Conflicts: Intent and Perception

  • Sometimes people call me a troll even though I have no such intent! Who’s right?
  • And does a lie have to be intentional? — or can I lie by simply being wrong?
  • Am I an asshole if I don’t intend to hurt anyone?
  • Am I a racist if I don’t intend to treat people differently based on superficial characteristics?
  • Which is more important? Virtuous behavior or the utility of the consequences?

Yesterday, I realized that so many human conflicts stem from disputes about intent vs perception.

Some argue that intent matters more than perception: if I believe I’m being non-racist, then you should correct your perception of my behavior to match.

Some argue that perception matters more than intent: if someone perceives my behavior as racist, then I should correct my behavior to no longer appear racist.

Similar disputes occur in personal relationships. For example, I may feel hurt in response to something my partner says and yet she says she meant no harm so I shouldn’t feel hurt. Who’s right?

The solution is to embrace both intent and perception: they are both right.

Sometimes they seem to contradict each other. If the intent implies I’m kind and the perception implies I’m not kind, how can they both be right? Clearly we want a paraconsistent logic here (such as Constructive Duality [file])! That is, a logic that doesn’t blow up the moment there’s a contradiction. Or one can be more precise as to what is meant by 「kind」. Maybe kindness is a bit fuzzy rather than all-or-nothing. As we’re not perfect, maybe we can just gather evidence for and against my kindness. Let people determine what to do with the various points of evidence on their own ;- ). We could embrace subjectivity and distinguish something that appears kind to me and something that appears kind to you. Basically, there are many ways to handle differing views and experiences of an interaction.

Techniques such as Compassionate (Nonviolent) Communication aim to help walk people through the steps of recognizing and honoring the truth of both intent and perception. My feelings matter and your feelings matter, too. They often try to detangle feelings from imaginative judgments about the situation because feelings are subjective and thus can’t really be in conflict whereas our judgments can be.

There’s an interesting argument that kindness is inherently tied to intention: the question is whether I try to do good to others. If my kind act doesn’t actually help someone, then I have failed to do good but it does not mean I am not being kind. Maybe I’ll learn from this experience to be able to help out better next time ;- ). If I hurt someone with benevolent intentions, this is called a mistake. Yes, ey is hurt. Maybe ey will feel a bit better knowing I didn’t mean to hurt em but the evidence of harm is already written in the past.

The same idea is behind being anti-racist rather than just not racist. The view is that it’s not enough to just not be racist (intentionally). If there is evidence that one’s actions are actually harming only people of some racial groups, then it’s important that I adapt my behavior and learn. Can I be non-racist when aware of evidence that my actions are inflicting harm in a racially biased manner?

Likewise, there seems to be value in being both kind and empathically willing to change in response to evidence, such as the reported perceptions of those I interact with. Can I be kind when aware of evidence that my actions are inflicting harm on others? — alas, probably ;- p

On the flip side, if someone hurts me without intending to, it would be nice to empathize with that and be more gently understanding. However it’s time to bust out the boundaries if they exhibit difficulties learning.

Intention and Perception stretch towards each other with empathy like a thesis-antithesis spiral of dialectic ~ 🎶