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Jelalian: Intentions matter, but results matter too

By Matthew Jelalian - | May 30, 2020

What matters more, your intentions behind your actions, or the results of those actions?

Let’s all have a little thought experiment.

Let’s say you’re a police officer. You have a buddy on the force, and when you’ve worked with him, you notice he treats people of color more harshly than he does white people.

I know I’ve lost a lot of people already, but if you’re still with me, dig down deep and bear with me for a bit.

If you notice this problem, do you say something to a superior?

To a certain extent, you could probably come up with good justifications for your actions either way.

Maybe you don’t want to report your coworker because you may be more sensitive on the topic and what you’re seeing as aggression he may be seeing as situational. Maybe this added aggression is something in your head and isn’t happening since you have a hard time thinking of specific instances outside of when they happen.

Maybe you don’t want to damage the trust you have with your other coworkers. After all, police end up in harrowing situations all of the time and need that trust in each other to stay safe. It’s not like your friend idolizes George Zimmerman or something. Is breaking that trust for speaking harshly worth it?

And besides, would your superiors even do anything about it? What if reporting on your coworker resulted in nothing but broken trust? What then? Should you quit the force and find a new job out of protest? How would a good cop leaving the force make it better for anyone? Should you take it to the press? How likely would that result in them firing you, and by extension, making the force worse off because you’re no longer there, again?

You could easily convince yourself that it’s just not worth the effort, especially considering the size and scope of his racist actions.

Of course, you could be on the other side of the argument as well.

You two are cops after all. Your job is to protect the public and enforce the law.

If he’s not treating everyone equally, by definition, he’s not doing his job as a police officer. And if your friend isn’t doing his job, your superiors should know. It’s a simple professional decision at that point.

Maybe it’s a moral issue for you. Maybe you recognize if you have one bad cop and 49 good cops who don’t say anything that in reality you have 50 bad cops who just draw the line differently. And you don’t want to be the kind of bad cop who doesn’t say anything.

Maybe you’re afraid of the day when something more serious happens and his harsher tendencies result in someone dying. Maybe he ignores the fact that someone can’t breathe while has them pinned down by the neck like George Floyd or he trusts a woman like Amy Cooper over Christian Cooper before he has all of the evidence. Or maybe you’re afraid he’ll take the law into his own hands one day like the men who shot and killed Ahmaud Arbery.

Things go sideways all the time, do you want to wait until they do to see how far he’ll go?

Either way, it’d be easy to justify yourself for having good intentions, but that doesn’t absolve you of the results of those actions.

Maybe one day someone dies because you didn’t say anything, and maybe they don’t. Maybe you lose your job because you said something, and maybe the force is a little better because you did.

We may have the best intentions in the world, and those intentions should be taken into consideration when we’re being judged for our actions, but ultimately we must also take responsibility for the results of those actions, no matter what our intentions were in the first place.

The tricky part about living in a society with other people, instead of in a cabin out in the woods by yourself, is that the results of your actions are further complicated by the actions of others. People have their own intentions.

This is true whether we’re talking about racism, health measures related to COVID-19, sexual assault, economic inequality or any other thing that affects our lives and the lives of people around us.

We can’t always control what others do, but we can control what we do. And we can hold ourselves responsible for the effect those actions have, whether our intentions were good or not.

I’d even argue that personal liberty doesn’t work unless we couple it with personal responsibility. You can’t give people the freedom to do whatever they want and expect to see good results unless there is some expectation that they also care about the results of exercising those freedoms as well.

Anything less than a reasonable degree of social responsibility will only result in proverbial punk rock and burnt down churches.

So the question we have to ask ourselves is this, how are we doing?

What politicians, cultural norms and systems are we supporting, and what effect are those things having on not just ourselves, but on others as well?

Because if our blue-striped flag decals and what they stand for encourage a culture where cops can suffocate black people by kneeing them in the neck, we should at a minimum, peel that sucker off of our bumper.

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