When Did We Stop Looking at Intentions?
“Believing in negative thoughts is the single greatest obstruction to success.”
-Charles F. Glassman
In the wake of political polarization and societal anger, an important core value has unfortunately gone by the wayside. And that is the role of intentions in human interaction.
When I grew up in the ‘50s and ‘60s, my parents and other role models cautioned me to first look at someone’s intention before I take offense or assume that they harbored ill-will. Somehow, I was able to adopt this advice despite the fact that my mother did believe in the concept of “the evil eye.” Giving others the benefit of the doubt has guided me well through life, and looking at someone’s intention before I get angry and resentful has spared me a lot of angst. I fear that we are losing this value today. Here are some examples.
I recently commented to a LinkedIn post in which a business executive wrote about meeting a man who had just passed his real estate licensing exam and was planning to work as a real estate agent. The agent was Black and the executive was white. In their discussion, the agent relayed how he had used his rent money to pay for the exam, became homeless for two months, and no longer had enough money to buy a suit for work. The exec immediately took him to Men’s Wearhouse, where he bought the budding agent two new suits, a couple pair of shoes and a few shirts and ties.
The exec snapped a picture of the two of them smiling and displaying the two suits. He concluded his post by writing, “Sometimes people just need someone to have their back, care about them and sometimes give a shit about something other than themselves.” Inspiring story, huh?
Well, not inspiring enough for a white business owner who impaled the exec with her response, commenting that the exec really posted the story to demonstrate “white privilege” and a plantation-mentality by helping a Black man and bragging about it; that, if he really was sincere, he wouldn’t have posted the picture, but would have done the act quietly and anonymously. Nor was it enough for a web-designer who wrote, “You did it so YOU can feel better about yourself.”
Fortunately, these comments were in the minority and most people applauded the exec’s gesture and felt that his post inspired others to follow his example and do acts of kindness. But, I know for a fact that people don’t look at sincere intentions — even those that may create unintended offense — the way they used to.
Consider this story from a recent college reunion. The reunion classmates, many in their early seventies, were invited to participate in panel discussion with current students about education and current events. One of the alums, a retired seventy-something doctor, responded to a student panelist’s comment by referring to the student as “she.” The other students in the room exploded in anger because the alum didn’t refer to the student as “they,” the student’s preferred pronoun. The doctor didn’t even know what “they” meant, and he certainly didn’t intend to offend anyone. But the intention didn’t matter; the offense was already logged, and there was no forgiveness for the unintended lapse.
I have a personal story that has lingered for several years after I attended the funeral of a clergy member’s wife, then went to the home for a post-funeral condolence call. A day later, I returned to the home with my wife (who couldn’t attend the funeral); she wanted to pay her respects because her parents were close friends of the clergy member. The deceased woman’s son was offended, assuming that I came back not to comfort, but so that I could impress people in the room. Assuming an ulterior motive — and despite my explanation — he has continued his resentment to this day, causing him to search out more current reasons that validate his original feelings. Anger can become a never-ending cycle that piles on more reasons to be angry.
I think that we have become an offense-driven society. In the daily news cycle, someone is offended at something, without realizing that most human interactions are not intended to offend, even if sometimes they do. But if we don’t even see the difference between an intended offense and an unintended one, we have gone down a slippery slope, the bottom of which allows us to be easily and consistently offended and victimized.
Fortunately, in our justice system, there is still a difference between intent and lack of intent. A person cannot be convicted of certain capital crimes without mens rea, defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “The intention or knowledge of wrongdoing that constitutes part of a crime, as opposed to the action or conduct of the accused.” Imagine what our justice system would be like if intention vs. accident were not taken into account. Imagine what our insurance system would look like if a simple automobile accident could not be distinguished from a purposeful act. However, in current-day politics and in our society, we are more reluctant to differentiate between the two.
It seems that, almost every week I don’t get phone calls or emails returned by some people I know. I choose to give them the benefit of the doubt. I choose to believe that they’re just very busy, that I slipped through the cracks, that they do not mean any offense or disrespect. And it is that simple choice that allows me to get through the day and go to sleep at night without harboring anger, resentment or negative thoughts.
As we go into 2021 — especially after we’ve encountered human tragedy and seen human kindness — I hope that we can restore the value of giving others the benefit of the doubt by looking first at their intentions before we judge their actions.
Wishing everyone reading this a happy and healthy new year — no hidden motives intended!
Stuart Muszynski is President and CEO of Values-in-Action Foundation, a character education and social-emotional learning non-profit organization based in Mayfield Village, Ohio, serving 2,500 K-12 schools in all 50 states. Values-in-Action also strives to create communities of kindness, caring and respect with its #Kindland and #JustBeKind initiatives. Learn more at www.viafdn.org