Intention is both more and less important than we allow. It matters what I meant to say and do, because those reflect my experience of the events in question. But what I meant to say and do may have little relationship to your experience of the same events. And the events themselves are yet another truth.
I am not suggesting it is easy to navigate these murky waters. It’s tough to anticipate how someone will respond to what you say or do, and it’s tough to know ahead of time how it will be perceived. Maybe you tap a friend on the should to say hello and they jump out of their skin—you mean to say hello, they experience it as being startled, and the objective act (tapping them on the shoulder) holds neither connotation. In this sort of circumstance, intent does matter, and the phrase “it wasn’t my intent” may actually be reassuring. The hurt is minor and results from an innocent misunderstanding.
But there is a different usage of this phrase, and one that takes it well outside allowable bounds. Where I more often see “it wasn’t my intent” cropping up is in apologies where it really has no business being. I am talking about circumstances where the hurt is large, or there is no misunderstanding, or the consequences are so significant that intent no longer matters. In these cases the phrase “it wasn’t my intent” and its cousins are the phrases we trot out to abdicate responsibility.
For example, Tim Hunt used the phrase “I certainly didn’t mean that” this past week when apologizing for sexist comments about women (he called them girls) being a problem in labs. He was worried that women would “fall in love with him” and “cry” and be “distracting,” so Tim thinks they should be in gender-segregated labs. And in his apology he says he “did mean the part about having trouble with girls,” so he seems to be burning the candle at both ends on this apology. By saying he “didn’t mean” to offend anyone, he seems to be saying that the inherent sexism of his views doesn’t matter, because he didn’t intend it to be offensive. Happily, lots of woman in science jumped in to tell Tim just how wrong he is.
Nevertheless, this is how I usually see phrases like “it wasn’t my intent” employed. Not to clear up some real misunderstanding of meaning, but rather as a verbal scalpel to separate someone’s offensive views from the consequences of expressing those views. When someone says something steeped in prejudice and then claims “it wasn’t my intent” to upset anyone, they are effectively saying that there is nothing wrong with their views, and the fault lies in your response.
At this point some people may be thinking “hey, wait a minute, maybe Tim Hunt didn’t mean to be sexist.” They are probably right. And they may be thinking of some time that they said something prejudiced themselves and didn’t realize until after the fact—I know I’ve done this. And that is true, and a good point.
And it doesn’t matter. There is no plausible deniability for those espousing sexism, or racism, or homophobia, or any other prejudicial viewpoint. The offensiveness of prejudiced views and the hurt they cause cannot be separated. This is why the phrase “it wasn’t my intent” is such an insidious bit of misdirection—it’s basic role is to suggest that when someone is prejudiced and offensive, whether they intended to be matters more than whether they were. It refuses to acknowledge the prejudice as the problem, and thus it reinforces, rather than diminishes, the original harm.
“It wasn’t my intent,” we say, “to give offence. But of course, we are decent people, so if you were bothered by our prejudices, we will happily apologize for the bother, even though the problem really lies with you. Sorry.”
“It wasn’t my intent” is the “I’m sorry your face keeps hitting my fist” of rhetorical apology.