We’re all familiar with the saying, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” But does that mean we should act from bad intentions? Obviously not. Nor does it mean that we should never do anything at all. Doing nothing can have worse results than doing something wrong.
The problem isn’t with good intentions. It’s with lazy good intentions. Half-assed good intentions. You vaguely want to do the right thing, but you don’t want to do the work of figuring out what that thing is. You want to do what will make you feel good about yourself, without seriously considering the actual effects on others.
I was prompted to write about this because I’ve been reading work by people who aren’t straight and/or white and/or male. There’s a feeling among those of us with social privilege that if you act from benevolent intent, then it’s unfair for anyone to criticize you, no matter what the effects of your actions are. And of course it’s true that no matter how carefully you might try to make the world a better place, sometimes it doesn’t work. Things go wrong; bad luck happens.
But often, problems don’t arise from bad luck but from thoughtlessness. You don’t try to see things from other people’s point of view. You don’t try to foresee easily predicted consequences. You don’t do your homework about how your actions might be received, but blithely go ahead with what you want to do, just assuming that your good intentions will make everything work out right (or at least make it impossible for anyone to complain).
This is the epitome of privilege. People without privilege damned well have to consider the consequences of their actions. For them, good intentions mean squat, and they can’t expect the benefit of the doubt. People without privilege have to understand how their actions might be received; they have to do their homework, deal with any possible glitches, and never assume that meaning well is good enough.
Those of us with privilege (and hey, I’m a straight white middle-aged male) have to start thinking more about how what we do is received. I already know I have good intentions. Now I have to make sure I have good results…and that means paying attention to others before and after I act, doing my best not to make mistakes from glib assumptions and definitely trying not to make the same mistake twice.
[Image of “The Good Intent” by Glyn Baker, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Road_to_Hell%5E_-_geograph.org.uk_-_38556.jpg]