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Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Intent Vs. Impact (Thirty Years Later)

During my years as an adult educator, the course I delivered more than any other was Prevention of Sexual Harassment. My preparation for delivering that course included learning about the case law surrounding the subject. Early in the evolution of sexual harassment case law, a key concept - controversial to this day - was established. The courts have consistently supported the notion that intent is not as significant as impact. In other words, claiming "I didn't mean anything by what I did/said" is not a wise legal strategy to take if accused of sexual harassment. I never struggled delivering this message. To me, thinking people know their words and actions have potential consequences.

Though my view of intent vs. impact as a legal concept has not shifted dramatically since I stopped teaching about sexual harassment, I have been struggling more these days when someone is publicly shamed for a single stupid act of indiscretion. All of us have, at some point in our lives, done or said something insensitive or inappropriate. When an old Halloween photo of me recently surfaced, I tried to imagine how difficult it would be to explain away my cluelessness had I ever run for public office and someone found that photo. I'm not the same person now as I was then but would that matter nowadays? I think not and that concerns me. 

All of us need to recognize that we've all made mistakes. If, when we screw up - as I did in that photo - we expect to be judged by our intentions, doesn't it follow that we allow others to explain their intention when they are caught in a misstep vs. immediately shaming them for the impact their single action had on us or others? 

I'm NOT suggesting predators or serial offenders shouldn't be held accountable for their detestable behavior. But, as I repeatedly said during my years as an adult educator, one dirty joke does not create a hostile work environment. On the other hand, ask yourself this question before telling the joke: If my mother or sister or wife or daughter were standing next to me, would I tell this joke? If the answer is no, it's probably better to skip telling it. Because otherwise, what exactly is your intent?   


  1. Good morning, Pat. A very interesting, relevant, current, and delicate subject. I have to agree that, if we all were to honestly search our respective past, most, if not all, of us would find/remember things that were said or done that were, and are, offensive. Ignorance of youth (or is that ignorance and youth) can explain a lot of these instances. Peer pressure, wanting to fit in, not wanting confrontations by disagreeing or not taking part .. I could go on and on as far as the 'whys'. But, as you have said, Intent versus Impact should be a determining factor. I also believe that sometimes 'innocent until proven guilty' gets lost in the process. The 'Court of Public Opinion' takes hold and decisions are made before all of the facts, no matter what they are, are heard or presented. Not sure how to change this, or if it can be changed, when there are so many differences. Thankfully (a strange word to use, but I believe it fits) in a number of these occurrences it can be fairly easy to see both intent and impact. My father always used to say that 'respect is something that is earned, not expected". However, he was more referring to how employees respond to supervision. With the situations you're referencing ... Respect needs to be given and expected. Again, a very interesting, relevant, current, and delicate subject.

    1. RRGRMG; Thanks for weighing in. I wholly agree that sometimes "...innocent until proven guilty..." gets lost in the shuffle, especially when the court of public opinion is involved. That's what I was getting at with the whole "...public shaming..." piece. I would add to your list of pertinent adjectives - interesting, relevant, current, and delicate - that this issue is an exceedingly complex one as well. No easy answers, for sure, notwithstanding the large number of people who see everything in black or white.

  2. Thanks for the work you have done teaching sexual harassment. Powerful stuff. Challenging stuff. I have said for years that “feminism” is earth shaking and totally incites revolution because it turns upside down not only who goes to work or how we get paid, but every cultural norm since humans separated from the other hominids! So, holding someone accountable for being a product of generations of attitudes is a question mark. Holding someone accountable for racist behavior/attitudes is similar, in that what we grow up with, is what “normal” is. Until there is exposure, willingness and experience of something different, how can there be change. So the issue is thorny. And ridiculous at times. And challenging always. But never not worth re-examining our internal messaging.

    I am living with a Puerto Rican woman. Her experience in the world is a complete mystery to me. I am learning, but I know I can never fully comprehend the enormity of the consequence of my whiteness. I think the same holds true for men; it is almost impossible to comprehend the enormity and subtlety of maleness; that is so deeply imbedded in both men and women, that we don't even know it’s operating.
    How about the gov of N.Y. how about Al Franken. How about the men we as women “worked” with our charms, or more, to secure a job or maintain job security or even to get a roof over our heads! Complex stuff, I appreciate the conversation.

    1. Anonymous; Thanks for the comprehensive comment. Soon after realizing how much privilege was conferred on me from the start (being born white, male, straight, with no disabilities), I realized my life could be more meaningful to me if I tried - when possible - to educate others about issues of social justice. And though my blog is not exclusively about those issues, on occasion I feel compelled to speak out about things I believe need to be said. The comments I get from people like you on posts of this nature are very important to me because those comments remind me I'm not alone. Thanks for that.