How relevant intent?

Labor is blossoming or dancing where
The body is not bruised to pleasure soul,
Nor beauty born out of its own despair,
Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil.
O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

– William Butler Yeats, Among School Children

IMG_0131Lately I have been playing with the suffix –ish in my mind. There is a somewhat common use of these three letters to connote the approximation of thing, as in, “Let’s say noon-ish.” In other words, I will not be there exactly at noon. A variety of things, including my limited commitment to that precise time, will mean that I might be early or late. Most often, it means I will be later, so be prepared to wait or come late yourself. Of course, the suffix also serves to give a sense of “belonging to” as in Spanish or Danish, or “having the characteristics of” as in mulish or boyish.

Thus, having been raised Catholic by two parents from family trees likely heavily populated by Jews, I might not so much a Jew as Jew-ish. I completely understand that this is not the common understanding of the term Jewish, but I am trying to understand more about the relationship in communities between what we do (behaviors) and what we meant by what we do (intentions). Did my grandparents need to call themselves Jews to be Jews? Did my parents? Do I? Or, is it enough that we formed intellectual arguments resonant of Jewish Talmudic debate? Do the peculiarities of setting a table, welcoming people, verbal expressions make me a Jew, or merely Jew­-ish?

Am I the dancer (expressive intent) or the dance (behaviors)?

It seems to me that I hear intention used in arguments in which we defend our indefensible behaviors.

  • I didn’t mean to bump into you.
  • I wasn’t listening, please repeat that.
  • I didn’t know the magazine (car, money, shovel, candy, etc.) was yours.
  • I didn’t mean any harm.
  • I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.

On one hand, it could be useful to explain our lack of maleficence. On the other hand, to what end? How would it sound to say any of these instead?

  • I didn’t prioritize your safety.
  • I didn’t decide to pay attention to you.
  • I took your things.
  • My behavior clearly harmed you and I am sorry.
  • I didn’t reflect on how my statements might affect you.

And, when it comes to racism, do I as a White person expect a pass on accountability by denying my expressive intent? Do I cop to any of this?

  • I didn’t prioritize your well-being.
  • I didn’t decide to pay attention to the effects of economic and social policies on you.
  • I benefit from your unemployment and limited access to education.
  • I am sorry that my desire for preferential treatment harms you in any way.
  • I didn’t reflect on how my jokes and statements and votes and inaction and silence might affect you.

Are my actions and omissions racist? Or do I mean to intend them before I am racist? Do I want to claim racistish?

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