Discover more from Peter Boghossian
Why Authoritarians Love "Intention vs. Impact"
"Why Colleges Are Becoming Cults" w/Dr. Lyell Asher
Why Authoritarians Love "Intention vs. Impact." When faced with a statement like, "it's not the intentions, but the impact that matters,” it’s important to remember that the popularity of a statement like this depends not on its being true, but on its being useful as a tool. And this particular tool allows you to do many things.
The first thing it allows you to do is to expand, without limit, the number of things that can be declared racist. In fact, the very first time I heard the phrase was in 2010 when an administrator with an ed school doctorate in educational leadership declared that some anonymous posters on campus were racist, and then he organized a protest against hate.
Then it was discovered that the posters were actually mocking racism and that they were put up by an anti-racist minority student. The administrator then claimed that it was the impact rather than the intent that mattered. And yet another ed school trained administrator convicted the student of racial bias and harassment. It took six months for faculty to get those convictions thrown out.
The second thing that the "intention versus impact" statement allows you to do is muzzle people—to silence them. If students are told that it's not the meaning of their words as they intend them, but someone else's reaction to those words that matters, are students really going to say anything that doesn't fit the politically correct orthodoxy that's being fed to them? Of course not—and that's the point.
In fact, to control conversations still further, administrators will often add a statement like, "In discussions of racism and white supremacy, we run the risk of traumatizing BIPOC people." No evidence is offered to support this claim about the risk of trauma. It's just treated as a self-evident truth not to be questioned. But combine the "intent versus impact" statement with the "risk of trauma" statement and you get a very effective muzzle. And again, that's the point.
Think about it. If someone shows you a motion-sensitive explosive vest, puts it on you and then invites you to go jogging, it's a safe bet they'd prefer that you stand still. Likewise, when people tell you that regardless of the meaning you intend, your words can inflict trauma on people, it's clear they'd like you to shut up.
What's especially appalling about this is the use of people's instinctive kindness, their not wanting to hurt other human beings, to manipulate and bully them. This is especially cruel where minority students are concerned, because if they question the orthodoxy, they'll be told they're not just hurting other people, but hurting their own oppressed brothers and sisters. That's not just intellectually dishonest, it's morally repugnant.
A third feature of the claim that "it's not the intentions, but the impact that matters" is its capacity to silence and punish people selectively. This is possible because of that magic word, "impact." Now, normally we use the word impact to describe something physical—the impact of an asteroid on a planet, let's say, or a baseball on a windowpane. In both cases, the impact is governed by physical laws. When a baseball hits a window at a certain speed, the ball breaks the window. It doesn't have a choice in the matter. But this is why "impact" is exactly the wrong word when talking about the way images and ideas affect human beings.
We talk about a person's "reaction" to an image or "response" to a statement because human beings are not passive objects. The way they react to words depends on who said them, on what they think the intention was or the context, on how other people around them react, how they themselves have been encouraged to react or not react.
So why is a word we associate with objects, "impact," used instead of the word "response,” which we associate with people? Because "impact" covers up choice. And in that way it helps disguise what's actually being said in the “intention versus impact” formula. What's actually being said is, "It's not what you say or intend to say, but how other people respond to what you say that matters."
You're responsible, in other words, for the way other people choose to react. This means that a select group of people group determined not by race, but by politics, decides who gets to speak and who doesn't—who gets to keep a job and who doesn't—simply by the way this select group decides to act after they've heard what you say.
In practical terms, this means that the ed school-trained administrator who sent out pages of racist images to every student on Yale's campus gets to keep his job because the students chose to ignore those images. But the person who pointed out that students made that choice and were making it every day loses hers.
Thirty years ago, this kind of anti-intellectual bullying was mostly confined to ed schools. Ten years ago, it was confined to ed schools and universities. Now it's everywhere.
Just this past June, April Powers, a black, Jewish, diversity officer at the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators was denounced by a mob, not for something she said, but for something she didn't say.
In a statement she had released about the rise in anti-semitism, she didn't mention Islamophobia. In her resignation letter, she wrote, "As someone who is vehemently against Islamophobia and hate speech of any kind, I understand that intention is not impact and I am sorry."
If we translate that last phrase, all she is really saying is, "I didn't say something that a particular group of people decided to denounce me for not saying." That doesn't even warrant an apology, much less a resignation. It's crucial to remember hearing people say things you don't like and saying things other people don't like to hear: that's what living in a free society means.
In the next video, I'll talk about why this censorship is such an essential part of school administrative culture and ideology.