why you’d shut them out by putting on your headphones?

        Will you agree that your friend might not react with Spock-like decorum?

        Will you agree that you can explain and apologize to your friend for inadvertently hurting feelings and will not repeat the action without notification?

        Or will you say that “My intent was to focus on this lecture. Since I didn’t intend to hurt you, your reaction should consider only my circumstances.

        If you choose to answer the last question with “yes,” it is at this point that the person who has felt hurt/offense can decide to tell you that “intent is not magic.” It is at this point that the two of you can decide if you will remain friends at the same level if you state that you will continue in the future and without prior notice to don headphones in the friend’s company.

        Will you agree that your friend has the right to determine his assessment of you based on his feelings about this interaction?

        If you answer the above question with “yes,” aren’t you also saying that “yes, ‘intent is not magic’” is an explanatory response for another’s decision to avoid or refuse future interaction?

        I use the phrase ‘justly claiming offense’ because I believe there are just cases and unjust cases of people claiming offense. I will not, for one moment, believe that every case of offense claimed (see, there’s the use again) is morally justified because this would lead to contradictions and relativism. People can claim offense and be unjustified and over-reacting in the process.

        Will you write a post or comment quoting/linking the people who do so for important topics, with such regularity, and with such reach that it caused you to write this post?

        Will you include with each quote/link in what ways they were done “automatically…unfairly…arrogantly…disregardingly?

        It’s quite petty of you to spend so much time talking about my writing style. If you don’t like it, feel free not to read it and instead go to people who speak in absolutes and leave no room for the possibility of being wrong

        Yes, I got the impression from your opening that you’d replace “fascinating” with something like “petty.” I don’t like your writing style; I also don’t like the content. But it would be foolish not to read an argument, even if you’d be surprised to find after the second sentence that the piece was not biased.
        Do you rebut or recommend that others rebut bad arguments that aren’t first read?

        As for going to “people who speak in absolutes and leave no room for the possibility of being wrong,” that is a false equivalence, but it contributes to the contradiction of your claim of being humble. There is not “humble you” on one side and “arrogant absolutists” all on the other. It is bad skepticism to think so, and a bad stance for someone backing Lee Moore’s peace process.

        I would ask you to please tackle arguments rather than writing style because this is a more productive engagement.

        I have done so. And, as you requested as an engagement style in the first paragraph of your comment, there are a dozen questions.

        • Again, way too much here/too long of a comment. I’d be happy to talk about these things in Skype or answer shorter comments.

          • athyco

            Not “again.” Your objection was that I wrote about your writing. You didn’t say, “Even leaving that out, the comment’s too long.” You’ve addressed sections of my comments before; that’s evidence against “too long” as a complaint.

            Short, then*:
            How can religious citizens in Cranston be wrong saying, “Jessica Alquist, claiming offense, is making an unreasonable demand! She is not automatically right just because a slight is voiced,” if you are right in saying

            Again, the person claiming offense can be making an unreasonable demand and is not automatically right just because a slight is voiced.

            If the answer is “it depends on the details,” then your generalized condemnation of “intent is not magic” has major flaws.

    • iamcuriousblue

      So was it your intent to be a condescending grammar nazi? And if not, does Justin have a right to be offended anyway? :-)

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