perception and intention

Lately I’ve been thinking, what is public perception, and how do we react to someone else’s perception of ourselves?

These thoughts didn’t just crop up out of nowhere. They’ve been present ever since I struggled with how personal to get on this very space [see my last two posts] and got aggravated by recent incidents that got me thinking about a similar discourse a good few years ago. I used to date someone who was an English Language and Literature student and they introduced me to the idea of the death of the author. It comes from an essay by Barthes in the sixties of the previous century and it focuses on literary critique, but I think it’s quite adaptable to other media.

The idea is as follows: when someone creates a work, in this case a literary work, the reader gets to read that work. What happens then is the reader will interpret the work. But there are now two forces at play: the author came from a certain perspective when they wrote the work… but the reader is coming from a different perspective when they read the work. In analysis, must one always keep in mind the author and what they intended when they wrote their words, their background, their status, their state of mind when they wrote it… or can we, as readers, take the text and give our own interpretations?

It’s unrealistic to expect the author to come sit with everyone reading their work and explain what they meant with every word. Barthes argued that we cannot interpret exactly what the author intended, and to do so is to limit the work. So, that’s it, once a work has been written and is ‘out in the open’, the true purpose of a work is to be read and interpreted by the reader.

Barthes argued that the author’s intention must be erased completely, and the work should stand on its own for interpretation. However, there’s a lot to say against this, because an author always comes from a certain background and it is impossible to completely erase someone’s point of view when writing, and to ignore this when reading. I think there is validity in trying to both understand the intent of the author, as well as taking a work and giving a new, personal, interpretation to a subjective experience of a work.

Now, I’m not writing any literary works or spending my time interpreting them, so why do I care about this concept?

perception and intention: painting ourselves and others

The same someone that explained this concept to me was also someone to ask me “don’t paint me black when I used to be golden”, when our relationship ended. It’s a line from a song by The Story So Far, one of the bands that got me through a rough patch at the time, and one that I liked to quote myself as well. I found it rather ironic that this person had the nerve to ask me this, when I had all of these feelings of being misunderstood and ‘painted black’ myself.

Recently I got the same request. Again, it’s an ironic one, since the person in question isn’t exactly painting me in my best behaviour. Their interpretations of the events that transpired are, of course, giving a very one-sided recollection. But whether I like it or not, it’s how they experienced things. There is nothing I can do when they retell my actions from their point of view, I am ‘dead’ at this point. Do I get to be frustrated if someone misinterprets my intent? Because the narrative of the song [and real life] is clear: we’re terrified to be painted as something we are not. This got me thinking. As much as it can be frustrating to be ‘wrongly interpreting’ words, actions, events… you cannot ignore either party in such a situation.

Take the following scenario: I am at home with someone and I offer them a cup of tea, but then I accidentally spill the tea on them.

Of course, I didn’t intend to spill this tea on them. I intended to give them the tea with the idea that they could then drink it peacefully. However, this is not what happened, I made a mistake and the tea is now all over this person’s clothes.

What matters here is that this person got their clothes dirty. They got hurt by me. I cannot rectify the situation and just say “well, that wasn’t my intention!” and walk away. This would not make the accident go away. What needs to happen is that we need to clean up the mess. That starts by acknowledging that someone got hurt, that someone made a mistake, and by offering new clothes and a fresh cup of tea. We’ll forget about my background for the moment, forget about my intention.

And then, when we’re all sat down and settled with our fresh cups of tea, we can go back to the intent. Of course, something happened for the tea to spill. Maybe I was tired. Maybe I tripped on something that I did not anticipate being there. Or maybe the force that caused the accident was outside of my control. And maybe, it wasn’t.

We can debate these things. That’s the beauty of communication. We can learn from our mistakes and try and make them help us grow.

if I argue the point then we yell and we fight

I found that when hurting others, it’s hard to communicate effectively. It’s easy to just get defensive. It becomes a  battle of intentions. “But you misunderstood me,” is a recurring line in arguments. This is not effective problem solving. We need to stop thinking about what we are intending, and instead listen to what the other is saying. Instead of being so set on trying to make it clear that “look, I am not a tea-spiller. I did not intend to spill the tea. I have never ruined someone’s clothes on purpose!!” we can take a step back and think, okay, I didn’t intend for that tea-spilling but I am an accidental clothes-ruiner. What can I do?

We need to stop focusing on the intent. What someone hears carries more weight than what I say. I could keep going about how communication is not just about literal words (because we mess them up, because people do not remember what you say verbatim, because words are complex) but there is no space to discuss that now. The point is, I think there is merit in ‘killing the author’ momentarily and listening to the victim.

This is especially important in cases of reporting harassment. And responding to such reports, as well. What we see often is an excuse: “I was raised in a certain way”, “I was drunk”, “I was on drugs”, “I didn’t know better”. There are many reasons why people would immediately jump to a defensive response, but I think this is a toxic behaviour. It does not help the victim or the situation in the slightest. All it does is absolve the perpetrator of blame. But that should not be the focus. We need to step away from this thinking that hurting others can be excused by “but I didn’t intend it, there were outside factors”. Of course we hope you didn’t intend it, else you’d be a psychopath, going around and willingly hurting people. But intent is not an excuse. It can soften a bit of the blow, sure. But we cannot perpetuate the idea that hurting others is fine as long as there is an ‘explanation’ for it. Because it does not make the hurt any smaller or less valid. It still exists, and something needs to be done about it.

so many pictures of the sea

So why are we so focused on other people’s perceptions of us? We cannot fully explain our intentions anyway, people will have their own experiences which will form their opinions of us, and the only way we can show that we’re decent human beings is through our actions. At the end of the day, intentions don’t count for much if our behaviour keeps hurting others. If I keep spilling hot water on my guests and burning them, even if I don’t want to, even if I don’t intend to, maybe I should take a step back from the kettle and let someone else make the tea.

In the age of social media and curating our presence in the outside world, we have become painfully aware of how we present ourselves and how others may see us. But if I post something, once it’s out there, it’s open for everyone to see. What others do with my image is not for me to decide. We can try and create a false sense of control, but the image that is being read will never match with the feelings and the experiences I have in my life. This counts for words, images, selfies and videos… nobody can live my life but myself. And even I can go back to the things I have posted and see them and think “well, I don’t agree with that at all”.

That’s the beauty of human life. That’s the beauty of communication. We are dynamic, complex, always interconnected, sometimes without realising it.

Perceptions can be harmful, because they can create unrealistic expectations. For example, if someone commits suicide and is accused of “always looking so happy!” or someone convicted of harassment is being praised for something completely unrelated, such as being a good athlete or actor. “They cannot have done this harmful thing because I really admire the perception I have of them” is what a defensive reaction sounds like. A nonsensical one, because humans are, well, human. They make mistakes. It is really dangerous to put another human on a pedestal and let your perception of them dictate you to view them as somehow not-human. Humans have multiple sides to them. Someone can both be a loving partner and an asshole at work. We need to accept humans and human experiences seperately from intentions and perceptions.

you have no control who lives, who dies, who tells your story

There is no real solution to this, because history isn’t written by the people living it. History is also dynamic: it gets rewritten, retold from different perspectives. The adience of a story can never be unbiased, their perception will always be shaped by their own experiences. Luckily that is also our strength as humans, that we can relate to stories and empathise. It’s dangerous to judge too quickly, and I guess that’s where we have to be careful. In Hamilton, Washington warns us, “You have no control who lives, who dies, who tells your story”. All throughout Hamilton we hear how many of these powerful men were preoccupied by how they would be remembered. (I mean, listen to Burn1…) It’s our egos that make us obsessed with how people perceive us.

Yet, the moral of the story is that we sadly cannot determine how we end up in the history books. We cannot know if we maybe get forgotten, if we get to be the hero or the villain. The truth is, we are all of those things, depending on how one looks at things. Recently, someone accused me of acting too quickly when I realised something happening in my personal life. I noticed it was something I had lived through before and I wanted to spare myself the hurt. “I know how this works,” I said. “I have lived this experience.” The reply I got was “…but I haven’t, this is new for me.” A good example of human life at work. I had a backstory that the other didn’t, and they wanted me to see solely from their perspective. That’s not how we can navigate through life. I cannot ignore my lived experiences and decide to simply turn them off. Nobody can. I choose to learn from my mistakes. Don’t ask me to paint you golden when your actions got me hurt.

But also don’t put me on a pedestal, because I’m only human. It’s time to stop focusing so much on intentions and how we are perceived from our own egotistical point of view. It’s much more beneficial to stop for a second and consider the impact of our actions. Because actions will often make intent a lot clearer than words. Now, it’s not always so easy to separate intention and impact, and life is not black and white. But, and this is important, whenever you’re in a situation where you unintentionally hurt someone, listen to their story.

Recommended reading:

“But I didn’t mean it!” Why it’s so hard to prioritize impacts over intents. – Melanie Tannenbaum (2013)

Intent vs. Impact: Why Your Intentions Don’t Really Matter – Jamie Utt (2013)

A Gentlemen’s Guide To Rape Culture – Zaron Burnett III (2017)

PS. I stole the idea of the tea analogy from this video, which is brilliant and should be seen by everyone.

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