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.
However, once you pass the Mrs. Bridges test (taken from the BBC's Upstairs Downstairs
, in that "Once is bad luck, twice is a bad habit"), malice becomes a reasonable hypothesis. At this point the Dr Johnny Fever
rule applies ("When everybody is out to get you, paranoia is just straight thinking
"), or, as articulated by Ian Fleming
"Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, three times is enemy action."
Disregarding it is a prerequisite for plots involving an Ancient Conspiracy
, Government Conspiracy
or similar antagonist. 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 Law:
- Any sufficiently advanced incompetence is indistinguishable from malice.
This law relies on the assumption that ignorance in and of itself isn't malicious. 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).
Note: This does not
mean that everyone who is wrong must be either stupid or evil
. None of us bats a thousand, after all.
See also Poe's Law
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Anime and Manga
- In Code Geass, this trope explains:
- 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.
- Lelouch and his role in what happens with Euphemia around episode 22. Even if he's a mastermind, he was still dumb in this case.
- Lelouch, alone, is only responsible for part of it. The other part is shared with C.C. - had he and she been more forthcoming with what they knew - C.C.'s previous contractors and Lelouch's extremely recent headaches when attempting to use Geass - then the incident would have been mostly avoided.
- Suzaku and his role in what happens when Lelouch gets captured by Schneizel and Kanon after his allegedly "private" meeting with Suzaku.
- 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 Cube, the left-wing doctor's assumption that the Cube is part of some maniacal government plot is 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 is actually worse.
- 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 and 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.
- Finding Nemo operates on this trope; 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 little fish inside. In both cases, it's simple ignorance at work rather than maliciousness.
- Though you'd think a man who likes to keep fish as pets would eventually explain how to not kill them to his niece after she killed one after another of the pets he gave her.
- 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!"
- 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".
- As Ian Fleming once wrote: "Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, three times is enemy action."
- 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.
- 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.
- From the Bible - "Have those who work evil no knowledge?" (Psalm 53:4), making this trope Older Than Feudalism.
- Inverting this seems to be almost instinctual to the Skaven in Gotrek And 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!
Live Action TV
- 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.
- Double-whammy in Warhammer 40000: 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.
- Hamlet. There's malice in plenty here, but nobody is fully in control of their schemes.
- Damn near every comedy of manners.
- 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 bug. The Slylandro purchased the self-replicating probes for peaceful exploration. Wanting to learn as much as they possibly could, they innocently 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.
- Quoted directly in Deus Ex on one of Majestic 12's computer terminals.
- In 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, Gla DOS 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.
- Subverted in Schlock Mercenary. During the Kssthrata Takeover campfire story, Petey says remembered how he got conflicting orders from 3 officers —
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:
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."
- In 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 Roy Greenhilt and everyone working with him is evil, evil, evil. 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.
- A Cracked 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 suggesting that "Truthers" are both liars and mentally deficient.
- Everything surrounding World War I can be explained by the leaders of Europe acting like a bunch of gibbering morons. The fact that 4 years of horribly bloody conflict were kicked off because of a student with a pistol on a fortuitous lunch run boggles the mind. Europe in 1914 was a tangled web of treaties, ethnic tensions, and monarchical rivalries. To add to the mess, the war itself was, in all likelihood, inevitable: nobody had thought very hard when signing mutual defense treaties saying that "If any state declares war on X, we will declare war on that state." Hilarity, of a sort, Ensued when somebody actually finally did follow through with their treaty obligation to do just that, a dead guy's war plans went into effect automatically, and there's some evidence for the theory that the US was dragged in because some people in Europe felt that it wasn't fair to let the US stay out of the party. That probably counts as 'ignorance' of a sort, given that it could have easily enough backfired horribly.
- 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 remilitarise the initially demilitarised Rhine area (whose demilitarisation 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, realising that they had missed too many opportunities to stand up to Germany rather than appease.
- In contrast to the South Park entry above, 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.
- 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.
- 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, etcnote
- 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.")
- There's still some debate as to whether the Holodomor, the famine cause 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.
- The same is being debated about Mao's policies.
- The same is being debated about every dictators policies.
- A bit of self-aware humor in the US government is that the proof that there is no vast government conpsiracy to cover up the existance of aliens is that such a conspiracy would rely on the idea that the US government is capable of doing anything with what resembles competence or discretion.