Meghan Mangrum knew exactly what she was doing when she called Dallas mayor Eric Johnson “bruh.” The former Dallas Morning News education reporter had just read a tweet from Johnson—the city’s second-ever Black mayor—criticizing local media for failing to cover the city’s falling crime numbers.

“Bruh, national news is always going to chase the trend. Cultivate relationships with quality local news partnerships,” she posted on February 11 in a reflexive defense of colleagues who had reported on the crime decline. Three days later she was fired. The paper says it was for violating its social-media policy; Mangrum suspects the mayor’s office interpreted “bruh” as a slight aimed at Johnson’s skin color.

“I use that word with my friends and when I tweet about hockey. It’s just part of my vernacular. I grew up in Central Florida, and, you know, I’m a millennial,” Mangrum, who’s white, explained to Dallas-based D Magazine a few weeks later. “I know my intent, and it was not at all about race.”

A similar incident occurred last October at Hamline University, a small liberal-arts school in St. Paul, Minnesota. Erika López Prater, an adjunct art-history professor, was dismissed after displaying an image of the Prophet Muhammad during a lecture. Even though Prater repeatedly warned that her class would feature religious imagery—such as depictions of Muhammad, which many Muslims consider blasphemous—no student expressed concern about the coursework. Nonetheless, Professor López Prater lost her job following complaints by a Muslim senior that her actions were Islamophobic.

“Hamline teaches us it doesn’t matter the intent, the impact is what matters,” Deangela Huddleston, a student at Hamline and a member of its Muslim Student Association, said following López Prater’s dismissal. And the impact—and likely intent—of the anti-López Prater condemnation was to get the professor canned.

Joining free speech and color blindness, intent has become the latest liberal value to be condemned by social-justice activists as an obstacle to progress. But the canceling of intent should give us all—left, right, and center—cause for concern. Because intent does matter.

“I do not see it as Islamophobic. Islamophobic is about malintent toward Muslims, or something that is symbolic to Muslims,” explained Carleton College history professor Amna Khalid to Minnesota Public Radio in response to López Prater’s firing. “There is no malintent here,” added Khalid, who’s Muslim, noting that the university should clearly have handled the matter differently. (López Prater is now suing Hamline.)

But liberal-arts colleges are not the only institutions dismissing the importance of intent. Back in 2021, then New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet declared that the paper does not “tolerate racist language regardless of intent” after its star health reporter Donald McNeil Jr. was accused of using highly offensive slurs, including the n-word, while leading a student trip to Peru two years earlier.

McNeil admitted to uttering the words, explaining he’d done so in the context of an academic exercise. Without doubt, McNeil’s actions were baffling in their idiocy and certainly beneath a 20-year New York Times veteran. But Baquet’s response only heightened the lunacy. For one thing, the exact same slur uttered by McNeil had appeared in the paper as recently as 2011—clearly with journalistic rather than derogatory intent.

Moreover, at the start of the entire saga, Baquet explicitly noted that he’d chosen not to fire the reporter because “it did not appear to me that his intentions were hateful or malicious.” So what changed? Not the intent of McNeil’s actions two years earlier. Rather, you guessed it, a newsroom revolt—and obligatory “open letter”—culminating in McNeil’s departure once the entire debacle hit the press.

New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet declared that the paper does not “tolerate racist language regardless of intent.”

The delegitimization of intent portends a future even more rigidly controlled by this type of censorship and groupthink. It’s also a future that could feel far less humane. Dismissing intent “betrays a lack of imagination and a lack of empathy,” says Professor Khalid. “It forecloses dialogue and is fundamentally an anti-intellectual position.” Intent is what separates the merely harmless (a cheeky ribbing between friends) from the possibly criminal (menacing verbal assault).

Being able to recognize the intent behind a particular action can also serve as a tool for survival. It has for me, at least. Growing up in a mixed-race family, and later becoming a gay dad, I have relied on intent to navigate the puzzled stares and clumsy questions that have come my way. “What color are you?” “How did you have your sons?” “Are you really Jewish?” Discerning intent is what has allowed me to avoid taking offense from folks whose curiosity, while lacking linguistic finesse, is sincere.

Speaking to Oprah in an interview back in 2021, Meghan Markle and Prince Harry recalled their horror at a royal relative’s alleged concern about the skin color of the couple’s unborn son. But I wasn’t buying it. Was it truly concern or mere curiosity? What was the intent there?

Like many of my bi-racial brethren, I was filled with wonder about my son’s appearance from the moment I learned he was on the way. Not concerned, mind you, but curious. And so were my white relatives. How could we not be? With the confluences of race so integral to my life story, I wanted to know how the next generation of Kaufmans would appear to the world. Surely Meghan wondered the exact same thing at some point during her pregnancy—perhaps along with a Windsor or three. This doesn’t make us racist but, rather, inquisitive.

Intent can be difficult to prove, which is why it can often seem like a justification. The reputation of Black Lives Matter, for instance, was hit hard by co-founder Patrisse Cullors’s penchant for multi-million-dollar properties—including a $6 million Los Angeles estate where Cullors hosted a birthday party for her son. Amid the ensuing uproar, Cullors claimed her intent was always to use the property as a “campus for Black artists,” according to an A.P. report last May—even if there’s little evidence of any art-making among its elegantly manicured greenery. Professions of intent can’t just be taken at face value. It is not hard to imagine a Sam Bankman-Fried type (or even S.B.F. himself), backed by a powerful army of lawyers, using intent—or a lack thereof—as a shield from legal consequences.

Luckily, intent still has its defenders. Black British activist Ngozi Fulani, for instance, accepted an apology from disgraced former lady-in-waiting Susan Hussey, who’s pushy, tone-deaf questioning about Fulani’s ethnic origins gained global attention in December and resulted in Hussey’s resignation.

Hussey later met with Ngozi to atone for her transgressions. “Ms. Fulani … has accepted this apology and appreciates that no malice was intended,” Buckingham Palace later said in a statement that went unchallenged by Fulani. Intent mattered here—as did grace, compassion, and perspective.

Intent eventually mattered to The New York Times’s Baquet as well. “Of course intent matters when we are talking about language in journalism,” Baquet said after the outcry over the outcry that got McNeil canned. (Nonetheless, McNeil did not get his job back.)

While intent may not have mattered to the Muslim senior at Hamline, her indifference to it suggests a future where the only thing that does matter to our youngest generation of adults is, well, themselves. “Judging an act only by impact without any regard for the intent of the doer is a fundamentally narcissistic position,” said Professor Khalid, “where only what happens to you and how you make meaning of it actually matters.”

David Christopher Kaufman is a New York City–based editor and writer