Opinion: Intent versus impact

Bobbie Szabo

Colonization is a contentious topic.

During a class discussion about colonization and its effects on the dissemination and use of various native languages around the world, one of my classmates stated, “I think we are being too sensitive about this. Not all of those white people hated natives or wanted them to lose their culture and livelihoods.”

I quickly quipped, “I don’t empathize with oppressors,” before realizing I had ruined a prime opportunity to open a necessary conversation: the difference between intent and impact.

While it is important to realize that the individuals who led colonization — and the individuals who have perpetuated other horrific acts of violence throughout history — are humans with the same proclivity to error as you or I, it is also important that the disastrous effects of their actions are not minimized based on their intent.

Just because the United States government thought it was appropriate to place immigrants from Japan in internment camps during World War II to protect people that does not mean it was right or okay to do so.

Just because the U.S. ripped Native American children from their homes and forced into English only boarding schools for “their own good,” that does not mean entire languages and cultures were not lost and families were not ruined.

Just because our current president believes he is protecting the people of the United States from terrorism with the travel ban, that does not mean he is not providing ISIS recruitment fodder, halting the educations of students with visas, and striking terror into the hearts of immigrants.

This concept applies to a far greater variety of situations than those political in nature, though. One huge defense used for those who have committed crimes is “I didn’t mean to!”

Murderers are found guilty of aggravated manslaughter whether they intended to kill someone or not. Rapists still raped someone whether they intended to or not. Drunk drivers who got into a crash that killed someone still killed someone despite not intending to do so.

People who have committed egregious deeds cannot be forgiven solely because those deeds were committed with good intent or were not intended at all.

People can be forgiven for trying to counteract the effects of their actions. People can be forgiven for giving power back to their victims. People can be forgiven in many ways for many reasons, but a lack of intent or a different intent than what the impact was is not one of those reasons.

White people throughout history cannot be forgiven for ruining the economies of countries around the world, eradicating entire cultures and languages, and killing millions of people simply because “they did not mean to” or “were not all bad people.” Characterizing oppressive behavior in such a way is unproductive.

Rather than defending terrible actions made by a group of people, we should work towards a way to eradicate the negative effects of those actions.

Intent does not minimize the gravity of an action’s impact.  

Bobbie Szabo is a columnist, contact her at [email protected].