Parsing Intentions is Difficult and Important

Getting to the root of our intentions and each others’ is critical for moving forward in maximizing each others freedom and agency. It touches on every part of our radicalism from accountability processes and being good friends and partners, to planning an action with people you have complex relationships with. If it touches everything, why don’t we talk about it more? I reckon it’s because it’s scary and confusing. But we’re curious cats, so we can go there.

Think about someone who done ya’ wrong. Seriously, conjure an example. Depending on things like your disposition and the work you’ve done on the situation you probably lie somewhere on the intersecting spectra of simple or complex understandings of all the actors’ varying intentions. If you’re prone to self-flagellation, naive idealism, or obsessions of nuance you may under-ascribe malice to the other, while focusing on your own faults (or even branching into “victim blaming”). If you tend towards narcissism, it’s a cut and dry situation, or a fresh harm you may have a simplistic evil caricature of them and their intentions. You may assign their behavior to fundamental aspects of their personality while understanding how context impacted your actions (genetic fallacy). How complex is your understanding of the situation? Are you able to see the complexity without letting them off the hook?

Now for something that might be a smidge more difficult. Think about a situation where you done someone else wrong. Do you deeply empathize with why you did what you did? Do you also over-ascribe contextual factors to your own actions and under-ascribe them to the person you harmed? Do you have a complex understanding of what led you to do the things you did while also understanding that regardless of what you perceived your intention to be, you still harmed them?

Of course at the end of the day, intentions aren’t really what matter– it’s all about impact. But intentions are still important. For example negligent homicide and homicide are importantly different though the result may appear the same. Some use this scenario to argue against consequentialist views of reality but even on the level of consequences, the intentions involved still yield different results. A mother losing her child to negligence feels differently than one losing her child to intentional murder. These feelings are different impacts. Similarly, when the leftist notions of “intent > impact” are teased apart, we often find that intent does still matter. While liberal “good-intentions” are still racist, the difference between them and a self-actualized white supremacist still matters (even if it’s a difference in scale not substance) if only because denial causes different results than conscious effort to harm.

But there are other reasons that intentions matter too. Intentions help us understand what our and others’ incentives and goals are in a situation. We try to model each others and our own intentions to the best of our ability in order to both understand and predict behavior. When that person hurt us, we try to figure out why they did it. If we’re being brave and honest, we do the same to ourselves when trying to understand how we hurt someone else–“Why did I do that?”.

But here’s the hitch, it’s actually kind of impossible to perfectly model anyone’s intentions including our own. You can get a general map, but if you’re honest, you know there’s a lot going on beneath the surface. We can have intentions that we don’t fully understand. We can be in denial about our own motivations or just acknowledge those most convenient to whatever our internal goals and patterns are. So the self-flaggelator will tend towards focusing on their own mal-intent while the narcissist will focus on how pure their own intentions are. Most of us are combinations there-in.

There are a lot of quippy rules of thumb for parsing these things. One phrase I heard about this was in HPMoR, “If you want to figure out who’s plot it was, look at who benefited.” This is often true but at the same time real life is so complicated that plots go awry and their are externalities and false flags and other chaotic manifestations that make this not universal. But a useful version of this is looking, not at what we think we want, but about what would actually benefit us in a given situation. This can get sticky quickly.

If someone gets called out and responds immediately with a flurry of, “I’m so stupid. I’m such a horrible person. You should hate me.” they may see themselves as just acting on what they feel. A friend may note the way this behavior relates to their own insecurities that they learned from trying to protect themselves from punishment from abusive people in their past.

But beyond even these typical ways of looking at it, we can also look at what that person stands to benefit from pursuing that action. Although they may be consciously acting on trauma, low self-esteem, and shame, they may also be pursuing a selfish or manipulative ends that they’re not even aware of. They may be trying to dodge accountability by guilt-tripping their accuser. Not every manipulator knows or is even capable of understanding the ways that they’re manipulating someone. Although self-actualized manipulators exist and are dangerous, more common is just plain ignorance about our own patterns and the complexity of our own motivations. So in this case it’s like a combination of all of these motivations and more that even begin to approach an understanding of someone’s intentions. Once you’ve realized that you have a motivation to act a given way, you’ve forced yourself to realize that it’s part of your intention architecture. This makes you simultaneously more able to be intentionally manipulative, but also more capable of undermining your own manipulative incentive drives through things weird things like… honesty and vulnerability. Self and other-awareness are huge responsibilities but also powerful weapons of change.

My mom once told me another phrase like this that I really liked, “If you wanna see what people want, watch what they do. If you wanna see what they want the most, see what they do first.” This is very revealing in a lot of situations. Regardless of what they say, or even believe about their own intentions, people will often go for what they want. But at the same time, we also don’t do tons of things that we want to. I want to do heroin and eat junk food all the time but I don’t. But arguably, I don’t because I want to not suffer the consequences of that life path more than I want to pursue it. But people can also have true priorities and still withhold them until much later. We’ve all had a situation where sides of someone hidden from view for ages beame clear. For example, during a break-up people can say mean things driven by resentments they’ve been holding onto the whole time. So maybe they really did want to say those things and just didn’t feel like they could. Or maybe we also just make mistakes in moments of intense emotion. Nonetheless, the more aware we are of our deep intentions, including the icky sticky resentments and things like that, the more capable we are of exposing them to ourselves and others and minimizing harm/maximizing agency.

So say we want to figure out what our dark, gross, or weird intentions are in a given situation, how do we go about it? These phrases point to the ways we can learn from what we do. This is definitely useful but has the obvious pitfall of catching things too late. This is usually after we already acted on them! But in lesser form, we can look at little actions. Maybe I don’t actually want to break up my sweethearts other relationship or drive apart two people I have jealousy around, but I want it a little bit so I act on a small petty version of it. This doesn’t mean I’m actually trying to destroy people I care about, just that there’s some note of malice in my intentions and catching the small version of it early allows me to process it with the appropriate people and prevent it from getting bigger and turning into its most malicious iteration.

We can look at our thoughts and feelings though too. These are probably the main places to look but they’re a bit of a hall of mirrors because we can have so many conflicting feelings at once and our thoughts can be misleading. Not every thought is indicative of what someone actually wants or believes. Brains can generate a lot of garbage or they make content that means something less obvious than the face value of the thought. For example, we may think something like, “I hate that bitch.” At face value we might just think we hate that person but really we’re actually jealous of something they have that we want but that’s too vulnerable to think directly. But the thought is still useful in catching wind of some of those things going on. So thoughts are useful tools in determining our intentions but they’re not exact indicators. We can pick up on some trends with them and communicate our states to people we trust to give them more information about how to interact with us. If we have the stability and support, it’s often useful to look at the thoughts we shy away from directly or at least build up a tolerance to thinking about them a little at a time.

Feelings are similar. They tell us a lot about our state but they can also be misleading. If we suspect a partner to be cheating on us, we can feel like we’re dying even though we’re not actually dying. But if they are cheating on us that feeling is telling us something important about our state. Everything we know about reality is shifting, of course we feel like we’re dying. But also, like a smoke alarm, just because you want it on in case there’s a real fire, it can go off for toast too. We may just be feeling insecure about a partner’s new friend (or sweetie if you’re non-monogamous) and our trauma turns it into an emergency when its not. So feelings can tell us a lot about our intentions, but they may also be misleading or exaggerated.

It seems like understanding our own intentions is a bit asymptotic. We just try to model it better and better with whatever tools and heuristics we have available. Once we’ve modeled each others intentions we can talk it out and try to come to better understandings. If we have weird intentions we can try to be honest with others so as to undermine our own sketchy micro-plots. For example, “Babe, when you made that comment it hurt my feelings and I wanted to make fun of you back in front of our friends.” Is a lot easier to work through than if the micro-revenge had actually happened. Obviously it gets even more intense the farther out we go into the darker parts of human psyches.

There are other dynamics at play though as well. The focus on the dark parts is natural in that, if our dark parts are actualized the results will be bad but if our good parts are actualized it will just be good. There’s no fear motivating our positive intentions so it’s easy to ignore because it’s not as loud. But the structures of analyzing the complexity of our motivations also applies to recognizing all of the ways we love ourselves and others and truly want the best for them. In fact, because the dark stuff is so potentially scary, it can completely lose its right size. We can only choose to see that partially true evil streak in someone who harmed us or in our own fears of ourselves.

For people who are not exceptionally ill-intentioned and selfish, we often have altruistic motivations mixed in with our selfishness all the way down. It can be true that I want my sweetie to not hang out with that person because I want more time with them and because I think that other person will hurt them. Even wanting to spend more time with them myself can be teased apart into respecting myself enough to honor my desires while also not thinking enough about what other people need or want. The wisdom of the altruistic side though is that often what benefits others, also benefits us. The world is not strictly a zero-sum competition. My partners having other friends and partners makes them more emotionally healthy which makes our own bond stronger even if it also makes us both more vulnerable to heartache. Searching for abundance and maximizing each others freedom requires being brave. Not being brave in the magical disney sense, but just in doing the thing that we know is right even if it’s complicated and scary and hard. Getting to know our intentions helps us to see other people more clearly. Understanding each other helps us to love better and be better friends and accomplices. To love isn’t to have a static good feeling. Love is striving to hold all of ourselves and each other in an embrace with all the complexities of consent and boundaries in tow. Eventually we have to take the risk of acting in solidarity and loving each other despite the complexities of our intentional landscape. We hold doubt but act decisively. A little emotional solidarity can go a long way in helping to navigate our intentions together.

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