Identity Politics: Impact versus Intent, 1 of 4

The people who make up the social justice movement are more heterogeneous on closer inspection than its advocates and detractors will have one believe; the agendas that the movement contains are similarly varied. 

So far I have written about identity politics first here, and somewhat here, and the dishonest value neutrality I complained about here relates to identity politics, as well; I shall write about it more in the future, with briefer and more targeted posts, similar to this one. Together with Simone Weil, I see obligations as prior to rights, and so any movement that clamors for the priority of rights instead of the priority of our mutual obligations to one another is bound to be divisive and, in the end, unhelpful. One should consult Mark Lilla’s expansive and inclusive notion of citizenship in his The Once and Future Liberal for a good sketch of this kind of ethic of mutual obligation.

I study at a university that seems to advocate for many of  these ideas across many of its schools, and, I think, does the students a disservice in doing so; thus, it seems to me that my attention is obligated to understand this phenomenon. There are many laudable goals that social justice warriors have — if you aren’t interested in justice, if you don’t want to create an environment in which people feel cared for, if you aren’t interested in struggling to find ways in which those who are marginalized could belong, and which advocates for an ethic of caring, and which fosters sensitive engagements with people who are from cultures and contexts that are alien to you; if you aren’t interested in these things, you’re probably not part of a different ideology, but just a jerk. That said, the models of justice and the remarkably un-nuanced watchwords of the identitarian left seem to undermine most of the goals that the movement seems to have. The actual forces in play within workplaces and in society seem to be completely ignored by the naive idealism involved in the university-based advocates of identity politics, too, so it is helpful to strike a note of realism to redirect the energies of this movement.

Here, we’ll consider one way the movement seems to shoot itself in the foot, and that’s by championing the priority of impact over intent.

There will be four parts. First, here, a recent event that occurred at my university.


During a recent class at the university I attend, a professor told a story about a student teacher who, it was noticed by observing-and-evaluating faculty, was cutting off his female –but not his male– students. They confronted him gently about this: “do you know that you’re cutting off your female students, but not the male ones?” He was alarmed, and in denial: “no, it can’t be! –that would be terrible! –I would never wish to do that!” The faculty knew his heart was in the right place, and that he simply needed to see himself from the outside in order to come to terms with this bad habit and correct it, so they videotaped him, and had him watch it. He was crestfallen, and in near disbelief. “I never knew…” or somesuch was his reply. He paid attention to his interventions, and made a change to his classroom management style. He intended no harm, even though his behavior had harmful impact; the faculty interpreted his stated intentions charitably, recognized that it was simply a defect of habit, not of character, and worked with his good intentions to fix this. The ethical value of his bad habit was judged in the light of his intention, which prompted a pastoral intervention, rather than a punitive one.

Not much time followed before the distinction between impact and intention appeared in our class discussion. Some students, apparently influenced by other faculty or students, or else online or printed rhetoric, had adopted the idea that our impact matters more than our intentions, and that if we are harming other people’s feelings of dignity or self-worth or undermining key ideas in a certain ideology of the social order, or if we are reinforcing oppressive social structures by our speech or actions, it doesn’t matter what our intentions are: in such a case, the oppressor’s impact is what matters, and is the only criterion by which his or her actions should be judged. Intentions be damned.

The professor, to his credit, folded his hands together, extended his index fingers, and touched them to his lips. “I’m not sure”, he began slowly, tapping his mouth with each word, “about this question, about how to weigh our impact versus our intent; I’m really not. When do our intentions matter, and when do they not?” I felt like he was being gentle, was delighted that he was not an ideologue, but a serious thinker, and so I stepped in.

Roughly what I said was the following. Intention has been a central feature of ethical life in Western thinking since at least Peter Abelard [1]. There is a reason we place it centrally in our evaluation of the ethical merits or demerits of an individual’s acts: without it, we cannot distinguish between involuntary manslaughter and first-degree murder. In cases of how we treat students and teachers and colleagues and relations, the value of weighing intentions centrally is illustrated by the story the professor just told the class about the student teacher: because the teacher’s intentions were in the right place, but his impact was not, the faculty charitably interpreted his bad habit, and pastorally intervened to help him improve. Had the student teacher’s intentions been evil (i.e., if he’d said “you know, I really hate the girls, and wish they’d all shut up”), it would have led to a very different follow-up, probably something along the lines of “maybe you ought to teach in an all-boys school, or else find another profession where you don’t have to work with young girls?” –because at that point, the faculty are not adjusting behaviors so that they achieve excellence, but mitigating damage, protecting the students. The students don’t need protection, however, if there is no evil intention, and the behavior can be adjusted by addressing the conscience of the one who has no malintent.

Now, I’m not saying that impact doesn’t matter; it does. The idea that our impact matters more than our intentions, however, would seem to suggest exactly the opposite of the kind of evaluation above, that kind of intervention: there would be no charitable interpretation, there would be no pastoral redirection, there would be no thought to intention at all: the student teacher would be treated like an abuser, and ostracized. Without being able to weigh someone’s intentions in order to evaluate their character, we are left with only events and their appropriate punishments; people disappear, and their words and choices become only instances in the long march of social, ideological, and political currents. The currents are what are fought or fostered, and individuals must be purged if they are impure representatives of hated currents. Since intentions are now off the table in determining the meaning of an agent’s act, but meaning is still attributed to “impact”, this would seem to suggest that the interpreter gets to determine the meaning of an agent’s act, and to ignore intention (so if I feel like you effected harm to me, even unintentionally, then my interpretation gains power over determining the meaning of the act, because impact is force, and force is merely felt). This is why, in call-out culture, there is only cruelty, and no room for repentance — because there are no people, only movements and forces; if there are persons, they only appear as points within an event of force, as oppressor and victim. Usually, however, these are movements, currents, that deploy the nodes we used to call people. You are always in the belly of one beast or another.

That we don’t do things this way, that no one who is ethical does things this way, suggests how shockingly and dangerously over-simple this framework for looking at the world is.



Biography here, key works here, here, and here; Cambridge Companion here.


Header image found here

18 thoughts on “Identity Politics: Impact versus Intent, 1 of 4

    • Yes, they are both important. If you hit me with your car by accident, the impact (figuratively) of the impact (literally) is sufficient to trigger a degree of culpability — as above, though what _kind_ of culpability is determined by intention. There are cases in which intention doesn’t matter for practical reasons for some crimes, and for other crimes in principle; but in determining the ethical weight of an act’s impact, and of the actor, intention is essential.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Agreed, but impact is ethically essential too when deciding on future actions. Conscious intention should consider impact. In the example you give, the fact that the man gets a pass ethically has maybe more to do with him being unaware about the impact (even uncousious/unaware about his actions) than his intent itself, or, one could say, he gets a pass because of a lack of intent.

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    • I’m really starting to think, from your reactions, that this post unintentionally (yes: deliberate dad joke) suggests that impact doesn’t matter. Please say so, if it does. Impact matters by itself, obviously (didn’t that teacher get confronted because of his impact, rather than non-conformity to an arbitrary standard?) — but it is not sufficient in determining the ethical content of an act if intentionality does not aim at the harm that the impact causes. This doesn’t mean we don’t make judgments anyway: someone who shouts out phrases randomly and loudly from a neurological condition is not culpable for what is outside of his power, and may intend quite otherwise. He is only culpable for what is within his power. We, however, may judge that the impact of his condition renders him unfit for camouflaged stealthy recon duties or some such, or being a live-TV weather man. Someone who goes into violent fits of rage that are unwilled and unintended has potential impact that will likely lead to our confining him or her.

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      • Ethics as such seems to be very much only about intent, as ‘ethically’, intent is indeed the sole determining factor: we do not judge river floods, falling stones, meteors, wild animals, etc. on ethical terms. Not because these things/processes are not actors (they are de facto), but because they have no (conscious) intent. Judging other aspects of actions seems to belong to the domain of pragmatics. I do think both matters, as I said, for different reasons, in different domains of thinking – that obviously interact. Whether or not one or both factors matters or not in the end boils down to the question on how one defines Ethics.

        The example of animals (or the mentally impaired or small children or even sociopaths for that matter) indicates the actual Problem of ethics: where does one draw the line? What qualifies as intent? From which point on should he/she/it should have know better? And is knowing better enough as a measuring stick? What about levels of self-control? Which gets us to the question of free will, which, ultimately – as nothing seems to be able to escape the laws of nature, not even our brains – leads to a kind of nullification of ethics as a judgemental tool a posteriori, a posteriori only remaining to be a teaching tool, and leaving it’s only a priori function as something prescriptive: paradoxically ending in the realization that thinking about impact is the most important thing a person trying to be ethical should do.

        As for my post above, there indeed impact only matters in a secondary way: as one of the factors intentional thought should consider.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Thinking about this a bit more, ethics of the intentional kind is pretty much limited the realm of philosophy itself, religion, parenting and education, and that’s about it. As you say, someone who goes into violent fits of rage that are unwilled and unintended will likely be confined – not on ethical terms, but on pragmatic terms. The ethical side only kicks in when considering the impact of society’s decision to lock him or her up on this person’s well-being, etc, and ethics there serves as tool for judgement a priori, a guiding principle so to say, about future impact, not intent. The same goes for criminals that willingly do harm – they are confined only if their actions are considered too impactfull. As such, our justice system has not that much to do with ethics as the judging of intention – although I admit judges (like teachers and parents) will often be more severe when they perceive malicious intent: but again, where to draw the line? Such reactions of judges often seem to stem more from emotional responses than thorough ethical theoretical reflection, because such reflection would draw them into vast stretches of mire. There’s the realm of politics, true, but again, debates in politics are generally debates about the impact of policies – not about their intent.

          Sorry, I’m ranting.

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          • Thinking about it some more, I want to backpedal a WHOLE lot viz. the justice system, as intent in many cases is indeed a major factor in determining judgment and sentence. I have no idea how I could have written”not that much to do with ethics” in the post above, I guess my words took me to that place automatically, but it wasn’t well-conceived. Having that said, in doing so, judges do enter the mire, for which criminal in the entire human history woke up one day and decided, fully rational, fully free, “today, I will become a criminal and being one is my intention”? I’m guessing 0 – the occasional sociopath notwithstanding.

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  2. What seems to make this example different, and all similar examples that I’ve heard from the noted social justice movement, is that we’re only discussing the intent for half of this equation. If the student’s intent was truly to understand the teachers perspective and either realize that she’s doing something “wrong” herself (I say wrong here, but it’s more about disregarding classroom etiquette in regards to BOTH student and teacher) in the classroom, or help the teacher realize that he is doing something “wrong” in the classroom, then the intent would be pure (and similar to what the teacher displayed).

    If the student is more worried about shaming or pointing out the faults of the teacher rather than helping to enhance their perspective, which seems to be the direction many of the dialogues are going (at least the conversations which garner the most attention), then the intention is not at all conducive to any type of positive impact and will very frequently result in one. Typically, I’d lean towards impact having much more weight than intention given that I’m strongly pragmatic (going back to your example or manslaughter vs. first degree murder, intent is important but at the end of the day someone would have died in this example. Punishment is a very different topic and can be Part 5 of the series if it’s not already included). But in these types of situations (again I’m not sure if how prevalent they are now a days, but they’re at least more a part of everyday culture than I can ever recall – but again I’m only 38 so perspective only goes so far with me), the intent is so rotten/misdirected that I don’t think the impact can ever be positive which is what makes this so interesting.

    Liked by 2 people

    • It is curious that in many of these cases, where the accuser states that the intentions of the accused do not matter, that the intentions of the call-out person are never themselves called out for questioning, to give an account. Usually, the accusation is sufficient to take all of the available oxygen, so no one thinks to ask, and asking would only look like an evasion at that point.

      To be super clear (I will probably need to edit the post again in light of the flaw in it that your question illuminates, so thank you for helping me improve it): the student teacher was cutting off female students as they were talking, and cutting them off _without warrant_ (or at least, without warrant as it was reported — it’s possible there were circumstances, but the professor who told the story has a good head, and solid discernment, and saw the whole thing). If they were provoking this behavior, then yes: they should ask themselves “am I doing something I shouldn’t to provoke this?” –but it seems this was all on the teacher — though unintentionally.

      In the manslaughter case, there are times when no criminal charge at all will be passed, because it was just an accident — a car that was brand new and passed inspection had its brakes fail, or whatnot. Imagine that this were treated the same as a first degree murder with some F150! I think we would all recognize the unfairness of that situation: our intentions matter, and sometimes they matter more than other cases. Abolishing their value in speech cases, however, or in other cases, leads to madness. As for our car accident: manslaughter cases that go forward usually, as I understand it, involve some degree of prior negligence not directly related to the killing, but zero intent to kill — which intent, were it present, would make it murder. As I understand it, civil suits by the family are to gain compensation for the damage cause, and that’s distinct from criminal charges, which I think only the state can level against an individual; when the state brings a criminal case against an individual, it does not do so on behalf of the one killed, but on behalf of itself, because the act of murder is against the peace of the state. The latter can result in jail time, but the former I don’t think does. The state must be the party aggrieved by a breach of its peace and order for a criminal charge to go through. Civilians can claim damages left and right, and seek some kind of damages. There are cases where intent is irrelevant in all Western countries that I know of, such as possession of illegal drugs.

      I plan on giving an overview of intent in the second post, which will require more work than three and four, which I may release first. I’m waiting on the university library to deliver me some articles I need to complete the second post, and hopefully they won’t let me down.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Interesting what’s happening to Liam Neeson atm, btw. He gets ostracized purely on the basis of the confession of an intention he had 40 years ago, didn’t act upon, sought therapeutic help foto back in the days, and clearly distances himself from today. Very frightning forgiving seems no option anymore to some.

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