Safe in Sweden: Intent versus content


Nothing at all has happened in Sweden – nothing out of the ordinary.

Various disciplines focus on the form versus content debate. I’m not going to get into the philosophical or artistic underpinnings of this discussion.

I will only make two points/observations.

First, we live in a time when the content of news does not matter because, according to the current US president, it’s all fake (at least, that is, if he doesn’t like it). Form still matters because of course the loudest, widest platform is going to carry the “fake news” (the facts) out to broader audiences – as well as the fairground funhouse that is the Trump administration and its lies. This past weekend, Trump invented an incident in Sweden – bloviating as usual – decrying how Sweden has basically gone to hell in a hand basket due to its welcoming refugees into the country. The ‘incident’ he cites, of course, never happened. All of Sweden is wondering what the hell he is talking about. (But then, who doesn’t wonder what he is talking about most of the time?)

My second thought, by extension, is about intent. Maybe the content (or the veracity of it) does not matter; maybe even the form is secondary. But what about intent? Trump may well know that nothing happened in Sweden – but his intent with virtually everything he says and does is to obfuscate fact, plant seeds of doubt and confuse people (there are apparently people out there who take the things he says at face value, believe them, pass them on; some even believe that some event did occur in Sweden, and that the entire world, Sweden included, is conspiring to cover it up?!). We will all busy ourselves making fun of this blunder to the degree that we will (continue to) be distracted from whatever shady and nefarious dealings are actually happening right under our noses.

I had a discussion with someone the other day about conversations and letters we exchanged early in our acquaintance. He asked me what I feel about them now that many years have passed. I laughed and said, “I can’t believe how full of shit they are.” He was pretty offended, even hurt (misinterpreting what I said, taking it personally). He explained that he had remembered the flow, the feeling and sense of possibility – and moreover, the intent – much more than he remembered the actual content. It made a lot of sense – he has always been more of a feeling and intent person. I, on the other hand, always hang onto the content itself (another dear friend said the other day, and I loved this: “as a person who values words so very very much, how when I am misled by words it’s not the words themselves but the complete lack of value that the speaker puts in them”. As always she hit the nail on the head; another great example of her eloquence and wisdom). It was perhaps the first time I really thought somewhat academically about content versus intent (even though I write all the time about people’s words versus actions, which is essentially the same debate). We cannot always know intent but as a part of analysis and “reading” people and moderating our own expectations, inferring/predicting intent may be our saving grace. Or at least save us a whole lot of trouble.

On the other hand, acting on what you imagine someone’s intent may be is dangerous. It’s like arresting someone before they commit a crime or, like Trump, deciding that every Muslim or every refugee is some kind of terrorist sleeper agent. He “infers intent” – but based on nothing. That is the difference. You don’t assume someone’s intent without taking in the content and context in which it lives.

Photo (c) SDH Photography/Sebastian Davenport-Handley