Identity Politics: Impact versus Intent, 2 of 4

This is about one way that many within the identity politics / social justice movement seem to shoot themselves in the foot, and that’s by championing the priority of impact over intent.

There will be four parts. This entry follows the first part (which opens with a proper introduction to this miniseries). Here, in the second part, some reflections from a panel featuring Kwame Anthony Appiah and Jonathan Haidt (pronounced “height”, not “hate”), among others, on the disconnection between the caring logic behind obliterating this distinction, on the one hand, and how very differently this obliteration is implemented with the purpose to punish, on the other hand (we’ll also look at a section from Haidt’s book, The Coddling of the American Mind).

Practice Against Theory

There is a huge disconnect between the tactics of those who use social justice moral language to punish —whether as individuals, mobs, or online swarms— and the official intentions of the representatives of social justice, who wish to see its principles implemented in various fora in order to bring people together with sensitivity. In his A Brief History of Neoliberalism, David Harvey has some similar things to say about the split between (A) the ostensibly utopian ideals of Neoliberalism and (B) its actual effects as a politics deployed both to shore up and to secure the slipping power of the uppermost upper class (vi&. the “1%”).

The drive to eliminate the distinction between intent and impact is alloform to this, particularly with regard to speech regarding minorities that is deemed by some as offensive because it ostensibly reinforces systemic inequalities. Thankfully, the worst effects seem mitigated by calls to interpret the words and actions of others charitably. Unhappily, that does not seem to be enough to rescue a broken rubric.

Microaggressions & Impact-Over-Intentions

Often tied into the downplaying of intent, for the sake of looking solely at impact, is the notion of a “microaggression” — something said or done that is treated as a subtle act that reinforces the “minoritization” of whole groups of people. The use of the term “microaggression” was originally used to help combat speech and acts that were understood to reinforce racism. The term “microagression,” however, ended up being used to describe speech acts that were taken to harm other minority groups, as well. (This article lists such verbal acts as being still “microaggressions” if they are nonetheless “unintentional” and slight; we are not talking about overt animosity, but certain non-overt phrases such as a white person saying “you are very articulate!” to a Black person, which may conceal, and may be heard as concealing, an unconscious stereotype, and heard as reinforcing it [1].) Unfortunately, the idea of microaggression is not like “aggression”, because aggression requires intent, whereas a “microaggression” is something one can be guilty of even without intent.

So Dr. John Staddon, writing an article for Psychology Today, connects the legal principle of a “guilty mind” (vi&., “mens rea“) to the ethical role of intentionality. Staddon also points out that “microaggressions”, as the APA defines them, are

“Communications that subtly exclude, negate or nullify the thoughts, feelings or experiential reality of a person of color. For instance, white people often ask Asian-Americans where they were born, conveying the message that they are perpetual foreigners in their own land.”

What means this “conveying”?  Not “intending” surely.  The use of the word “conveying” here is an interpretation by this writer of what he thinks the listener will hear.  Or, to put it another way, since we have already established that the speaker has no mens rea, no bad intention, the problem is not with the speaker but the listener.

But apparently it is the speaker who is to be blamed says the same distinguished writer.  We can’t let the speaker off the hook.  Maybe the speaker’s conscious intentions are good, but unconsciously he intendeds to insult.

Now, stereotype threat is a very real thing, and it is hard to get access to the unconscious of a whole society. —yet there is, of course, no such simple access to the unconscious (whether of an individual, or of a society). Now, the phrases and words that are tagged as “microaggressions” can be profitably discussed, and a great many of them are worth avoiding, so as to avoid communicating something one does not wish to convey. When someone accuses another person of a “microaggression,” however, this is not always what is happening. These kinds of accusations do grant the accuser access to power in our current social arrangements. When I was in security in the IT world, there were viruses that would grant back-door access to bad actors. This language of “microaggressions” does not, in my New England experience, usually or more often make people better-informed or conscientious; it generally only makes people more scared, because it grants backdoor access to bad actors who are angry, and people are afraid of angry people with access to power.

Why worry about “microaggressions”? The idea is that, by employing them, one reinforces “systemic injustices.” I hope I do not need to persuade anyone reading this that racist stereotypes are a form of injustice. Further, there is definitely an aspect of systemic injustice that can be reinforced by unconsciously held stereotypes, and by the ways that we speak to one another. The idea that systemic injustice can be dismantled by policing speech, however, is prometheanly ludicrous, because the roots of systemic oppression are in the historical weight that shapes the socioeconomic sphere, not in the subtle ways that history shows through in speech. By all means, we should speak more carefully, and should become more virtuous speakers, and avoid sticking our words in old or fresh wounds. The idea that racism is just a social construct we build with minds and speech, however, seems to be unconsciously assumed by most of the rank-and-file social justice warriors I run into on campuses and in comment threads, and this simplistic idea makes it hard for them to understand the “systemic” in “systemic oppression”, and leads social justice people to evangelical crusades for hearts and habits and power, rather than political and economic action. By looking at the flower, we ignore the root.

What brings people to worry about “microaggressions”, then, instead of the socio-economic and political factors which generate the injustices? The conscious motive may be to reduce systemic injustices, but the social reality driving it is probably, I would venture to suggest, victimhood culture. There is a rather new victimhood culture that has risen only recently to replace the dignity culture of the past (see Manning & Campbell here), and it is brutal, and will call you out for slights old or new, which you perhaps would not today give or perhaps did not intend to give, and will strive to ruin your life for them. This is what has been happening at a number of college campuses around the U.S. over the past five years. I would guess that most people in the U.S. have never directly encountered the effects of the ideas of this movement, or its adherents, and so would dismiss all of this as about petty things that go on in ivory towers. I would not do that. It is possible it will die out, but this movement already has power to restructure certain parts of public life, and this should command your attention, reader. I am now hearing waitresses at the local diner go off about these issues, and say that those who publicly state that they don’t wish for sex work to be legal are directly responsible for the deaths of sex workers; the effect or “impact” of a spoken opinion is catastrophized (i.e., overextrapolated; search here for “catastrophize” to learn more), and then the mere stating of such a position (of wishing for prostitution to remain illegal) is characterized as “violence”; these diner waitresses were literally ready to lynch the people they knew who stated it, and openly fantasized about doing so, and regretted that they could not.

This is a culture of intolerance, not just intolerance to forms of explicit and direct bigotry, but of a rapidly metastasizing range of things. As Conor Friedersdorf notes, “There is no end to conflict in a victimhood culture.” Given that it seeks to negate a set of bigotries and injustices, and increasingly finds them everywhere, and has the fight as its raison d’être, it is bound to play whack-a-mole forever. Reason cannot resolve it, and there is no transcendent horizon that one might move towards in penance and restorative charity; there is only the endless crash of force against force in a cage of immanence. Or, as Megan McArdle writes, the force of resenting victimhood cannot be defused with anything other than the force of a counter-claim to greater victimhood:

Complaints about microaggressions can be used to stop complaints about microaggressions. There is no logical resting place for these disputes; it’s microaggressions all the way down.

I have, to my surprise, already written about this, or nearly this: it reminds me of the ancestral trap of endless warfare in Beowulf, and, to some degree, the reasons for it. As Jonathan Haidt points out, this victimhood culture will make political polarization worse as it spreads. This whole identity politics social justice culture of victimhood is not authentically left, and does not advance the goals of the left, which are universal:

You don’t build the left by figuring out which victim has been most victimized; you build it by organizing all the victims. When it comes to the value of universal health care, for example, we don’t need to worry for a second about whether the black descendants of slaves are worse off than the white descendants of coal miners. The goal is not to make sure that black people are no sicker than white people; it’s to make everybody healthy. That’s why they call it universal.

That’s Walter Benn Michaels here. Enough on this for now. You can see where the language of “impact over intent” comes from, and where it goes, and it’s nowhere good.

What Can Be Learned From Thinking about Impact

Before we begin, however, I will say that there are things that can be learned, and people who learn some good lessons in sensitivity, from the advocates of the social justice identitarian left.

Friedersdorf, whom I mentioned above, notes that some “microaggressions” can become “burdensome” when they are received in aggregate, and gives a good example of such a question; I take away from this that it is the duty of conscientious individuals to go out of their way reasonably to avoid them, as a sign of care for other fellow humans. The language of “microaggressions” is not the right language to address what are insensitivities in speech. We should simply strive towards sensitivity, civility, care, and understanding.

There are good motives for thinking about our speech, and avoiding, in some contexts, such phrases such as “I think the most qualified person should get the job”. It’s not that we don’t want jobs to go to the most qualified person (isn’t that better for all of us?), but that, because of disparity in opportunities, the playing field cannot always justly deliver him or her — and so the phrase is heard by some people in some communities as code for “no Blacks should get the job”, which is not its intended meaning. Is it better, then, to avoid saying this? Yes, but it’s not enough, not unless we’re laboring to equalize the opportunities for people by addressing the very material socio-economic effects of historical injustices.

Such infelicities as saying phrases like this should not, however, be punished; intent still determines more than impact in this case with regard to the ethics of it, though the (negative emotional) impact is the reason we should avoid saying it. Heedlessness is not intent to harm. You are not a horrible person if you forget on some occasions. You are, however, less heedful, less aware, than you otherwise could be. I would suggest that using the language of “your impact over your intent” is, however, toxic and corrosive for individuals and communities and the life of the Republic, would further suggest that “your impact over your intent” has the potential to be even more toxic than these phrases themselves, and should similarly be avoided. Now, for the good effects of sensitivity.

One high school teacher I know said that he/she became aware of how certain phrases could be heard as subtle slights, and was grateful to know it. This is a good effect. It is good for us to be more sensitive to others (so long as our sensitivity is rooted in good boundaries, and does not surrender us to any abuse from those with bad wills). It is not, however, good for the most sensitive or even the malicious to have their finger on the nuke switch via this downplaying of intent and the language of microaggressions. There are other examples. [2]

It strikes me that the only domain in which we should often weigh impact over intent is in judging the merits a proposed piece of legislation. In his The Ethics of Identity, Kwame Anthony Appiah addresses government neutrality in generating legislation, and

the idea, in American antidiscrimination law, of “disparate impact.” Where a policy with [91] a certain express aim tends to disadvantage a historically disadvantaged racial minority —and thus has a “disparate” racial impact— and an alternative policy that would achieve the same aim and would not so disadvantage them is available, the Court has sometimes held that the policy may be legally barred as discriminatory, even without any showing of an intent to discriminate.

You might think that, in speaking of legislators’ aims, we should address ourselves to a bill’s rationale —what it ostensibly aims to do— rather than to the subjective motivations behind its support. But, as the matter of disparate impact makes clear, a law can fail to be neutral even if its stated rationale is scrupulously so. And sometimes public acts that profess neutrality are nonneutral out of intent, not merely inadvertence. [3]

What prevents us from adopting the same criterion for individuals as for legislation? —because laws are not people, and have no agency, but are (supposed to be) enacted according to their wording to shape our shared life; the scale of a law, and the character of a law, are different from individuals and their behavior; lawgivers have intentions, but laws do not; lawgivers have impact through the laws they make, and the laws are weighed by their impact. Eliding the difference between the two and homogenizing the standard strikes me as an oversimplification, either sloppy or incompetent.

Unjust legislation is oppressive; is a “microaggression” similarly oppressive, does it qualify as “violence”, as many social justice identitarians suggest?

The second half of this post shall appear soon. 



Were a white person to say this, it may be the result of a contrast between the present Black person’s articulate speech and an unacknowledged bigoted stereotype that the white person un- or half-consciously holds about Blacks — or the white person could simply be impressed by the articulateness of this person’s speech; either way, it’s possible the phrase will come across the wrong way, due to our social situation, so the advice is that it’s best to avoid saying it. The more obvious examples that seem to suggest stereotypes are “I don’t even think of you as Black” or whatnot. (I certainly hope that everyone reading this could see why that would be a hurtful thing to say, even if hurt is not intended.) Most of the phrases that are suggested to be microaggressions are not overtly aggressive, even if their effects can be hurtful.


There is another teacher I spoke with who said that there was a situation he/she could think of where impact mattered more than intent: tracking kids in school. The intention could be good, but the impact is that that student will have, basically, diminished opportunities. In this case, our intentions don’t matter. (I am not sure; good intentions will not needlessly track students, or swiftly resort to using tracking as a means of disposing of unwanted children; a well-intentioned teacher will seek every avenue to help a student, first, and, if possible, to help a student within a tracked program.)

A somewhat silly (but helpful) example: one fellow student I spoke with about these issues similarly held Thanos’ project (45-second summary here) of destroying half of all life in the universe as being well-intentioned but wicked in impact; in this case, intentions don’t matter. I would hold that, in pragmatic terms, of course the impact matters more in this case in terms of the force that should rise to meet his intended act. Questions of his intentions are not unimportant in terms of his character, but, given the impact of the act, are quite far down the line of importance, given its scale. Can microaggressions claim such magnitude in the minds of those who suffer them? —are they “violence”, as many advocates would claim?


Kwame Anthony Appiah, The Ethics of Identity (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005), 90-91

Appiah notes that this language about “disparate impact” has its origins in the Griggs v. Duke Power Company case that was decided in 1971. The Wikipedia article is here, there is a ThoughtCo. piece on this here, and the Encyclopaedia Britannica entry is here.


Header image found here

6 thoughts on “Identity Politics: Impact versus Intent, 2 of 4

  1. Very interesting piece, thanks. Indeed intent is crucial as an ethical measuring stick – but again, where to draw the line. Hardly anybody dressing up as Black Pete in Holland and Belgium has racist intentions, and as you say, it ultimately comes down to politics to resolve the impact of the situation, with some municipalities and state broadcasters deciding to intervene.

    I wonder what gave rise to this victimhood culture: why did it arise? Why now? Why in the USA? (Side question: does/did it exist elsewhere?)

    What I’ve read about Haidt doesn’t give answers about these question, he seems more discriptive than explanatory – but I could be wrong, I haven’t read the book.

    I think a part of the answer in why some can’t seem to see these issues as part of systemic injustices has to do with the Cold War, McCarthyism, etc. which has seemed to have made it impossible to frame things as systemic as that reeks of class war.
    There’s also maybe the more general American tendency to believe society and especially individual lives to be the result of purely meritocratic (intentional) processes, not systemic ones: the American Dream is an individual dream, not a systemic one. As such, the victimhood culture might be partly the result of an extreme individualism.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I would never defend blackface; it’s not the kind of thing that needs defending, at least in the U.S. If someone in another country that did not have a history of enslaving people who should have been citizens were to do it, it’s possible that they just wouldn’t get it unless told. Making policies against something like that really doesn’t hurt anyone, and protects many from having social wounds opened up.

      That said, punishments over innocuous comments, or comments that do not appear extreme enough, or which trigger, are the problem. It gives a license to destroy people’s jobs and lives for not being sufficiently group-think-y.

      It’s late here; will reply more tomorrow. Campbell & Manning (& Haidt & Lukianoff, most especially) explain its rise.

      And yes, yes, on individualism. Lilla says that identity politics is “Reaganism for Lefties”.


  2. Pingback: Identity Politics: Impact versus Intent, 2.5 of 4 | Into the Clarities

  3. Pingback: The Burden of Unfinished Things | Into the Clarities

  4. Pingback: Identity Politics: Impact versus Intent, 2.75 of 4 | Into the Clarities

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