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Intentionality


Though I had published a good deal during my academic career, until I was 50, I hadn’t written a book, and more specifically, a book in my own voice. In the US, there is an accepted academic voice; this blog, in contrast, is written in my voice. The distinction counts. And writing my first book at 50 was interesting. I discovered that speaking clearly in my own voice had its rewards and enjoyments, but also its subtle anxieties and cautions. I realized that I would be saying what I thought about topics in a way that clearly indicated that I owned the message. I found myself eager to ensure clarity and specificity.


I also began to further validate my conviction that the academic voice was often used as a protection, to avoid accountability for one’s own views and biases. The use of third person voice is a particularly perverse dimension of that avoidance since its use is proffered as an assurance of objectivity and neutrality. I began to understand its role as a diversionary shield concealing embedded bias, bestowing the “right” to pontificate without self-critique. And my lifelong skepticism about the possibility of some “pure” version of either objectivity or neutrality was further reinforced.


My commitment to owning my own voice led me to a deep dive into the nature of intentionality. I was writing about the manipulations used by those disadvantaged in a power-based relationship and concluded that the “validation” of a manipulation was the intent to deceive another. I was not engaged in a moralistic analysis, merely an effort to clarify when and how we humans set out to manipulate others. The first step, I concluded, was intentionality, the decision to deceive another to ensure a desired outcome.


The book itself has had an interesting and gratifying journey, and was often the key factor in the invitations I received to be a speaker or conduct workshops. (You can look it up on this site under books: Negotiating at an Uneven Table: Developing Moral Courage in Resolving Our Conflicts. I provide this information for clarity, not marketing.) Some found the book useful, and some found it disturbing. One of the most intense responses I encountered from those who found the book disturbing focused on my discussion about manipulation and intentionality.


These discussions always fascinated me. Some people wanted all manipulation to be declared evil, and the intention of those doing the manipulating should be viewed as irrelevant. For them, any manipulation was something “bad” people did, intent playing no role in the assessment. Indeed, they were adamant that assessing intent played no role in their personal right to register sharp judgments of “evil” about another.


Some thought manipulation was always OK if you were contending with someone with more power than you had. It was presented as a necessary way to even the odds to ensure a fair outcome. It was even presented as something of a “virtue” to do so successfully, a spin on “the ends justify the means moral reasoning”, or as I saw it, moral justification for things that could not readily be justified. There was often a “whiney” voice attached to this view, a petulant “I had to do it this way; they had so much more power than I did”. I found many women turned to this point of view…


The most frequent conversation, however, was created by those who wanted to dismiss “intentionality” outright as not germane or knowable. It was sort of like getting a free ticket to manipulate others because “why” you were doing it was irrelevant or inaccessible information, even from oneself. I often felt those presenting me with this “argument” were very invested in manipulation as a personal problem-solving device and really really hated the idea that it involved deception. I was never sure if they really believed that they were not engaging in deception or if the idea was so odious that they needed it wiped out immediately as a possibility.


I appreciated all these conversations over the years because they taught me many things. We may, as humans, feel our only option is deception, but we would prefer that it not be called or understood as deception. The attachment to manipulation may have deep and complex roots that cannot readily be uprooted, so finding that this attachment involves deception is unsettling. And perhaps most compelling: intentionality is uncomfortable to face. I may have a vague sense of my intentionality, but clarity about it is often elusive. And once my intentionality is revealed to me or others, I may not like the effect this elicits in myself and others.


Over time, I have found my over-exposure to other humans’ responses to the concept of intentionality has informed other experiences I observe. I am increasingly fascinated by the persons who when accused of one or another “ism” declare it untrue because there was no “intention” to embrace an “ism”. There is a kind of weird assumption that the only intentionality that is real is that of which I am aware, or more amusingly, that I like.


This moves the ball forward some in the effort to understand intentionality. It seems obvious, but not commonly acknowledged, that a deliberate awareness about one’s intentions is a fairly good idea. That we humans have intentions that shape our lives and also have limited information about them seems a bit unwise. It becomes equally obvious that we humans could invest in learning about our intentions, especially those unveiled by the observations of others that we “do not like” to hear from.


I am not holding my breath here. I am increasingly fascinated by the realization that my deep dive in my 50thyear served me well in ways I had not anticipated. Intentionality is always germane in my navigation of life. Like most humans, there are moments where I really hate facing my intentions, since some of them seem so ignoble or self-serving. Nonetheless, the advantage of awareness seems worth the discomfort. I have absolutely no idea about how to make this a commonplace belief.


The best I can do is posit that it is a path to freedom and essential to personal integrity.



"Intentional living is the art of making our own choices before others' choices make us."


- Richie Norton -


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