Hanlon's Razor

"Misunderstandings and neglect occasion more mischief in the world than even malice and wickedness. At all events, the two latter are of less frequent occurrence."

A corollary to Finagle's Law which seems to have almost infinite applications in writing comedy:

Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.

Ignorance of Hanlon's Razor is one of the more common forms of Genre Blindness. However, applying the Rule of Shades of Grey ("No rule is universally valid, including this one"), Hanlon's Razor is often stated this way:

Don't assume malice when stupidity is an adequate explanation. At least, not the first time.

Many, many plots disregard it with cheerful abandon. This can be justified if the plot involves an Ancient Conspiracy, Government Conspiracy, or similar antagonist with major ability to operate behind the scenes that makes the character question each and every occurence. The existence of a powerful, secretive, and malicious cabal makes for juicier storytelling than the idea that something bad happened because one of the people in power was lazy, short-sighted, impulsive, or just plain stupid. Of course, THEY would prefer that you believe THEM to be stupid instead of evil. Most aversions involve someone saying that the noise you heard was just the wind.

Granted, it does have a corollary of sorts, Grey's Lawnote :

Any sufficiently advanced incompetence is indistinguishable from malice.

Hanlon's Razor relies on the assumption that ignorance in and of itself isn't malicious, which often doesn't fly in a court of actual law (either way, it still led to disaster, so it still needs to be punished). It also doesn't account for malicious actions taken to conceal ignorance, which is Truth in Television — the Blue Code of Silence.

In the war between Romanticism and Enlightenment, Hanlon's Razor is decidedly on the side of Enlightenment (if most bad things are the result of stupidity, incompetence, and ignorance, then one can make the future better through education and good design/idiot-proofing). Not to be confused with Occam's Razor, although the two can end up being invoked together; many Conspiracy Theories, for example, assume complicated scenarios based on malicious intent to explain things which the two Razors would prefer to attribute to simple events based on incompetence. See also No Delays for the Wicked.

Note that the phenomenon of Trolling, in all its forms, specifically contradicts this law (though trolling by design does adhere to Grey's Law).

The Trope Namer was Robert J. Hanlon, who contributed the quote to one of Arthur Bloch's Murphy's Law books in 1980. However, the idea is much older, with Goethe writing a similar sentence in 1774's The Sorrows of Young Werther.

See also Poe's Law and Troll Fic.

Note: this article mainly discusses the Hanlon's Razor influence in media (Real Life section notwithstanding), for a more detailed analysis of the concept and implications of razor itself, please see its article on Rational Wiki.

Examples:

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    Anime and Manga 
  • In Code Geass, this trope explains:
    1. Why Clovis ends up fearing that the Emperor will consider him to be disloyal if he finds out about C.C., despite Bartley's indication later on that they had no traitorous intentions against the crown.
      • Why Clovis becomes such a bad viceroy in the first place - in the drama CD where he tells Schneizel and Cornelia that he's accepted the position, he tells them that he'll just use "the usual methods" of rule - he's not smart enough to think about it and realize that what everyone around him wants him to do is wrong.
    2. Lelouch and C.C., and their combined role in what happens with Euphemia around episode 22. She hadn't been as forthcoming about what she knew about her previous contractors, and Lelouch's extremely recent headaches when attempting to use Geass should have tipped him off, since he'd seen what had become of Mao and his geass.
      • Suzaku's reaction and hatred of Lelouch is also an example, though considering the circumstances, it's probably the most justifiable, particularly since Lelouch just went with it.
    3. When Lelouch gets captured by Schneizel and Kanon after his allegedly "private" meeting with Suzaku, he blames Suzaku for it, even though Suzaku really had no idea he was being followed.
  • Used in Angel Beats!, where the Battlefront assumes "Angel" is an emotionless tool of eradication when really she's just like the rest of them. People around her vanish because she tries to make them happy, which usually results in them attaining that which they missed in life. Also inverted later on when they succeed in getting a new student council president. They start off thinking he is a mindless "NPC", but he turns out to be a sadist intent on ruling that world with an iron fist.
  • In Ranma ½ this is the ultimate cause of Ranma and Ryoga’s rivalry as neither one is wholly in the right or wrong. While Ranma did knock Ryoga into the spring he had just just been knocked into a spring himself, so the only thing he had on his mind at the time was delivering a No-Holds-Barred Beatdown on his father. So while Ranma does at least bear at least partial responsibility, ultimately he is guilty of negligence, not deliberate intent, and Ryoga partly shares the blame by following him to the cursed springs in the first place.
    • Even before this Ranma is Brutal Honesty, but Ryoga took his blunt observations as Ranma teasing and bullying him despite him repeatedly walking Ryoga to and from his house. Even the bread feud was less Ranma steeling Ryoga’s food and more winning a free for all.

    Fan Works 

    Films — Animated 
  • Finding Nemo operates on this trope to a huge extent; the otherwise friendly dentist believes he has actually rescued the lame Nemo from the dangers of the reef, when what he has actually done is tear him away from his loving father. Likewise, the main antagonist is a hyperactive little girl who simply doesn't realize that if she shakes a baggie with a little fish inside too hard, she'll kill the poor fish. In both cases, simple human ignorance creates the impression for more helpless creatures that Humans Are Cthulhu.
  • In the movie, Samson and Sally, while the humans are hunting whales for food, Moby Dick states that "Mankind is not vicious, mankind is stupid!"

    Films — Live-Action 
  • In The Big Short - a film about several money managers betting on the housing market implosion of 2008 - the razor is Jaret Venett's defense after the value of subprime bonds goes down, but they're still priced high to the public. It's not (all) the banks being fraudulent; most genuinely just don't know what's in the CDOs (which the bonds are made up of), and only know about the fees they get for selling the stuff off. They find this is painfully true when they go to a Securities conference in Las Vegas.
  • In Cube this is played with but ultimately subverted, with the left-wing doctor's assumption that the Cube is part of some maniacal government plot, immediately shot down by the revelation that it's just a senseless project that no bureaucrat had the cojones to pull the plug on. Which, once the truth sinks in, she admits to being actually worse. It is subverted because the whole actively kidnapping and putting people in life-threatening situations is a bit too much like the aforementioned Blue Code to ignore and deliberately hurtful to conceal the incompetence part.
    "It's a headless blunder masquerading as a master plan."
  • Both the 1951 and 2008 versions of The Day The Earth Stood Still have Klaatu admonish humans for being irresponsible, not outright malicious.
  • In Angels & Demons, the main character is standing in the Vatican vaults when the power is cut, killing the oxygen supply, and leaving him unable to breathe. He immediately assumes that someone was trying to kill him, but he is assured that the Vatican police (who were systematically cutting power to parts of the city to find a bomb's location) accidentally cut power to the grid that supplied the vaults, nearly suffocating him by mistake.
  • Most of The Coen Brothers' films are studies on human stupidity and the horrible things it causes to happen.
  • Tucker & Dale Vs. Evil runs on Hanlon's Razor, with each side thinking the other is murderous/suicidal lunatics, when it's all (until the final act) a series of deadly accidents and misunderstandings.
  • In Spaced Invaders, you have a group of Martians who while close to Earth on Halloween, overhear a broadcast of War of the Worlds. They end up mistaking it for an actual Martian war against Earth and proceed to join in the fight. Hilarity Ensues. In the end, a little girl named Kathy, who befriends them after discovering their mistake, summed it up best.
    They're not really bad, they're just... stupid.
  • In Tremors 2: Aftershocks, the Shriekers seem to be deliberately preventing the protagonists from escaping: destroying the engines on their vehicles, knocking out their communication by attacking radio stations and power lines. At first, it's assumed that they've become intelligent. Gradually, the heroes realize that they're blindly attacking anything that radiates heat, being unable to distinguish between food and electronics.
    Grady: You mean they've been acting so smart because they're so stupid?

    Literature 
  • A Series of Unfortunate Events: The line between willful villainy and pure incompetence is rather thin, especially since some incompetent and stupid characters become pawns in what seems like a Gambit Roulette.
  • The Duumvirate bumps into this trope more than once. And they run the conspiracy.
  • Robert A. Heinlein's novella The Logic of Empire brings this up as two characters discuss how slavery and its equivalents are allowed to exist even though it's both immoral and economically self-defeating. One character says that it's a product of deliberate malice, and the other replies, "You have attributed conditions to villainy that simply result from stupidity."
    • See the Jargon entry, "Hanlon" may well have come from "Heinlein".
  • Touched on in The Shadow Over Innsmouth
  • Black Beauty discusses this; after the teenage Joe Green's ignorant handling of a delicate situation nearly kills the eponymous horse, one character tries to defend him on the basis that he didn't mean any harm, but another responds harshly that ignorance has caused more far more evil in the world than actual malice.
  • Mentioned in the Honor Harrington book Crown of Slaves.
    Haicheng Ringstorff: "That kind of fancy maneuver doesn't exist outside the holovids. Security Rule Number One: Don't ascribe to clever conspiracy what can be explained by stupidity."
  • In James Herbert's Domain, this trope and Government Conspiracy team up to backfire on the authorities, when a nuclear attack on London sends the government's elite scrambling for underground bunkers kept secret from the British public... only to find these bunkers are incompetently designed: easily cut off by rubble, flooded, and invaded by giant killer rats whose existence the bureaucrats had been covering up for years. Incompetence ultimately trumps malice, as the nuclear attack itself was a snafu: it ought to have been directed at China, not Britain.
  • This trope is mentioned in the Animorphs side story Visser. While recounting her past during a trial, Edriss notes that she had potentially discovered an ideal host species for the Yeerks, but was reassigned to a dead end position. She implies to her inquisitors that her rival Visser Three was responsible, but then notes to herself that it was more likely incompetence than conspiracy that led to her discovery being ignored.
  • Inverting this seems to be almost instinctual to the Skaven in Gotrek & Felix. Any time one of Grey Seer Thanquol's underlings screws up his plans, Thanquol often assumes it's because of a conspiracy to remove him from power. He also applies this to his "eternal enemies", the eponymous duo, as he believes they set out specifically to ruin his day. When he finally meets Gotrek and Felix face to face, they have no idea who he is!
  • About 90% of the plot of most Michael Crichton novels is a blend of this and really bad luck in the form of multiple worst case scenarios coming true, combining, and then mutating into something even worse. Very few characters in his novels are actually evil, they're mostly just lazy or short-sighted.
  • Harry Dresden has been both a beneficiary and a victim of this trope in a few instances; in Turn Coat, the Gatekeeper says he can't decide if Harry is a truly brilliant Diabolical Mastermind or a blundering imbecile. Harry just says "Dude," and indicates the various injuries he's constantly getting. In Grave Peril, a big moment for Morgan is his acceptance that the many times Harry has flouted the Laws of Magic or been part of some kind of disaster are not due to deliberate malice, but due to arrogance, impulsiveness and recklessness.
    • This is a Discussed Trope in Proven Guilty, where it is shown that practitioners of Black Magic almost always get involved in it due to not fully understanding the consequences of their actions, until they get too Drunk on the Dark Side to turn back. Harry specifically mentions that most "bad guys" never want to be bad guys, and often don't even realize that they are.
  • In the earlier books the Ministry of Magic in the Harry Potter series could be argued to fit this trope. It was an incompetent organization run by an incompetent minister that meant well but ultimately was in urgent need of modernization. Book 5 and beyond reveals a lot more (although Hanlon's Razor is not countermanded completely). Hogwarts isn't immune either with its hiring of Gilderoy Lockhart as no matter how questionable the decision seems in hindsight there really is no proof that Dumbledore knew the full depths of Lockhart's background.
    • Of course, Gilderoy was the only one who applied for the job that year, and Dumbledore either knew or guessed that anyone he hired to that position would be gone within a year.
  • In the Vorkosigan Saga, a number of seemingly-elaborate schemes are either purely or partially the results of somebody screwing up.
    • The initial conflict between Barrayarrans and Quaddies in Diplomatic Immunity is a result of a panicked general giving stupid orders and Gupta, the decoy antagonist, flailing around in an attempt to draw law enforcement's attention to the main villain.
    • In Komarr, every death the antagonists cause is the result of a screw-up — first a weapon malfunctioning during a smoke test, and later a man left chained to a railing with (unknown to his captors) insufficient oxygen supplies (because that guy was too careless to ensure his own safety).
    • In A Civil Campaign, Ekaterin spends a significant portion of the plot being hassled by a whole host of well-meaning but dimwitted people, who cause her quite as much trouble as anyone who might wish her harm.

    Live Action TV 
  • Invoked on Buffy the Vampire Slayer as Harmony was the only person whose transformation into a soulless monster wasn't portrayed as tragic; objectively, it wasn't much of a change.
  • Invoked on That '70s Show when Charlie sees Kitty naked. Kelso advises him to walk in on Red naked: that way, Red will think he's an idiot rather than a pervert. It backfires when he accidentally walks in on Kitty naked again.
  • Better Off Ted: While Veridian Dynamics are indeed involved in projects of dubious moral character (killer pumpkins, the bunny that will "snuggle" everyone within a 5 mile radius, etc.), nearly every bad company policy or consumer product is "usually" done without any intentional malice. The episode Racial Sensitivity is probably the best invocation of the trope.
    Veronica (after complaints about the separate water fountains for black employees): Okay, they realize it didn't work. Although there's a lot of fighting upstairs about whether it was the idea or the execution.
  • Discussed on The Daily Show during several skits in which the correspondents argue whether Fox News Channel's misleading reporting is due to them being evil or stupid. Wyatt Cenac and John Oliver represent "Team Evil" and "Team Stupid", respectively.
  • In one episode of The League, Ruxin thinks Taco is trying to screw with him by manipulating him into sacrificing a great deal of time and money for an elaborate 5th wedding anniversary party for his wife, and Taco later gets Ruxin in trouble with his wife by showing her previously unseen footage of their wedding video. If it was another member of their group, it would seem plausible that it was done on purpose, but there's no way Taco would be capable of pulling off something like that, nor would he want to.
  • Doctor Who:
    • A weird variant of this in "The Daleks' Master Plan", where, although there is a Government Conspiracy, everyone in it is staggeringly incompetent. While running away from an assassin Mavic Chen sent, the Doctor and Steven run into a room where a teleportation experiment is taking place, and, due to the scientists not clearing the area, end up being accidentally blasted to the other end of the galaxy along with the MacGuffin. The Daleks constantly remind Chen of this for the rest of the story, asking him why he didn't stop scientific experiments on the station, but when they land on Mira they get sidetracked exterminating a bunch of lab mice that had also been teleported there because they aren't sure they aren't dangerous. Chen realises at this point that he's lost all control of the situation, and spends the rest of the story trying to convince the Daleks that he's still useful to them - mostly by trying to blame them for it - while becoming more and more stressed-out and unstable. Even when they find the Doctor in Ancient Egypt and draft a fellow Time Lord to fight him, everyone is so disorganised and out for themselves that the Doctor slips easily out of their clutches.
    • Thanks to a satire-loving script editor applying this, in "The Deadly Assassin", the Time Lords - previously shown to be Crystal Spires and Togas Sufficiently Advanced Aliens controlling and puppeteering the Doctor with their near omniscient understanding of reality - are suddenly revealed to be a ritual-obsessed Punch-Clock Villain Obstructive Bureaucrat society where everyone has Chronic Backstabbing Disorder, based on the worst aspects of the British parliament and the worst aspects of university academia, where everyone clings to the symbolism of Time Lord mythology in the hope of making their trivial incompetence seem important. As a result, the Doctor's desire to leave the Time Lords goes from the mysterious persecution he was previously fleeing, and moves towards general disgust and boredom with his awful culture. Lots of fans are still unhappy about this.
  • Zig-zagged in an episode of Babylon 5. A representative from a Social Darwinist species tours Down Below - the station's slums - and is impressed because he believes humans have deliberately segregated the inferior of their species, going further than even his species. Of course, the slums are simply the result of poverty and neglect.

    Religion 
  • From The Bible:
  • In gnostic beliefs, the Demiurge is considered the source of suffering in the world. Depending on the sects, this is either because he is deliberately malicious and arrogant, or because he is ignorant about the true nature of things, or a combination of both. Valentianism in particular is quite forgiving towards him, seeing his ignorance as pitiful or even innocent, and holds that he will eventually wise up.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Paranoia. As deadly as the world of Alpha Complex is, the real threats aren't those out to get you, but the whole incompetency of the system. The Friend Computer wants to help you, not kill you, but unfortunately it isn't able to do that properly. Shortsightedness, competing interests, and general incompetence destroy the world.
  • Warhammer 40,000:
    • On the one hand, your homeworld may be left to the predations of mind-shattering horrors simply because someone in the Imperial bureaucracy misfiled something and forgot your planet existed. On the other hand, if they did remember, they might order your world destroyed anyway because you've had contact with the aforementioned gribbly monsters. In this setting, there is malice and stupidity in abundance, which helps the body count climb ever higher.
    • Inverse Hanlon's Razor still applies too, regarding the Emperor's treatment of his sons, which ended up resulting in the crapsackiness of the setting.

    Theatre 

    Video Games 
  • The Umbrella Corporation in the Resident Evil franchise appears to be a generic Evil Corporation, what with its using the T-Virus to experiment and attempt to create biological weapons. More often than not, the constant outbreaks of Zombie plagues are the result of massive stupidity and recklessness. Half the notes you find are employees questioning why they're building research facilities so close to Raccoon City or why they're wasting time with inefficient bioweapons. In addition, Umbrella's bioweaponry is a side-effect of its founder's search for eternal life and power.
  • In Star Control II, the Slylandro Probes seem bent on deconstructing everything in the galaxy to create more probes. Why was this plague of Von Neumann probes unleashed upon creation? Answer: a programming slip-up. The Slylandro, being physiologically unable to build interstellar ships, purchased the self-replicating probes for peaceful exploration. Wanting to learn as much as they possibly could, they innocently made the probes' first priority finding unknown ships and civilisations, and also set the probes' program value for self-replicating to maximum. The result: the probes sought out ships and evidence of civilization... and then immediately destroyed them for raw materials to make more probes. Hilarity Ensues. At least when it's brought to light, they're horrified and immediately look for ways to fix the mistake.
  • Portal:
    • Aperture Science may use human guinea pigs and have created the most malevolent, twisted AI in the history of their Earth, but it has been made painfully clear that they suffer from such staggering stupidity and way-out cloudcuckooland-thinking that there is no room for malice in their plans.
    • In Portal 2, this is often used by fans to describe Wheatley, though it may or may not be accurate in canon. After being in charge of the facility for a while, it's a bit unclear whether or not he's just going along with it to cover up how incredibly inept he is. Whatever he may have become, GLaDOS is very clear that Wheatley was ingeniously designed to consistently make bad choices, to such a degree that the only times he does anything clever is when doing so would inadvertently make the situation worse or hasten his own downfall.
    • Aperture founder Cave Johnson embraces willful ignorance in the belief that all scientific discovery occurs by accident, which would be hindered by competence. Does his deliberate stupidity make him more evil or does such a belief make him more stupid?
  • Five Nights at Freddy's: The management of Freddy Fazbear's Pizzeria are either the most incompetent bunch of Corrupt Corporate Executives on the far side of Aperture Science for not destroying the homicidal animatronics that are causing the downfall of their company or they are Card Carrying Villains who willfully hire people just so the animatronics can kill them. Regardless of which, if an employee is discovered dead by the janitors, they clean and bleach the carpets, hide the body and file a Missing Persons report in a few months. Note that this isn't some clandestine cover-up, it's their advertised company policy.
  • In Super Mario RPG, Booster wants to marry Peach after accidentally kidnapping her. However, it quickly becomes clear that he has no idea what marriage is, and just thought that a wedding party sounded fun.
  • The hellraven Utsuho Reiuji from Touhou: Subterranean Animism ate a dead sun God, gained nuclear powers and immediately decided that she would use these powers to nuke the surface world into a blasted hellscape. Not out of any kind of malevolence, mind you, but simply because she failed to consider the possibility that the ideal circumstances for her to live and thrive in might not be the ideal circumstances for everyone else to do the same. That, and she was, perhaps understandably, under the temporary influence of a bad case of power-induced crazy.
  • StarCraft 2 has a few examples.
    • Wings of Liberty:
      • Tychus Findlay was in prison and given the opportunity to leave by simply taking a deal with Arcturus Mengsk: kill Sarah Kerrigan. It's very clear that this wasn't a good idea and that the universe would be doomed, but Tychus didn't exactly think the deal through when he took it, nor did he know all the details since he never bothered to get into it.
      • Raynor's Raiders meet Doctor Ariel Hanson on Agria, where Raynor helps the civilians escape being eaten and infested by the Zerg. At the end of the questline, you are contacted by Executor Selendis who warns you that the colonists are infested. You are then given the choice of who to fight alongside, and both basically fall into this trope
      • Choosing to work with Hanson has you working against the clock to save Terran camps, destroy the shield generators for the Planet Cracker, and ultimately taking the Planet Cracker down (Selendis survives). In the end, it turns out that Dr. Hanson had a cure, and it works. If the Terrans were infested, they aren't anymore. As a result, Selendis may have had good reason to attack the settlement to start, but she wasn't doing so out of malice, but simply she believed a cure was impossible and glassing the planet seemed like a better solution than remotely looking into it.
      • Choosing to work with Selendis has Raynor call Selendis off to attack only the infested Terrans. You run through infested camps and destroy all of the infested Terrans and structures you can. Ultimately, when you do actually return to the Hyperion, you're forced to kill Dr. Hanson as her infestation has spread too much and she is as monstrous as any other infested. You can take away one of two possible thoughts. A ), Hanson was too ideological and nearly destroyed her own allies as a result of her vainly trying to find a cure for something that doesn't exist or B ), that the cure in the other version of this mission could have been finished in time, but Selendis and Raynor were so hasty that they effectively killed dozens of Terrans in the false idea that this was a better solution.
      • It is ultimately up to the player which ending was more justifiable and if Raynor was correct in his decision, as the game never brings the missions up after this.
      • If the player sides against Tosh, he doesn't take it well and outright tries to kill Raynor, but is killed by Nova who proves herself far superior an assassin. The problem with Tosh's anger is that he immediately assumes Raynor deserves death over betraying him, when the real problem is that Tosh was giving extremely vague answer to anything Raynor told him, making trusting the man very difficult. They didn't even find out that Tosh was a Spectre until they got a secret message from Nova Terra, so Tosh should be far angrier with himself about not just being up front and less at Raynor who makes a judgement call because of limited information.
      • In the final mission of the Protoss mini-campaign, we discover, to the horror of the last remaining Protoss (and by extension, life in the universe not controlled by Amon, that they effectively doomed the universe because of their desire to kill Kerrigan. Zeratul's death speech even implies that they couldn't have known.
      • In an inverted example, Mengsk has long been held not responsible for the destruction of Tarsonis in the first game, an event that led to the creation of The Queen of Blades. In the end of the Rebellion missions, after the adjutant that has a recording of Mengsk blatantly ordering leaving Tarsonis to its doom is played on air, even the media turns on Mengsk and he is finally unmasked as the demon he is to the public.
    • Heart of the Swarm
      • Zagara is the first boss on Char in the Heart of the Swarm mission. The goal is to hatch Zerg and proceed to defeat Zagara, who is doing her best to try and kill Kerrigan. This battle could have been avoided if, instead of being super intimidating and threatening Kerrigan, Zagara told her that she was doing what Kerrigan told her to do in the first place.
      • In the first of three missions on Kaldir, Kerrigan tries to collect her brood, only to find Protoss covering the planet. The Protoss quickly begin trying to kill the Zerg, so Kerrigan fights back. Eventually, Kerrigan is forced to destroy a series of escape ships to avoid the Nerazim from Shakuras arriving with an attack force which, at this point, would be way more than Kerrigan could safely handle. The problem comes in when speaking to her captive, Lasarra, who reveals she is one of many colonists who were trying to terraform the planet to make it hospitable to Protoss when you showed up and murdered a bunch of colonists. Unfortunately, she still threatens Kerrigan with the Golden Armada, so big surprise when Kerrigan destroys the only chance of their vessel reaching the Protoss. Kerrigan was no longer the Queen of Blades, so it's highly likely that had the colonists simply backed off and allowed Kerrigan to escape without incident, they all wouldn't be dead, but they immediately assumed Kerrigan was there to kill them and kept threatening her.
      • This plan actually does work for Valerian Mensgk, who asks Kerrigan for time to evacuate the Terran civilians before she attacks his father. She gives him the time.
    • Legacy of the Void
      • Artanis feels ultimately responsible for the death of Zeratul and the corruption of the Protoss on Aiur, but the truth is that he did consider Zeratul's words. It was Selendis who refused to listen to Zertaul due to him being branded as a traitor, and ultimately scorned everything he said which likely incited the other Protoss to her side and gave Artanis no choice to argue. The only fair argument one has is that neither Selendis nor Artanis had any evidence other than Zeratul's word, so both of them basically nearly doomed their species due to their incompetence.

    Web Comics 
  • Subverted in Schlock Mercenary. During the Kssthrata Takeover campfire story, when Petey started getting conflicting orders from 3 different officers, he assumed it to be a communication issue at first.
    Petey: You've heard the old adage, "never ascribe to malice that which can be attributed to common stupidity." Well, it's only good advice when there is no malice afoot.
  • Used in this Sluggy Freelance strip:
    "Never underestimate the ability of stupidity to catch you off guard and mess up humanity."
    • Sluggy Freelance in general could be considered a big example of Hanlon's Razor. Half the story arcs in the series wouldn't exist if it weren't for people making incredibly stupid decisions.
      • Though that particular example was a subversion, they thought the Ghouls were caused by some idiot unleashing a zombie plague, when in actuality the Ghouls were a Horde of Alien Locusts that had taken human form.
    • 90% or more of the time a villain has done something right, it's because he or she, one of his or her underlings, or even one of the good/neutral guys has screwed up. A good number of the plots end with two characters thusly:
      Sluggy Character: Why did you do ABCDGFQRS Xanatos Roulette?
      Seemingly Malicious Character: Because I wanted Y outcome.
      Sluggy Character: Why didn't you just do X action resulting Y outcome?
      Seemingly Malicious Character: Oh, duh. Nohardfeelingsseeyanever! *Exit*
  • In The Adventures of Dr. McNinja, Doc despised Monster Marty for years for seemingly selling out the Vigilante Club, but forgives him when he discovers that Marty did it because his monster form makes him dumb. This leads to the Aesop: "It's better for people to think that you're stupid, than to think you're a jerk."
  • The Order of the Stick:
    • Roy tells Miko that he had killed the evil lich Xykon. When she meets Xykon in the flesh (except, y'know, not), she immediately comes to the conclusion that Roy and the rest of the Order of the Stick are working for Xykon, and deceived her. The real explanation is that the Order didn't know how to destroy a lich: Xykon did get destroyed, but regenerated from his phylactery after the Order were long gone.
    • Miko's Lawful Stupid nature causes her to attribute anything to malice rather than incompetence, particularly since she embodies the Prosecutor's Fallacy in dismissing any explanation that doesn't fit her preconceived conclusion that Belkar Bitterleaf and everyone working with him is evil, evil, evil, despite evidence to the contrary showing that Belkar is just the Token Evil Teammate who's kept on a leash by the others. The ridiculous and paranoid theories she's forced to devise to hold to this viewpoint results in her invoking Grey's Law, when her willful ignorance that the Order of the Stick is not working for the bad guys becomes much, much more harmful to her homeland than any actual malice could have been. Murdering the city's ruler in the insane belief that he was working with Xykon because he was cooperating with Roy, who, as we all know, has to be evil, nearly murdering the ruler's heir because she assumes being proven wrong was just a test by the gods/a trick by Roy, and eventually stopping the founder of her order from defeating the villains and saving the city when her own incompetence leads her to destroy the stone he was guarding, killing her, saving the lives of the Big Bad and The Dragon, and dooming her homeland to Goblin occupation.
    • Belkar himself coasts the edge of this Razor constantly. When he's not one or the other, he's both.
  • Grey's Law is invoked by the chief in Spying with Lana. Besides sending Lana into missions with faulty intelligence, he would also at times withhold the mission's true objectives from her.
    • In Case #1, Lana thought that her task of infiltrating a group was the important part of the mission. As it turns out, the very fact that she was even assigned to a relatively unimportant mission was the crucial point.
    • In Grand Prix, Lana assumed that the data her team had retrieved was the important part of the mission. The true aim of the mission was to discredit the person from whom the data was stolen.
  • Gunnerkrigg Court: In chapter 38 it seems as if Annie's father is deliberately hurting her by attacking her fire-elemental half. Chapter 53 reveals he had no idea that Annie would be involved in what he was doing at all (he thought he was summoning his wife's spirit; unfortunately her life force passed on to Annie and that's what he was trying to pull closer to him) and he feels awful about almost killing her.
    • Quite a few of his seemingly malicious acts can be credited to ignorance: He feels he "killed" his wife/Annie's mom because he couldn't stop her from dying — her problem was supernatural and he barely acknowledges that aspect of the world exists despite being married to a supernatural being with two supernatural girlfriends and working for an institution that studies the supernatural which is filled with unusual people including an honest-to-goodness ghost and is next door to a magical forest filled with genuine gods and monsters. Annie felt he abandoned her because he resented her — his guilt made him assume she hated him and his absence would be for the best. In the lead-up to the "attack" on Annie he only just started researching Grim Reapers while looking for answers to his wife's death and really had no idea what to expect — Annie had been in touch with them for years and could have summoned them if he knew (though the beings her dad met were quite different from the ones we've seen).
    • The spoiler'd issues could be described as "Hanlon's Razor" meets Poor Communication Kills considering how much these two assume about each other "Annie must hate me because I killed her beloved mother"/"Father must hate me because I killed his beloved wife"/both: but I hate myself more for what I did to them while being too awkward and estranged (and British) to talk to one another before they hurt themselves/each other.

    Web Original 
  • Cracked:
    • An article on 9/11 conspiracy theories claims "There are basically two views on the subject, and I intend to provide both equally." Neither view supported in the article is that the conspiracy theorists are actually correct, so that leaves, "They're liars," or "They're stupid." At the end, the writer subverts it by concluding that "Truthers" are both liars and stupid.
    • Another Cracked article referring to a supposedly haunted bridge where dogs commit suicide, gives us this gem:
      ...to paraphrase Ian Fleming, "Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, three times is enemy action and over 600 is clearly the work of an ancient Sumerian demon or some shit."
    • This article about Kanye West, written after some of his more controversial actions, theorises that he "might just be retarded".
  • The Slacktivist, a liberal Christian blogger, has repeatedly posted about the Stupid-or-Evil game when it comes to discussing the actions of less liberal Christians. His most common conclusion averts this trope: he feels that if you've been fiercly opposing something for a long time (birth control, evolution theory, gun rights, etc.), you have every reason to find out as much as you can about it. Remaining ignorant despite your enduring interest in the subject takes a deliberate choice and is therefore no better than deliberately lying.
  • Blisteringly excoriated as a defense in the essay "Intent! It's Fucking Magic!" on the blog Genderbitch. Shorter, more G-rated form: actions like telling racist jokes and outing people against their will cause harm, whether that was your intention or not, so just don't do them.
  • Sex House takes six people, almost all of them completely incompatible with each other, and essentially locks them inside to make sure they have as much sex as possible. The events of the series imply that the producers are not evil, just completely incompetent, idiotic, lazy, and cheap.
    Derek: "To call this place 'evil' implies a clarity of purpose that I do not want to attribute to anyone involved."

    Western Animation 
  • Dib from Invader Zim put it best, in regards to a man stuck in a chicken costume who is convinced he has turned into a Half-Human Hybrid:
    Dib: Chickenfoot, come back! You're not a freak! You're just stupid!
  • Nickelodeon loves this, with characters like SpongeBob SquarePants and Dog of CatDog getting away with a lot of the things they do; with the resident Butt-Monkey paying for it. For the large part, there are about as few times they genuinely mean harm as there are when they finally face punishment.
  • South Park hung a big lampshade on this trope in an episode debunking 9/11 Conspiracy Theories. The existence of conspiracy theories is actually a government conspiracy; Washington failed to prevent twenty Muslim lunatics with box cutters killing 3,000 people, so they'd rather allow people to believe that they made it happen — it actually makes the government look more formidable and in control than it is. They do this because the conspiracy theorists are going to ignore them when they try to tell the truth, so they might as well play to that crowd as well.
  • Megatron from The Transformers gives Starscream the opportunity to use this as a defense when they are betrayed by the Triple Changers, who then take over the Decepticons.
    Megatron: You're either lying or stupid.
    Starscream: I'm stupid! I'm stupid!
  • Archer gets a lot of mileage out of "No, it was just incompetence." "And that makes it better?" "... Doesn't it?"
  • Almost every episode of Captain Planet and the Planeteers completely ignored and subverted this rule. Are environmental or social problems the result of people not understanding the consequences of their actions, or poor judgement, or short-sightedness? Of course not, they're caused by mutant villains spreading pollution deliberately... because they're evil. Not even because of greed which is deliberately malicious yet much more realistic.
  • Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law had a variation in an episode where Shaggy and Scooby-Doo get busted for drug possession because they were acting goofy, giggling a lot, and talking about having the munchies when a police officer stopped them. As Fred, Daphne and Velma explain to Harvey, that's just how Shag and Scoob behave normally; they aren't stoners, just food-obsessed idiots.
  • The Simpsons: Every destructive act Homer Simpson does can be attributed to him being stupid, an asshole, or a stupid asshole. Even when he tries to do right, his bumbling can lead to a lot of chaos before he can even make clear that he wants to make things right, let alone actually pulling said act through. And many of these times when he's trying to do things right, it's because the rest of the family (or even the town) has pretty much given up on him.
  • Kaeloo: Stumpy normally gets away with destructive acts because everyone knows he's probably just doing them out of sheer stupidity. However, this starts to get subverted in later episodes since he starts to intentionally do malicious things for the sake of being mean.
  • The Legend of Korra: Mako is the root of the infamous Love Triangle due to his lying, dithering, and overall lack of tact, though it's clear he was not "a player," like Wu initially thinks; rather, he's Not Good with People.

    Real Life 
  • During any war there are mistakes so colossal that its hard to believe that the leaders in questions were not actively trying to sabotage their own cause:
    • Field Marshall Konrad von Hoetzendorff had no idea what he was doing. He botched the initial phase of World War I, muddled his way through the Serbian and Polish campaigns of 1915, lost the 'back' of the army against Brusilov in 1916, and then totally destroyed the Austro-Hungarian Army in the 1918 Spring Offensives against Italy before resigning that July. One of scarily few things keeping him from losing the entire war for his country was the fact that on the other side, the leadership (a slew of Russian aristocrats and Luigi Cadorna) was even worse. On the few occasions that it wasn't, such as against Alexei Brusilov in Autumn 1916, his competence was on full display.
    • Field Marshall Kliment Voroshilov never actually tried to lose hundreds of thousands of his own men for almost no effect upon the enemy, whether the Finns during the Winter War or the Germans during World War II. But you may be excused for thinking that his performance was deliberate, for his incompetence was so epic as to be almost indistinguishable from treasonous malice.
  • A very controversial theory, put forward by the British historian A.J.P. Taylor, suggests that Adolf Hitler was not the evil scheming mastermind who had filed on his plans for world domination since the "Beer Hall Putsch" (as described in a certain piece of prison literature called Mein Kampf), but instead was a more or less buffoonish opportunist, who initially never thought of actually pulling through any of his ”world domination schemes" (i.e. the invasion of Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, France, Soviet Union, etc). According to Taylor, Hitler was a small fish in the big pond who got real lucky with his new title of "chancellor", and actually tried to weasel his way up as he swam with the stream, and that it was not until Britain and France had demonstrated their lack of stamina in enforcing the Versailles Treaty towards Germany that Hitler decided he could go even a step further and become more bratty. For instance, when he attempted to remilitarize the initially demilitarized Rhine area (whose demilitarization was in return surveilled by France). He sent over troops on bikes and horses, just in case the French retaliated and he needed to make a speedy retreat. When they didn't, he simply tested the patience of the Entente nations all the way to the invasion of Czechoslovakia and finally of Poland, when France and Britain finally declared war, realizing that they had missed too many opportunities to stand up to Germany rather than appease.
  • Conspiracy theories about 9/11 refuse to accept the possibility that any element, any tiny inconsequential detail, is anything but the single thread that, if unraveled, will bring the whole conspiracy down into bite-sized chunks of truth. This Cracked article says it best, and explains this trope. The best part of that article is that it has fake advertisements for Halliburton and Freemasonry, implying that the article itself is all part of the conspiracy.
  • Conspiracy Theories always surround the unexpected deaths of major personages. It just doesn't seem right that someone so big and important could just die! Nearly 50 years after his assassination, people are still coming up with harebrained theories about who "really" killed John F. Kennedy. Including one that postulates that the driver, who is clearly shown in the footage during the firing of the shot itself, was the real assassin. note 
    • At least one expert concluded that Kennedy was, indeed, shot by Oswald, but the final shot to the head was the result of Friendly Fire from a nearby Secret Service agent. Under this theory, most of the subsequent inconsistencies and suspicious behavior were the result of the Secret Service desperately trying to cover up this incredible screw-up.
  • Less than 20 minutes after the accidental death of Diana, Princess of Wales, conspiracy theories were already buzzing around the Internet.
  • There was a movie made in the 1970s called The Lincoln Conspiracy. It was "Oswald didn't act alone", with Lee Harvey Oswald replaced by John Wilkes Booth. (And 2011's The Conspirator covers a specific aspect of the same story.) And then it turns out that in reality Booth actually was part of a conspiracy. It just turned out he was the only member of it who went through with the whole "murder another human being" aspect of the plan. His friend Lewis Paine stabbed the US Secretary of State but failed to kill him, and the other conspirator chickened out on shooting Vice President Andrew Johnson. All were eventually caught and hanged or imprisoned, except for Booth as he was shot by a soldier. Conspiracy theories claim he somehow escaped, it was a double kill, people in the US government were involved, etc.note 
  • Glaciergate is said to be this: no actual attempt at deceiving was made, writers just made a rather stupid mistake and editors were likewise stupid in not catching it.
    • It's not going to go away anytime soon, as Michael Crichton's State of Fear made sure there was a fanbase waiting for it!
    • Ironically, this may in itself be due to ignorance of what is expected in the way of standard knowledge within the scientific community. The sloppy editing is particularly atrocious as both the editor and the author of the paper involved should have known that the original source was not one to cite as anything more than anecdotal, and only inside a grant application at that. (The grant in question could be summed up as "Please give me money to measure glaciers for a while and see if these rumors are true.")
    • The counter to this is that it was caught and pointed out by several reviewers, but not corrected, and the source cited was of a decidedly non-scientific value (it was a quote from a pop-article, not peer-reviewed in any form). The objections were that it shows gross negligence in the quality of the report, a "whatever sounds good" approach.
  • There's still some debate as to whether the Holodomor, the famine caused by Stalin's agricultural collectivization policies in the Ukraine, was the result of simple mismanagement or a deliberate genocide against a nation that had a (not undeserved) reputation as a breeding ground for counter-revolutionary sentiment. This is Stalin — how this trope applies to totalitarian psychopaths is an interesting question.
  • A bit of self-aware humor in the US government is that the proof that there is no vast government conspiracy to cover up the existence of aliens is that such a conspiracy would rely on the idea that the US government is capable of doing anything with anything resembling competence or discretion.
  • Those Occidental Otaku who behave like such ("weeaboos"). You know the ones: they pepper their speech with gratuitous broken Japanese, they wear Cosplay even in places where it's not appropriate to do so, they center their existence on Anime, Manga, J Pop, and the like. In short, they are Straw Fans. While many other anime fans are inclined to simply write them off, or distance themselves from the fandom, it should be noted that the vast majority of the "weeaboos" don't act the way they do to deliberately be obnoxious. They do it because social skills take a long time to learn (and generally are not taught in classrooms), and because they have found something they simply latched onto that seems much more exotic and exciting than their day-to-day lives. Not that it makes their behavior or demeanor less annoying or upsetting, but at least it means that a) they most likely don't even know what they're doing is "wrong," and b) in a lot of cases, it can be corrected.
  • Not keeping this trope in mind is likely part of the problem for any community, moderator, administrator, or forum veteran that Suffers Newbies Poorly, especially when the community starts becoming insular. The tendency to suspect any potential social misstep or drama-causing on the part of the newcomer as trolling rather than simple ignorance or accident ends up deterring new individuals from joining as a result. Conservapedia and its administration, for instance, have demonstrated a history of treating edits or statements by new individuals that are not in line with the administration's stance on the topic as a deliberate provocation of the staff and respond with a prompt banning of the offending individual. The possibility of ineptitude or unfamiliarity by the newcomer are not considered as potential explanations—the administrative stance is that any explicit nonconformity to the administrative stance must stem only from malicious intent.
  • This trope should be kept in mind by anyone taking care of kids. Very young children may engage in dangerous or destructive behavior simply because they don't know that what they're doing can have negative results.
  • The concept of killing a large number of people by concentrating them in prison camps under the most terrible conditions was not introduced by Hitler's Konzentrationslager or even Stalin's Gulags; the first "concentration camps" were erected by the British in South Africa during the Boer Wars, to imprison civilians who were likely to aid Boer guerrillas. Thousands perished from famine and disease in those camps, but not because of any deliberate British scheme to commit mass murder, but because of a combination of general negligence and logistical incompetence when it came to feeding and caring for a large number of detainees during a war in an overseas colony where scorched earth tactics were in full effect. Unfortunately, certain later regimes employed exactly these shortcomings to commit some very deliberate genocide.
  • This trope should also be kept in mind where "allies" to some marginalized group are concerned. Particularly those who are new to whatever cause or group you're supporting; most of them don't mean any harm by asking an ignorant question, and may not realize that whatever they said or asked was harmful or ignorant or stupid or offensive. No, it doesn't make it any less upsetting/offensive/irritating/etc., but (just like the weeaboo example above), it's fixable. (Those that do mean harm/offense and know that whatever it was is likely cause a ruckus are genuine Trolls, but with a little practice it does become fairly easy to tell who's a harmful troll and who made an honest mistake.) Progress is sometimes slow, and they (by definition) don't have the lived experiences you have of being marginalized for your sexuality/race/skin color/disabilities/etc. And most who genuinely care about your cause/group are willing to learn and will apologize for any ignorance on their part...but (as difficult as it may be) The best thing to do when confronted with a newbie who made a Fee Fi Faux Pas is to take them aside discreetly and explain as calmly and politely as possible why whatever they said/asked was out of line, or direct them to Google or Wikipedia. It's also a good idea to warn them that questions or behaviors like that are not welcome, and that next time they may be kicked out of the group or face some other consequence. On blogs and websites dedicated to your cause, it helps to have a list of resources and/or FAQs to direct people to and encourage people to use them, and to have moderators enforce any rules about what questions are OK and which are not welcome.

Alternative Title(s): Assume Good Faith, Not A Troll Just Stupid

http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/HanlonsRazor