When someone asks if you can pass the salt, you do not simply respond with “yes” and nothing more. You needn’t even respond with “yes” at all; you could pass the salt without saying anything. You understand that the person’s intention is not to inquire about your salt-passing ability but to get you to pass him the salt.
If you have two broken hands, however, the same question could be an inquiry about your salt-passing ability (or your ability in general). The reason we can use identical words to convey different meanings is because we communicate by getting others to recognize our intentions; meaning and intention are the same thing.
Sometimes what the speaker intends (means) is unclear. When we don’t completely understand, we ask, “What do you mean?” The fact that we use the word “mean” when we ask about intention further proves that intention and meaning are the same thing. A shared belief about a statement’s intention is necessary for successful communication.
At the end of last semester, Mahan Mirza and Joseph Cumming wrote a confusing opinion column (“Hate should prompt forgiveness, dialogue,” 12/13). Regarding the anti-Islam posters posted a few days before, they claimed that “intention is irrelevant because the doers remain anonymous yet their deeds have serious consequences.” If they’re right, the moderators of last semester’s hate speech forum also committed hate speech: They projected the exact same poster on a large screen for all to see.
The natural objection is that the moderators were merely showing what had been done. Their intention (meaning) was to inform, not offend. It’s the same as passing the salt: The exact same phrase/image has two different meanings, distinguishable only by intention. It seems Mirza and Cumming try to have it both ways: The poster’s intention doesn’t matter, but the moderators of the hate speech forum weren’t committing hate speech themselves when using the same image because their intentions were different.
That “their deeds have serious consequences” is thus problematic: The “deeds” were hurtful exactly because of the posters’ meanings (and meanings and intentions are the same). “They were hurtful” is not in spite of the posters’ intentions; it is an assumption about what those intentions are.
(Also, Mirza and Cumming contradict themselves. Their solution works because of the same intention they claim shouldn’t matter: “Would it not be wonderful if those who hoped [intended, meant] to provoke hatred and division within the Yale community found instead that they had provoked us to love and solidarity?”)
Whenever facts do not by themselves make sense, we mentally fill in the blanks in a way called the “fundamental attribution error.” The assumptions which Mirza and Cumming implicitly — others explicitly — make are attributions about the people who put up the posters: bigoted, mean-spirited or, the least unkind possibility, ignorant.
An American is over twice as likely as an Indian to attribute an action to an individual’s personality rather than to the circumstances he is in. The irony is that the Muslim community emphatically judges the personality of the person who posted the anti-Islamic posters while people from the country with the world’s second-largest Muslim population tend to make these kinds of personality judgments less than half as often as Americans.
The problem with the anonymous posters is that we actually don’t know what their intentions were. We can’t ask their creators the question, “What did you mean?” Since intentions are the lynchpins of communication, ignoring them is tantamount to not cooperating in communication, that is, to not communicating at all. Assuming them is even worse than admitting ignorance. If anyone has ever had a conversation with an uncooperative child, “frustrating” is an understatement.
That intentions don’t matter is, unfortunately, common belief. Students expressed similar attitudes concerning the Rumpus, Record and NOGAYS incidents. The problem: insisting “intention is irrelevant” is simply untrue. This prevailing attitude is a disturbing and counterproductive trend.
I’m not dismissing the hurt these cases have caused; rather, it is because of the hurt that we should not try to ignore intention. Once we deny intention’s importance, our only tools are terms like racism, sexism, homophobia and slander — recall the Record’s Blue Book parody. If we embrace intention, we can say the more civilized “Excuse me, I just want you to know your words didn’t have the effect you intended — it seems you mean something you perhaps don’t.” The former approach adds to hurt; the latter facilitates healing. They are mutually exclusive options.
Mirza and Cumming deny the importance of intentions while emphasizing dialogue. It’s really a trade-off: We can either deny intention’s place or have dialogue. If we want dialogue, we must embrace intention, for communication is no more than recognizing others’ intentions. If we cannot know intention because of anonymity, we shouldn’t assume we know what it is, not only because we can’t know, but also because we assume the things that hurt us.
Michael Wayne Harris is a sophomore in Branford College.