I was recently reading an article about the fall out after some people went in blackface for Halloween and it declared that intent doesn’t matter. While I can see that no matter what your intent was, dressing in blackface is generally a bad idea, I think that declaring that intent doesn’t matter is entirely too broad of a statement to make. Intent can and does matter and realizing this is going to help society, not damage it.
When someone makes the blanket declaration that intent in actions doesn’t matter, it rids a person guilty of a mistake from their only defense and turns them into a perpetrator. For example, there is a difference between someone accidentally hitting a pedestrian with their car and someone purposely mowing down another human being in a bout of attempted vehicular homicide. True, the pedestrian is struck either way, but in one case it was an accident and something that could happen to anyone. In the other, it is a violent crime.
The criminal justice system recognizes intent in many cases. In order to be charged with first-degree murder, the prosecutor has to prove that the person intended to murder the victim and made plans well in advance of the act. The law recognizes that terrible accidents can happen and people can die without anyone intending for it.
This is not to say that intent should be an ultimate excuse for bad behavior. Someone can’t shield themselves from criticism by claiming that their intent was good. If someone has been offended or hurt, the person who has committed the offense needs to be apologetic and learn why their actions have hurt the other person. But the person who has been hurt doesn’t have the right to proclaim that the offender is a bad person, when they didn’t mean to cause any harm in the first place.
For example, a Facebook friend recently used the term “feminazi” to describe a woman who was by no means in support of gender equality. I politely informed him that that term is loaded with misogyny and sexism and has been used to undermine the work of real feminists who disagree with Rush Limbaugh. He apologized for using the term, said he would eliminate it from his vocabulary and we all moved on. He didn’t know the history of the word and was using it because he had heard it so many other places and thought that it was a valid term to use to describe women.
That’s all there was to it. He didn’t know, he amended his behavior when he was informed of the truth and that was the end of the issue. I don’t think that he is/was a bad person for using the word or not knowing how it has been used in the past. His intention wasn’t to shame women or feminists working towards equality. His intention mattered because the mistake was innocent and was corrected immediately upon new information being received.
I also think that intent matters in some cases of cultural appropriation. I go to some conventions and have witnessed a lot of cosplayers in action. They dress up as fictional characters from their favorite movies, TV shows, books, anime, etc, in order to have fun and express themselves. Being that I live in America, a lot of these cosplayers are caucasians who cosplay people of different cultures and ethnicities.
Their intent is to show their appreciation and love the media by dressing up as a character. In this instance, telling someone that they can’t dress up as a black character because they’re white or a thin character because they’re fat, just sounds like the exact same shit that we’re supposed to be fighting against. When their motivation is respect and admiration for that character, why should they be told not to cosplay outside of their own race or ethnicity?
Intent is a tricky thing, but in the end, we owe it to our fellow human beings to give them the benefit of the doubt and express compassion and understanding when needed. Not everyone knows everything about everything so sometimes people make mistakes and do or say something that can be offensive. For the people who want to be seen as fair and compassionate human beings, all it takes is a gentle explanation of why what they did was offensive or insensitive and the problem solves itself. When looking at the behavior of others, we need to look at their intent in the matter as well as their actions.