Telling people to “assume good intent” when they interact with others is one of those things that sounds great because it acts as a social lubricant, but is actually a really bad idea and can cause a great deal of harm.
It Actively Hides Bad Actors
Part of how it causes harm is because it lets bad actors hide their actions behind the thinnest veneer of appearing to mean well.
Go ask any member of an underrepresented group (BIPOC, LGBTQA+, etc) just how many of the problems they face on a regular basis are purposely perpetrated by people who put on a show of being a “good person” and, if they actually answer you honestly, you’d be horrified at the answer.
Most of the problems that members of those groups face aren’t because of some Hitler or David Duke style figure (though they certainly cause a hell of a lot of damage) because those are a lot easier to spot and rally people against.
It’s the day to day issues caused by a bigoted manager, like passing someone over for a raise/promotion or not hiring them because they “aren’t a good cultural fit” that impacts people on a longer timeframe, causing them to earn less in their lifetime.
It’s the politician that votes for legislation that “preserves life,” which is actually used to take away bodily autonomy from people. It’s the (often same) politician that votes for legislation that prevents trans people from getting gender affirming healthcare for whatever bullshit reason that they can come up with to play to their base that takes away peoples’ rights in order to shove some zealot-level religious ideology on everyone else that hurts so many people.
To take it even further, it’s honestly also the people who vote for those politicians because they like those policies (or, possibly worse, because they like the “fiscal stance” that those politicians take and don’t consider the bigotry and harm to be a deal breaker).
Most people would, I hope, agree that Hitler was bad and would fight against that shit happening again (even though current events suggest otherwise…). Most people, however, would insist all day long that their racist uncle wasn’t really a bad person, but was instead “a product of another time” while trying to do mental gymnastics to minimize the damage caused by that racism.
It Upholds The Status Quo
When you don’t challenge people because you’re sure that they “mean well” when they do things that unfairly advance their causes at the expense of others (especially at the expense of those who aren’t like them), you get a situation in which nothing really changes.
The people in power continue to be in power, and they continue to work to advance people just like them. We, as a society, let them get away with it because “they mean well” and “well, they’re in charge for a reason”.
Both of these viewpoints are bad and lead to the world not becoming any better. The path we’re on is because of that mindset. Think about that for a minute.
“Good Intent” Doesn’t Matter When It Causes Harm
I’m going to come right out and say it – by and large, your intent doesn’t matter. Your actions and their consequences matter.
Talking about your intentions and how you “meant well” is something you do in order to help absolve yourself of the responsibility for the consequences of your actions. It’s something you do to help you sleep at night when you do something that actively causes harm.
The people you hurt don’t care if your “heart was in the right place.” They’re still suffering because of what you did and no matter of “hopes and prayers” or “good intentions” is going to change that. The only thing that does change that is action to undo the harm that you’ve caused. Even then, that doesn’t change the fact that you caused harm; just that you’ve done something to minimize the damage from having done it in the first place.
By the same token, you tell others to “assume good intent” not because it undoes harm but because, on some level, you see yourself in the shoes of the person who has done harm and want to somehow convince yourself that it’s okay when you’re the one who screws up or that, for some reason, that makes the harm okay instead of being something that has to be fixed.
Instead of telling people to assume good intent, start looking at the impact of the actions of yourself and others. Judge by that.
The only thing that telling people to assume good intent does is perpetuate harm in order to gain the illusion of a civilized society.