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.
As 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. 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 . 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.
Header image found here.