We are living in the time of the plow. Every day, social media and journalism and brave individuals are turning over the old soil and bringing more bad behavior to light.
We need it.
But this enlarged conversation and the millions of voices in it also creates a haze of gray area: for every person saying, “this person/organization/behavior is wrong,” someone else is in the comments ready to say, “How can we judge? Who can say for sure what they intended?”
And who can say for sure? We can’t decide someone’s intentions for them. And we shouldn’t.
But we don’t have to.
We can be as generous to them as possible, and still arrive at a reasonably clear answer about their character, and from there, a set of steps to take.
It’s a thought experiment, and it goes like this:
When something bad happens as a result of someone’s actions, the most generous possible explanation is either they didn’t know it would happen, or they didn’t care.
Many – I’d say most – times, this is the issue, and it’s a valid reason. They just didn’t know.
Everything’s complicated. Education and experience are unevenly distributed. Unforeseen consequences are everywhere. People try their best, and still sometimes do or say things – sometimes with overwhelming confidence – that they later realize was wrong.
But “didn’t know” is not an excuse. It’s probation. It’s a litmus test. “Didn’t know” comes with a metric that can help you determine their original intentions:
“Now that you know, what are you going to do about it?”
If they make real amends, learn from their mistake, and do better long-term – it’s reasonable to say they didn’t know.
Everybody deserves that chance to learn, if giving them that chance can be done safely.
If they don’t change, after finding out their behavior was wrong, or if their “transformation” lasts as long as the news cycle –
– well –
– they can’t say they didn’t know anymore.
And now we know.
“Didn’t know” is passive. It’s a state of being that can be changed.
“Didn’t care” is active. We choose whether to make an effort or not, and how much of an effort, and when it’s not worth it anymore.
And when the person is supposedly a leader in their field, or when the missing knowledge is something fundamental like “showing basic human compassion and concern” – then “I didn’t know” is just “I didn’t care [to check.]” No excuses for that.
“Whether you intended it or not, you didn’t care enough about the fallout to try to avoid it.”
CUTTING THROUGH THE NOISE
There is a simple, razor sharp logic to this, and it can be applied in useful ways that increase either empathy, or culpability, or both:
- People who *really, really* insist they don’t care – the kind of people who permanently live with their middle fingers up toward one or more issues – are probably not fully aware of the situation or the consequences of their actions. It’s easy to say “screw them” when you don’t know any of “them.” So the long-term answer to this problem isn’t actually punishment, it’s education.
- When it comes to leaders and other people in authority – positions that usually incentivize skillful tap-dancing around blame – it makes the conversation very easy. Whether they didn’t know or didn’t care doesn’t matter. We know it had to be one of those things, and either one disqualifies them from their position. Goodbye.
THE FUZZY PROBLEMS
These aren’t the only two explanations for behavior. You can know and care and be unable to change it, through lack of power, time, resources, sleep, etc. But all of those are relatively easy to identify, and the solutions are usually self-evident.
The underling with sick kids and a toxic job doesn’t need jail time. They need a safe whistleblower policy.
This experiment is for the fuzzy problems: the ones where you’ve already ruled out external factors.
- Why did they lie about that?
- Why did they make the decision that hurt those people?
- Why didn’t they respond when people needed them?
“Didn’t know or didn’t care” gives you enough to know what steps to take next.
Their intentions are their own business.