I’m Stumped
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I’m Stumped

Intent v. Impact: A case about how we treat each other

In many areas of law, the legal analysis used to evaluate and judge certain actions or legislation takes a two prong approach that I believe is worth considering as we go through everyday life.

First, the law looks at your intent. Your motives, your desired outcome….basically, your thoughts.

Second, the law looks at impact. The result. The outcome, regardless of what was desired….basically, what happened or will happen.

So, for example, if a law is passed and then challenged as unconstitutional, the Courts will often ask “what was the intent of the law” and, irrespective of intent, “what will be the impact of the law.”

I bring this up because I think this dual analysis provide a helpful framework for viewing our own actions, especially when it comes to the treatment of, or interaction with, other people.

For example, I am struck by how often we have a national discussion around racism that goes like this:

1) Celebrity/public figure says or does something considered to be racist.

2) Said celebrity gets called out for the comment or action.

3) Said celebrity then defends themselves by saying “I am not a racist because I don’t hate ______, look at all this evidence from my personal life” e.g., I have minority friends, I hire minorities, I voted for a black President, etc.

Recently a basketball player named Kyrie Irving posted support for a movie based on a book. I have not seen the movie or read the book. However, there seems to be fairly universal agreement that both contain hateful anti-Semitic themes and statements. Let’s assume for the sake of discussion that is true. Kyrie then refused to walk his statement back or apologize (until many days later when he was finally suspended without pay), but instead defended himself with a blanket statement along the lines of “anyone who knows me knows I’m not anti-Semitic.”

Feels like I hear that kind of thing all the time, even from non-celebrities.

I suspect that Kyrie, like many others (probably myself included at times) was really saying, “I can’t be racist because I don’t dislike other groups based on race.” I hope that’s true for Kyrie and everyone else, but it also seems like an incomplete analysis. He’s trying to address intent, but just like the law requires for many kinds of analysis, he’s missing the idea of impact.

Even if Kyrie did not mean any harm, his statements of support for something hateful caused harm to those being hated and those who wish for less hate generally. Kyrie should care about that, just like the law does and so should we.

It should never be enough that we do not mean to hurt someone. That is important of course and we should all consider our motives and seek to improve our character so our intentions improve with it. And there is a difference I believe between acting with malice or acting with ignorance. But we should also consider how our words and actions impact others regardless of our intent.

If your words hurt, you are being hurtful, regardless of your intent. If the things you do or say contribute to the harm suffered by some other group, those actions can never be fully justified simply by examining your own feelings.

Many religions, including Christianity, teach that you should consider others and at times should care more about others than you do even yourself. It strikes me that trying to justify bad behavior solely by looking inward misses this point rather dramatically.

So, as a law can be unconstitutional if it has the impact of racial discrimination, even if that was not the intent of the law, so a person can be a racist with pure intent.

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Joshua Stump

I am a Dad, a husband, a son, a brother, a follower of Jesus, a lawyer, a songwriter, and just generally someone with a lot of strong opinions about stuff.