Most of us know Murphy's Law, perhaps in this form:
Anything that can go wrong, will➁
We've had more than enough moments in the past twelve years that this has seemed true. Still, too few people know a related rule, Hanlon's Razor➃:
Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.
Hanlon's Razor is a relational tool of immense but rarely appreciated power, both for the relief it offers to the user and for the possible strategies it suggests for change.
Perhaps a concrete example will clarify. Suppose you are on a crowded subway which suddenly jerks, impelling you backwards. You take an abrupt step to keep your balance and accidentally stomp on the foot of the person behind you. The stomped person is likely to say one of two things:
A: Ouch! That hurt! (pure description)
B: You oaf! You don't own the whole car!
A, in addition to being descriptive, implicitly applies Hanlon's Razor: you were incompetent (unable) to keep your balance, and there were undesirable consequences. B implies that you acted intentionally, though there was no evidence of intention. They failed to apply Hanlon's Razor.
And how are you likely to react? To A, you will likely say, "I'm so sorry! This train is really riding roughly today" (confirming your absence of malice). To B you might make any of several responses: stew in silence, angrily rebut him or even perhaps stomp down a second time just to assert your freedom.
This is the first fruit of Hanlon's Razor. Using it on most situations means that a much smaller portion of the world is out to get you than a simple harm=malice filter suggests➄. Dealing with ignorance or incompetence, while still a struggle, feels like less of an assault than believing that most of the world is malicious.
The second fruit of Hanlon's Razor is that it suggests strategies for change. To the extent that malice is a corruption of the heart, we are unlikely to touch it. But ignorance can be overcome with facts, if they are presented gently, repeatedly and in different contexts. Incompetence can be overcome with guidance and experience, eventually, for most folks, if there is someone patient enough.
Applying Hanlon's Razor here would mean rebutting errors, not maligning characters. Applying Hanlon's Razor in the larger world would mean committing to mutual education and sharing skills of research and analysis, showing by example that we want to work together for a more grounded, realistic grasp of our problems.
It's worth a try, anyway.
Footnotes below the fleur de Kos➅
2. This is actually Finagle's Law of Dynamic Negatives. Murphy's Law is something different➂.
3. Murphy's Law states:
If there are two or more ways to do something, and one of those ways can result in a catastrophe, then someone will do it.
More of a designer's lament than a cosmology, so to speak.
4. Hanlon's Razor (though there doesn't seem to have been a Hanlon; there probably wasn't a Murphy, either (or a Finagle)). I prefer the form, "Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by ignorance or incompetence," for reasons that will develop in the diary.
5. Though you'll never convince your lizard brain of that.
6. Will Cuppy➆ corrupted me in my youth. You don't get over things like that.
7. Will Cuppy wrote very small books. But good ones.