I’m not a perfect feminist. You’ve never met one; they don’t exist. Any feminist theory worth spit will tell you that we are all products of a misogynist, patriarchal society that has gotten its hooks into each of us in one way or another. As a friend of mine lyrically puts it, “The poison’s in us all.” Everyone on Earth is a recovering sexist, classist, ableist racist, including you, and including me.

Given we’re all at risk of perpetuating patriarchy, it stands to reason that we ought to take a very serious look at the question of reform and rehabilitation. What do they look like, and how do they come about? Is it enough to perform feminist acts – calling out privilege, supporting women both in their successes and when they come under attack – or does one also have to mean it, to want to do it for its own sake? And how the hell are we supposed to tell the difference?

These aren’t just idle musings for the next feminist conference or your local Stitch-n-Bitch. We’re all at something of a crossroads these days as comics and geek culture in general begin taking purposeful steps towards acknowledging greater diversity in both their output and their fanbases. How we answer these questions informs how we construct our social contracts, and how we decide who we allow to stay in our social groups after they’ve broken our rules. This is the heart of any value system, and for a culture so fond of morality plays when they’re acted out by superheroes or other fantastic characters, we have a hard time deciding what sort of rules we intend to follow, what kind of people we want to be, and what to do when we inevitably fall short of our goals.

We’d like to believe that good and evil are relatively straightforward, not to mention self-defining. A good person does good things because they want to do them, while a bad person does bad things for the same reason. In this magical moral kingdom, intent and action are one, but let’s be honest: they ain’t. The difference between a bad act performed with the best of intentions and a good act motivated by bad reasons is the difference between a mistake and hypocrisy, and I’ve yet to meet a person who hasn’t been guilty, at some point, of both.

And yet we still want to generalize, to be able to call someone a “good” or “bad” person, even when intent can’t be directly seen or measured, and even when knowing intent doesn’t bring much comfort to the victim that a mistake has harmed. So why does it enter into the conversation at all? We cling to the importance of intent because we personally want to be given credit for our good intentions while being spared the consequences of our bad actions, and because we want to believe that we can predict the future behavior of those around us by divining their motivations.

We can do our best to infer intent from action, but this requires more than just a cursory examination of time and context. The more evidence one acquires in this task, the more accurate one’s conclusions are likely to be, but we must accept that the picture assembled will also become more complicated, and most people have little use for complex answers to what they thought were simple questions. Therefore, we have to be conscientious about how we proceed, and to ask questions that we are capable of answering – not, “Is this a good or bad person?” but, “Is it worth it to keep this person in the conversation?”

Notice there are a couple of things implied by the first question that don’t enter into the second. Allowing someone to remain in a conversation doesn’t mean we agree with or even like them, while there are some pretty heavy moral imperatives tied to declaring someone good or bad. We can have any number of goals when we have a conversation with someone, but our options collapse when we take it upon ourselves to determine whether they’re with us or against us.

When we hold each other to moral absolutes, we enter into a weird world where instead of focusing on changing the behaviors of an individual (rehabilitation) or the workings of a system (reform), we become engaged in a struggle for redemption, a concept that works much better in fiction than in real life. In order to declare someone redeemed, we have to believe two clearly false statements: that the amount of harm the individual has caused can be quantified and known, and that doing good elsewhere is somehow able to negate or outweigh that harm.

The truth is that privilege makes it exceedingly easy to cause harm without ill intent. Because it’s invisible to those who possess it, they (and by they I do mean we) enter into conversations and even arguments with the belief that everyone possesses more or less equal power over their own circumstances. Much like kids roughhousing on the living room floor, privileged people aren’t likely to know they’ve crossed a line until someone winds up crying – that is, unless we set clear ground rules and step in as soon as things start getting too rough. Otherwise we find ourselves in the awkward position we’re in now.

So, does sincerity matter? If bad actions can be performed by people without bad intentions, can we accept good behavior from people we suspect don’t really believe in it? There are plenty of reasons to object to such a thing. Making allowances leaves us vulnerable to individuals who will only pretend to adopt our values while privately mocking both them and us for our gullibility. There’s nothing more repugnant to an idealist than a hypocrite, in part because we tend to put so much on the line for our beliefs that to see someone reap benefits without making sacrifices casts doubt on everything that we struggle to achieve. But I think we ought to take the risk of looking foolish if we can do so without putting others in danger. We need to keep repeat offenders away from potential victims if we can, but for all our sakes, we must permit and encourage the possibility of change, or else surrender hope of moving beyond our mistakes to become the kind of person we want to be.