Does intent matter anymore?

Cancel culture negates intent, shuts down conversations and creates barriers for solutions

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The past couple of years have seen scores of public figures fall from grace because of comments made regarding race, gender and sexual orientation or for offensive actions taken. In many instances their subsequent apologies have included some sort of indication that they did not intend for their comments or actions to be harmful to others and what they said or did was not indicative of how they feel or what they believe. While this assertion may just be a standard part of any good public apology and not have any merit, it does raise the question of whether or not intent — for those who are actually being sincere — has any sort of credence given the current environment being driven by cancel culture.

In a legal setting, intent is a key factor that must be proven in order to prosecute someone for a criminal act. Referred to as “mens rea,” generally speaking a prosecutor must prove the defendant meant to do what they did. According to the Cornell Law School Legal Information Institute, “the mens rea requirement is premised upon the idea that one must possess a guilty state of mind and be aware of his or her misconduct.” Furthermore, the Model Penal Code recognizes four different levels of mens rea: purpose, with a person acting with the intent their action will cause a certain result; knowledge, with a person acting knowingly that their conduct will cause a certain result; recklessness, with a person being aware there is a substantial risk of a certain result; and negligence, with a person who should have been aware of a substantial risk of a certain result.

Intertwined with intent is the question of whether the “mistake” was, in fact, an accurate indicator of the offending person’s beliefs and values as opposed to ignorance, a lapse in judgement, a misunderstanding or just a plain mistake.

This model offers four possible scenarios: 1) a person who had intent to harm and accurately expressed their beliefs, 2) a person who had intent to harm but did not accurately express their beliefs, 3) a person who did not have intent to harm and accurately expressed their beliefs and 4) a person who did not have intent to harm and did not accurately did express their beliefs.

Acknowledging and examining this four-scenario matrix may be a valuable first step in guiding the court of public opinion on how to best respond to the offending comment or action as well as determining the appropriate consequences. While intent plays a major role in a court of law, it plays a relatively minor role in the court of public opinion. What if, for sake of argument and recognizing the bias and imperfections of the legal system, we handled decisions in the court of public opinion as we do in a court of law?

For starters, we can eliminate scenario #2 as there are likely no instances of someone intentionally causing harm by fabricating offensive beliefs; that would be an act of self-destruction for no understandable reason. And scenario #1 obviously renders an immediate guilty verdict, with both the intent to harm and an accurate portrayal of their beliefs present.

In scenario #3 the two courts begin to diverge. In a court of law, this person would likely be found innocent due to lack of intent, however the court of public opinion would no doubt yield a verdict of guilty due to their offensive beliefs. Assuming the person does not come forward and admit their actual beliefs, some might suggest the court of public opinion carefully review the facts in order to make a fair judgement. This is one area in which the court of public opinion has only had minimal success. Perhaps past behavior and actions are a starting point for an assessment. If the person is found to have offensive beliefs, then the court of public opinion can rightly declare a verdict of guilty thereby justifying the resulting consequences.

Now we come to scenario #4, the person who has said or done something offensive or wrong with no intent to harm and whose comments or actions are not indicative of their beliefs or values. This is the person who made a mistake, was misunderstood or had poor judgement. What do we do with this person? In a court of law this person would almost certainly be found innocent. But in the court of public opinion, cancel culture takes over and the people who fall into this category are found guilty despite having no intent to harm nor having any offensive beliefs or values. No due process, no review of the person’s history, no discussion, no opportunity for the person to offer any explanation, no opportunity to apologize or correct the situation, no nothing. Do not pass “Go,” do not collect $200, just go straight to jail.

Does an honest mistake or poor judgement — assuming that’s what actually occurred — warrant the destruction of a person’s livelihood and/or life? If there is no intent to harm and the comment or action was not aligned with the person’s belief or values, should this person be subject to the same consequences as someone who did have intent to harm, accurately expressed their offensive beliefs or both?

Based on dozens of instances from the past few years, it seems the problem with the court of public opinion is there is no formal process and a tendency to be lazy and take the easiest or safest path. Rather than take the time to thoroughly review facts and weigh various factors, the public often decides to find a person guilty based on the mere possibility the person meant to cause harm or does, in fact, have a biased and offensive belief system. In a court of law, this would be the equivalent of finding someone guilty because they might have committed a crime and, to be safe, let’s just send them to jail.

So, where does that leave us? A good start might be for the court of public opinion to adopt a core aspect of the legal system… innocent until proven guilty. Granted the U.S. legal system is far from perfect however the presumption of innocence is something core to a democracy and basic to the rights of an individual.

Judging a book by its cover, so to speak, is a predominant trait of the general public. If someone makes one offensive comment that is all the evidence needed to make certain — potentially erroneous — assumptions about that person. Based solely on one comment, a person’s entire belief system and attitudes toward various issues will be judged.

The question of whether intent, or an individual’s actual values and beliefs, matter is one that needs to be carefully considered as people from different races, religions, genders and sexual orientation work to understand each other and coexist peacefully and productively. One thing that is certain, however, is that shutting down conversations — which is what cancel culture does — will not unite people nor help us embrace and, hopefully, celebrate our differences.

Diversity, inclusion and equality are some of the most, if not the most, pressing issues of our time. The blatant oppression of certain ethnic groups and cultures has to end and there needs to be a complete overhaul of how we treat one another and function as a society. There is no question our systems, processes, laws, policies and ways of thinking need to be reformed. And we need to be aggressive and vigilant in making these changes. One way to do that is to encourage people to turn mistakes into opportunities to do and be better, make meaningful contributions to the community and be a positive influence. Taking a cancel culture approach does not allow people to continue working together toward positive change. Activism is based on communication; nothing ever changed for the better by shutting down conversations. If someone wants to be a better person, it just might be in our collective best interests to let them.

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Steve Honig has been at the forefront of the public relations business for more than 30 years and is a well-respected expert in the field.

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