On razors and stupidity

My favorite Podcast, Garage Logic with Joe Soucheray (Hail the Flashlight King!), recently introduced me to an interesting idea, a statement called Hanlon’s razor. A razor is a brief, logical statement intended to help someone process through a problem and quickly come to the best solution. Hanlon’s razor says this:

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

I instantly liked the statement because not only did it seem somewhat cynical and jaded (which I think lends to its credibility), but, as I pondered over it, it strikes me as extremely useful.

So, I did a little research. The statement seems to be a blending of 2 other ideas, one being Occam’s razor, which states, “Entities should not be multiplied without necessity.” In other words, the simplest explanation is usually right. The other idea that Hanlon’s razor springs out of is Murphy’s Law, which states, “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.” Yes, Murphy’s Law is a joke, and, while Hanlon’s razor has several similar statements throughout history from legitimate sources, its origination in this form seems to be from a Murphy’s Law joke book from 1980.

That not withstanding, it strikes me as an idea we would do well to consider. We deal with a lot of things in life that we don’t like, and its up to us to determine how best to react to those things. One the one hand, we can decide that every decision and idea that we run into that causes us problems, or that we don’t like, stems from someone with ill intent trying to cheat or manipulate us. Or, on the other hand, we can chalk at least some of it up to the common occurance of human stupidity.

Recently I’ve been addressing more and more the idea of conspiracy theories. There are a lot of dramatic, sweeping actions being taken by the government in the COVID-19 response, and its getting all of our attention. Some agree with the actions, while others disagree strongly. And, while its clear that some are taking advantage of the crisis for their agendas (“This is a tremendous opportunity to restructure things to fit our vision.” -House Majority Whip James Clyburn), not everyone in the government is out to get us. Using Hanlon’s razor we can propose that, instead of the whole of government trying to attack us, most of them are just stupid and making poor decisions as a result.

OK, that’s not very charitable, so let’s say it a different way. There are a lot of people who have different facts, different perspectives, and different priorities than we have. We may disagree, but we aren’t in power so we don’t get to make the decisions (elections matter…). Instead of holding malice and intentionally trying to destroy businesses and individuals, it is far more likely that at least most of our political leaders are simply prioritizing things that we who disagree would not.

I’ll give a personal example of this. I didn’t vote for Governor Walz (Minnesota), and I won’t in the future. His politics and mine don’t line up at all. But, until recently, I praised his response to the coronavirus pandemic. It was clearly communicated, very moderate comparatively, and responsive to ongoing situations and conversations. I have recently begun to split a bit with him on further actions, but I have not and do not believe he is out to get me or my friends and neighbors that own, operate and work in small businesses. There is no malice there; I simply believe there is some wrong thinking.

When we think like this, we are giving the benefit of the doubt to people that deserve it. Not everyone does, but most do. Giving that benefit of the doubt to others is the loving thing to do,  and that is the calling placed on us as followers of Christ. We should stand up, voice our opinions, call out injustice when we see it, and fight for the good of everyone—small business owners, the poor and disadvantaged, those who have lost jobs, those on fixed incomes, the elderly, people living in congregate care, those with preexisting conditions, and others that are highly susceptible and at risk.

There are lots of ideas on how to proceed through this pandemic, but there are clearly no easy answers. So, as we all find our way through this, let’s be considerate of each other, get along even when we don’t agree, and give others the benefit of the doubt. Maybe they’re just idiots. Or maybe…

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