Intent vs. Impact

Well, it has happened again. Somebody said something, tweeted something, wrote a cartoon, produced a piece of art, or otherwise presented an opinion. Then their world exploded. It's an all too common story these days and a recent personal experience gave me a new perspective on the issue. 
 
I was recently involved in a discussion which, while it remained civil, didn't seem to produce much fruit at the end of the day. The specific topic doesn't matter so much because I think we've all had similar experiences. Out of the whole experience, the phrase that stuck out to me the most was this one: "Your intent doesn't matter nearly as much as the impact it has on [others]."
 
This phrase crystallized a thought I had been having for a while but couldn't quite put my finger on. I had, like many of you, been frustrated by the new cultural reality that "No matter what you say, SOMEBODY is going to be offended." This competition between a speaker's intent and the impact of their words helped me to understand something profound about our culture.
 
We have become truly intellectually lazy.
 
We are confronted with so much information and data these days, that it is much easier to simply be offended by something that we disagree with or that challenges our worldview. It's simpler to be blindly offended than to try and dig into what was said, interpret it correctly, and gain an understanding of the other person and their thoughts. We still might be offended, but at least it will be offence at what the author meant to say.
 
When I was a young boy my mother used to tell me not to "judge someone else until I've walked a mile in their moccasins." These days she'd be accused of cultural appropriation. Her intent however, wasn't to appropriate native culture, but rather to teach me the importance of understanding the other side of an issue before coming to a conclusion myself. In my experience, this is something that vast swathes of people are no longer interested in doing. 
 
Words have power. Nobody who is being honest denies that. Words also, however, have many meanings, and their meanings become even broader when we see the context in which they are written. Additionally, we communicate more and more in text form, even though we know that most of our communication and meaning comes from non-verbal cues and body language. It's much easier to read words on a page and decide what they mean to us rather than spending the time and effort to figure out what the writer meant to say.
 
The power of words is almost immeasurable. A misinterpreted statement can lead to someone's entire life being ruined. Remember Justine Sacco? How about the meme one dumb tweet spawned #hasjustinelanded? For the unfamiliar, Sacco was a PR rep who tweeted a really poorly thought-out joke that went super-viral while she was on a plane. Jon Ronson wrote a great piece on the whole affair. Ronson raises a few great points about public shaming, its history, and punishments fitting their crimes. I really encourage you to read it.
 
We ought to take the time and care to read things well, to suss out the meaning that the writers intend, to make sure we get the intended meaning right before we get offended and call down the wrath of the internet on people. Am I defending the Sacco tweet? Of course not, it was (and still remains) a stupid joke that went beyond its intended audience. Someone in PR really ought to have known better, but should she really have had to lose her job over it? Does that punishment fit that crime?
 
The impact that our words have matters, it matters a great deal. But does it matter more than the intent? Allow me to submit that it does not. Intent matters more. Intent ought to matter much more! If we get the intent wrong, the impact we feel, especially when we are wronged or offended, is manufactured by us. It isn't real. It's "fake offense."
 
There is a lot to be offended by in the world today. We have much more power to effect change through the Internet today than ever. Let's not misuse that power. Let's make sure we get offended for the right reasons, and let's seek justice for the truly wronged.

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