Do our intentions matter in the social media age?

When my daughter was very young, she broke my favourite mug. She was moving it aside and it slipped from her hand and smashed on the floor. I loved that mug and was really disappointed, but of course I didn’t punish her. It was an accident. She didn’t mean to drop it. Intentions matter.
Or do they?

Correct me if I’m wrong – and I really do hope I’m wrong – but I can’t help but feel that our modern world cares not one scrap for intentions. We are all so reactive, bouncing off words and actions and social media posts, ready to pounce the second we can find fault with another person. We are all so concerned with our own responses, we don’t consider for a moment the intentions of the other.

We are all so reactive, bouncing off words and actions and social media posts, ready to pounce the second we can find fault with another person.Credit:Shutterstock

There are endless opportunities to take offence these days, in the celebrity news cycle, in politics, and in our own interpersonal interactions. Every single day, someone is pilloried on social media for something they have said or done; every single day, we get outraged over something.

A friend of mine – one of the most diplomatic people I know – says, “It’s not how the message is intended, it’s how it’s received.” He means that we need to be careful when choosing our words, because they can so easily be misinterpreted by the person we are addressing. As a professional writer, I remember this lesson every day.

But not everyone is a professional writer and not everyone is a professional speaker, and even those of us who are stuff up sometimes. We express ourselves poorly, or make errors of judgement, or have a moment of carelessness where we say the wrong thing. All of us have caused offence to someone at some point in our lives, even those of us who are basically good human beings.

The internet is full of trolls, people deliberately seeking to provoke and inflame. The most powerful country on earth is being run by a man who seems to take pleasure in doing the same. But there are also many people who are mostly decent, who occasionally get things wrong when they’re having a bad day. And there are hordes of people who are uneducated or uninformed, who aren’t evil or malevolent, but simply do not know better.

There is so much anger and self-righteousness on social media, so much outrage and offence, so much volatility and divisiveness. And

I get it, I do. There is much to be angry about. The world is full of injustice. So many people are hurting. For those who are socially, financially or physically disadvantaged, life is a constant struggle for dignity and equality. The actions and words of other people can cause harm, therefore the actions and words of other people matter.

But intention has to matter too, for us to make sense of the world, and for us to effect change.
Understanding intention can can help us to feel better about our fellow humans. Yes, some people may be deliberately trying to hurt us, but others are acting out of fear or pain or simple ignorance. And when we can appreciate the underlying context and intent, it can help to lessen the emotional impact of their message.

On a more practical level, understanding intention can help us to respond to people with empathy and compassion instead of anger. People who genuinely wish to do the right thing are often willing to listen, but when they are yelled at, they become defensive. When we scream at people in our self-righteous fury (literally, or on social media) we shut down the option of communication. We push people further into their positions and make them less amenable to change.

I don’t believe that anyone has an obligation to be kind to someone who causes offence. We have the right to be angry and distressed over words or actions that cause us pain. But it can be immensely helpful for us, and for others, to consider a person’s intentions before we react, and to remember that humans are rarely as polarised as social media implies.

Did the person throw the mug, or did it slip from their hands? Now, more than ever, I think the answer matters.

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