Rhetorical Nonsense

I’d like to take a moment to discuss the concept of Intentionality: who is capable of having it, and who is not.

To my mind, it seems that individual people have Intentionality by definition. They are capable, knowingly and willfully, of undertaking specific actions to pursue specific goals.

Likewise, I think that, under the right circumstances groups of people can also have Intentionality. It makes sense, for example, to say that “those protestors want to effect changes in the tax code,” or “the US State Department is trying to defend its strategic interests in the Middle East.”

It is even, sometimes, possible to ascribe Intentionality to loose groups of largely unaffiliated individuals if it turns out that there is some unifying characteristic which, by definition, motivates them to behave in a particular way. Thus you can say “communists want to create a classless society,” or “Christians think that they should accept Jesus as their saviour.”

What doesn’t make sense, however, is to ascribe Intentionality to loose groups of largely unaffiliated individuals if the intention that you are mentioning is not definitional. Thus, it makes no sense to say, for example, “lawyers are only in practice for the money.” I mean, this is certainly true of some lawyers, maybe even most lawyers, but there is nothing, by definition, about being a lawyer that causes you to be exclusively motivated by money.

Sometimes, such sentences are simply used carelessly: in these cases, there’s a sort of tacit qualifier out front, such as “In general…,” or “For the most part…,” or “In my experience…” Sometimes people use them because it honestly doesn’t occur them that people of a particular class may not be of a single mind about something (and this of course is what prompts the usual slew of mind-numbing discussions of “what women are looking for”).

And then, finally, there are those people who use this construction maliciously, in a deliberate attempt to other a particular class of people. This is usually recognizable when you see it: people will talk about “the Gay Agenda,” or how “the Left wants to destroy America” or how “the Right wants to control women’s bodies.*” Sometimes this can even cross over into blatant hatespeech: “The Muslims want to form a world-wide theocracy,” or “The Jews want to abolish Christmas.”

Given the sordid implications, I therefore urge everyone to take care to ascribe intentionality in their writing only in ways that make sense. It’s my new pet peeve.

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*This, by the way, is not to say that intentionality can not be ascribed to political groupings, either on the basis of ideological definition or partisanship, but clearly both examples I cite are not universally held by everyone who considers themselves on “the left” or “the right.”

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About thevenerablecorvex

I have the heart of a poet, the brain of a theoretical physicist, and the wingspan of an albatross. I am also notable for my humility.
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