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Farewell, Hanlon

Hanlon’s razor, which states

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity

is pretty useless. I just don’t know whether someone is malicious or uninformed. Having a heuristic that says one or the other isn’t particularly useful. There are statements that are closer to outright lies. I mean, it’s a spectrum, with willful ignorance right there in the middle.

Instead, I’m going to try to have a cat-in-a-box style reading of these types of statements. It’s wrong to assume malice and it’s wrong to assume not malice. Just caution and generosity and patience is what I’m gonna try to go with.

There are people who willfully twist the truth, cherry-pick, distort, lie, out of malice. And there are people who do all those same actions but out of some psychological hangup; they believe in the greater “truth” of their position and they can’t help themselves from sorting their inputs accordingly. And then there are those who are just genuinely and temporarily misinformed.

“Never” attribute to malice has led us to being poorly equipped to handle climate change denial, the GOP’s election lies, flat-eartherism and many other things. I would say that there is a non-zero amount of people who know full well that what they are saying is factually incorrect and they do it anyway; to push the Overton window, to push their “side’s” position, to gain social status or wealth, to “own the libs”, or a number of other explanations.

I’ve been an over-believer in Hanlon’s Razor for too long. I only recently realized the extent of the willfulness of all the wrongness online.

Now, a text like this one is maybe not really what the world needs right now. (What the world needs now is love.) I’m not suggesting a full 180° away from listening charitably to each other, being generous, trusting that the other person means what they say and believes what they say they believe.

It’s more of a 5° li’l course correction, a tiny li’l “maybe they’re trolling right now”.

Goethe, who originally formulated a variation on Hanlon’s Razor in 1774, said that deceit and malice are “certainly rarer” than misunderstandings and lethargy.

That’s true, but, in the hyper-amplified world of modern media, deceit and malice can be more influential. Very few people who believe a falsehood are doing it maliciously; some amount of people who spread a falsehood are. A small amount, hopefully, but a possibility that I need to take into account.