The Savage Assumption of Intent

You don’t know why people do things.

NOTE: Within this text, wherever gender is not key to the explanation, I am using the Elverson ey/em construction of the Spivak Pronouns.

Photo by Romain Paget on Unsplash

You can live your life believing that everyone is out to hurt you or you can live your life in a world of natural phenomena that are sometimes inconvenient. It is your choice.

The world of intentional hurting is probably entirely fictitious. To be brutally honest, for the most part, no one cares about you enough to hurt you. When you are cut off in traffic or are trapped behind a slow driver on a one lane road, that person isn’t thinking about you. That person is thinking about how stupid ey was to sleep in with an early morning appointment. Perhaps that person is thinking about how frightened ey is to be on this winding road at this ungodly speed.

When someone greets you using the wrong name or does not greet you at all, it isn’t for the purpose of hurting you. The person has unexpectedly encountered the natural limits of eir very human brain or has suddenly realized that ey left the oven on and the tofu-cauliflower-bake will be ruined.

If you were driving somewhere and you saw a tornado touch down ahead of you, you would simply stop and wait until the dangerous weather passed. If you are the sort of person who would loudly curse the fickle gods who are impeding your progress, then, I’m afraid there’s nothing I can do for you. You are committed to becoming angry for no reason whatever. You apparently enjoy being angry and you just need to find friends who are OK with that.

For most rational people, natural phenomena like storms or a fallen tree or a nearby forest fire prompt a determined and measured response that will reduce or eliminate the threatened damage. God is not out to get you. Things happen and you have to deal with them. That is the mundane challenge of everyday life. That is why as soon as you get comfortable with your routine, the schedule of a particular meeting changes or your father falls ill or your septic system fails. Things are always happening and there is no way to isolate yourself from the annoying march of time — from the concrete expression of the inexorable second law of thermodynamics (everything falls apart).

The sane human must accept that the fallen tree and the discourteous driver are both simple natural phenomena. The tornado and the negligent host share a common motivation. Something happened, a lightning strike or a brain fart, and the result affected you. To observe the event and assign some sort of intent makes no sense. You don’t know why that weather event happened. You don’t know why that person did that.

When I worked at Martin Marietta, I was talking with a high level director in his office about a decision I had made regarding a Space Shuttle wiring harness. He was explaining why my concept was too unusual to be accepted by NASA when in mid-sentence, he stood and left his office. At the time, I thought he had done it to express his authority: to indicate unambiguously that my error was not even worth an explanation. I remained in his office for five more minutes (the time allotted for a late-arriving associate professor) and then returned to my desk.

Upon reflection, though, I have no idea why that happened. It was ridiculously arrogant of me to believe that he was delivering a message to me in any way. He may have seen an employee engaging in unsafe behavior that may have compromised the satellite. His mother may have arrived on site. He may have become suddenly nauseated. There is no way I could possibly know. Assigning intent to his actions caused me unnecessary distress that I did not need to experience except for my own arrogant notion that this was about me. I saw the event and I thought, “He did this because …”

The because is the problem. From Puritans (You don’t work because you are lazy) to white supremacists (You’re poor because you’re black) the because is the fatal flaw in most conclusions regarding human behavior. In Trump’s America, we see this all the time. “Foreigners are entering my country because they want my job.” “That guy is driving a Tesla because he wants my car to look stupid.” “The libtards make me take the vaccine because they want to put a microchip in me.”

Face it. You have no idea why anyone does anything. To accept that fact is to accept that every experience may be addressed calmly and strategically without regard to some perceived intent. Those people and groups who routinely engage in activities which cause you injury, may now be addressed in a manner that will simply reduce or eliminate the injury. I came to this realization while writing The Speech that Kills the World. I’ve been utterly frustrated by the Republican packing of the Supreme Court and suddenly I understood that we could defeat the conspiracy by simply accepting the ruling as presented. Ignore intent and address the problem as any natural disaster. Fix that.

To assign intent is to grant these possibly nefarious actors more respect than they deserve. In all likelihood, they are merely acting unconsciously in the manner to which their nature has predisposed them. Your “mortal enemy” is probably a simple natural phenomenon and you need to address it as you would any other such impediment: act constructively to reduce or eliminate the damage that the phenomenon presents.

Julian S. Taylor is the author of Famine in the Bullpen a book about bringing innovation back to software engineering.
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Also available in ebook and audio formats at Sockwood Press.

This work represents the opinion of the author only.

Software engineer & author. Former Senior Staff Engineer w/ Sun Microsystems. Latest book: Famine in the Bullpen. See & hear at https://sockwood.com

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Julian S. Taylor

Julian S. Taylor

Software engineer & author. Former Senior Staff Engineer w/ Sun Microsystems. Latest book: Famine in the Bullpen. See & hear at https://sockwood.com

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