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Hanlon's Razor

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"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. Sometimes, the villain is both stupid and malicious at the same time.

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

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; see the Blue Code of Silence — or when malicious actions are being done but the men doing said actions is stupid and incompetent himself and caught in bad timing. Though one could just note that the law is about attributing motives, until the actual motives are proven, in which case the law is moot.

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.


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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; though this is also arguably the most justified, as Suzaku’s had already sold Lelouch out once, and even previously used Nunnally to try to entrap him, and his long history of fighting against Lelouch doesn’t give him any credibility to think otherwise.
    4. Well... A good chunk of the other characters end up doing this afterward. Long story short, Lelouch and Suzaku manage to take advantage of the whole thing to create a Genghis Gambit where they take over the world and have Lelouch's death bring peace, which works. Ending on possibly one last example where Nunnally's grief over her dead brother is ignored by a whole crowd surrounding them, who are just cheering for Suzaku disguised as Zero right above them for putting an end to Lelouch apparently being a monstrous emperor. On that note, part of this is because Nunnally ended up figuring it all out at the very last second, while no one else is actually supposed to know. Kallen, and maybe Tohdoh, are implied to have figured it out as well.
  • 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 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 stealing Ryoga’s food and more winning a free for all.
    • A huge number of misunderstandings with Akane and Ranma are entirely this trope. The big problem for this couple is one word: communication. On more than one occasion, Ranma actively tries to help Akane, and the audience witnesses this, but Akane isn't aware. Since Ranma is so consistently disrespectful, she just assumes he's being vindictive or bullying her when it's much more likely actual help. It also doesn't help his case that 9 out of 10 times when Akane gets like this, Ranma then deliberately acts like an arse. This isn't to say either side is more right, but Ranma doesn't communicate his intentions well at all and responds to anger with petulance, and Akane constantly invokes the point this trope tries to disprove by seemingly always assuming malice on Ranma's part no matter the situation.
    • On the flip side of this argument is Shampoo, someone who seems to always assume kind intent with everything Ranma does even when he is being manipulative or stupid.

    Comic Books 
  • Discussed in Gotham Central when Gordon observes to Stacy that most criminals are not evil, just people who didn't consider the potential consequences of their actions.

    Fan Works 
  • In Fear No Evil, a My Hero Academia fanfic, All for One put a ton of resources into hiding his son Izuku's existence from Humarise because he knew they were obsessed with the Quirkless. This included bribing recruiters to look the other way, using his pet Mad Scientist to be his son's pediatrician and hiding his son's information on the Quirk Registry. All of it undone by a middle school Bakugou deciding to be a dick to Izuku by signing him up for Humarise's mailing list.
  • This is central to the My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic Fan Fic Frigid Winds and Burning Hearts, where Princess Luna fears that her sister Celestia is secretly a manipulative tyrant. This Alternative Character Interpretation leads her to leap to conclusions and assume the worst. Similarly, other ponies tend to presume the worst about Luna, leaping to the conclusion that she's reverting to her old, Nightmarish ways... when those ways are mostly the result of history being Written by the Winners.
  • Played for Laughs in the My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic Fan Fic Moonbeam, where one of Luna's friends thinks Celestia is also a manipulative tyrant, only she's really just bored and likes pulling harmless pranks. Even funnier as Luna figures this out in about 2 seconds, and said friend is the local cynic. Later, we find out Celestia's real reason is so she can spend some time with the mane six, who are the closest things Celestia has to friends.
  • In The Infinite Loops, this trope (more specifically, Grey's Law) is why Billy is considered a Malicious Looping Entity. He's not malicious in any way, nor is he a Well-Intentioned Extremist, and he doesn't really have a goal at all. However, he keeps doing stuff that causes horrible consequences because he's just. That. Stupid.
  • Invoked in Sword Art Online Abridged. The big twist revealed at the end of the first season is that the whole "death game" scenario is actually the result of a Game-Breaking Bug that popped up when Akihiko Kayaba was rushing to finish SAO. Since he was losing his mind from stress and sleep deprivation, he decided to lock ten thousand players in the game and present himself as a villainous mastermind forcing them all to Win to Exit, instead of admitting that he was a colossal fuck-up.
    • In general, the series bases much of its humor on demonstrating what actually happens when you trap the kind of people who play MMOs — particularly the toxic, idiotic players who either invoke Leeroy Jenkins tactics or don't get along well with other players — inside a game and force them to finish it. For one, it explains why 2,000 people died in the first month. Said explanation also being why Kayaba joins the game as Heathcliff, hoping that he can actually help them not kill themselves.
  • In Freeman's Mind 2, after Barney's suggested route through the canals results in Gordon being a sitting duck for the Civil Protection cops, who are able to easily surround and shoot down at him from high ground as he tries to swim and navigate around obstacles, Gordon is left legitimately unable to tell whether Barney is just a bumbling idiot who has no idea what he's doing, or a diabolical genius who deliberately tried to get Gordon killed.
    Gordon: Incompetence can be really hard to distinguish from malice.
    • Gordon also feels this way about the entire Resistance, as it seems so incompetently run that he can't help but wonder if it's actually secretly run by the very government it's ostensibly resisting as a way to easily find and kill anyone who opposes their regime.
  • In the Series Finale of Hellsing Ultimate Abridged, Alucard says this line to one of the 3 million and change souls mixed within himself as he helps them all move on by fixing their problems. Coming from him, it is quite something.
    Alucard: "Don't mistake youthful selfishness for genuine malice. Nobody isn't kind of an asshole in their early 20's. And if they actually weren't, they were probably sociopaths."
  • Yue Qingyuan unintentionally cuts off his spouse Shen Qingqiu of any financial support or domestic support in SV Wishes. This wasn’t done to punish him. Yue Qingyuan just got used to Shen Qingqiu handling the money and the servants throughout their marriage. He didn’t realize that by demoting Shen Qingqiu, he as the Lord of the Household or the new First Husband, Liu Qingge would have to give him the income to survive on and command the servants on the former’s behalf. The neglectful Yue Qingyuan and the unintentionally ignorant Liu Qingge accidentally leave Shen Qingqiu destitute in own home and allow for the servants to mistreat him. Liu Qingge finally helps Shen Qingqiu when he comes to own his position as First Husband and gave Shen Qingqiu new servants and money. Yue Qingyuan still continued in his neglect and ignorance until it was too late.
  • In Infinity Train: Voyage of Wisteria, during her "Eureka!" Moment, Chloe finally stumbles upon a connecting factor between a lot of the actions that shaped the Blossomverse: Goh getting so hung up over a misunderstanding with Tokio, only to take her friendship for granted; Tokio letting the guilt for that incident drive him onto the Train, when he could have reconnected with Goh with a phone call or a train to Vermillion City; Ash Ketchum being so helpless in connecting with Chloe, and instead let her turn him into an icon of resentment; Trip barging onto the scene like a Tauros in a china shop, when he really did want Ash, and to a lesser extent Goh, to learn from their mistakes; Yeardley joking about being a "work in progress" in class; and Chloe's Character Development having to result in her loved ones being traumatized and her hometown hating her? To put it quite simply, it was because they were all children. They kept encountering situations that they didn't know how to handle, and kept making mistakes because they didn’t know better. Most of the players in this game really did have good intentions, even if their actions made it seem otherwise. Even those individuals who were malicious weren't one dimensional monsters that couldn't be redeemed. The bullies of Class 5-E were inexcusably cruel to Chloe, but that rose out of being Driven by Envy and believing Loners Are Freaks. If they had received better instruction on what being a Trainer was actually like, and allowed themselves to get a better picture of Chloe and what her life was like, who knows how things might have turned out? As for Chloe and Parker Cerise, their malicious actions came about when they ignored the Razor and assumed malicious intentions from everyone in Vermillion City. Subconsciously, Chloe believed that her trauma had to be something massive and horrible, so she could make sense of both the hurt she felt and the hurt she inflicted upon others as catharsis.
  • The Palaververse: When talking about Saddle Arabian religion, they have dispensed with the razor for their Creator of the lands that surround them, going full God Is Evil, due to the horrific nature of the wildlife that encompasses their land:
    well-meaning idiocy can only be stretched so far as an explanation before it becomes indistinguishable from actual malignance.

    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.
  • In Dumb and Dumber, the bad guys believe that Harry and Lloyd are some kind of master assassins out to get them, when really they're just two Lethally Stupid buffoons.
  • Most of The Coen Brothers' films are studies on human stupidity and the horrible things it causes to happen. As an example:
  • Hot Fuzz: The Milkman Conspiracy of the Sandford Neighborhood Watch Alliance has been committing wanton murder for decades for the sake of making extremely damned sure that Sandford will win the Village of the Year award. The targets of said murders are people who are extremely tiny and petty possibilities to potentially ruin the town's chances, such as printing the local newspaper full of typos, being a bad actor, having an annoying laugh, being a street performer (a living statue or a crusty juggler) and owning a McMansion. When Sergeant Nicholas Angel first catches wind of the NWA's conspiracy existing, he creates an elaborate theory for all of the murders involving a Real Estate Scam and when the truth comes to light he is both baffled and horrified that the town became the murder capital of England for "no reason! No reason whatsoever!"note 
  • 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 The War of the Worlds (1938). They end up mistaking it for an actual Martian war against Earth and proceed to join in the fight. 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: disabling their vehicles, destroying radios, damaging power stations. 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?
  • Mr. Jones (2019): In-Universe. Orwell is initially unsure whereas the famine is deliberately engineered by the Soviet authorities, or if it's the consequence of poor logistics and organization in Ukraine.
  • Don't Look Up: When Kate talks with Yule and his Conspiracy Theorist friends about the government's response to the comet, she shoots down a couple of their theories, saying, "The truth is way more depressing. They are not even smart enough to be as evil as you're giving them credit for." Of course, one theory involving a Sleeper Starship is later proven right, but her point stands given what happens to the people on board.

  • 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. To supply examples:
    • In Jurassic Park, the sensors of the park are not set to warn about a nearly 200% increase in the dinosaur population (the result of a mutation in their DNA) because the designers did not wanted to spare the computer cycles (contrast with the willful evil of Dennis Nedry sabotaging the computers to rob the Park and John Hammond putting money ahead of human safety).
    • In The Andromeda Strain, a major faux pax that nearly causes The End of the World as We Know Itnote  happens because 1) standard procedure with Wildfire-class crises is to sterilize the area with a nuclear bomb and 2) a sliver of paper got in the way of the bell that warns of incoming telex messages in the lab's central communication room and the room's technicians never thought of checking that out even as they tore the machine apart to look over the rest of the electronics. The nuclear bomb order was delayed only because the President hesitated about dealing with Realpolitik.
  • 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 his currently heavily bandaged head wound, just one of the the many 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 it starts incorporating more Head-in-the-Sand Management as the series progresses). 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.
  • 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.
  • The X-Wing Series in the greater Star Wars Legends continuity invokes this specifically. With a hugely stressful job, multispecies staffing, cheap and obsolete technology in places where the cutting edge would be better, and an enemy that will stop at nothing to exterminate them, several characters use this idea to defuse tensions among their squadmates. In some of the books, the trope is quoted verbatim.
  • Played with in Star Trek: Federation. The main villain in the future sections is an uploaded intelligence of a man, Adrik Thorson, who once tried to force Zefram Cochrane to weaponize the warp drive into a physically-infeasible "warp bomb" and is fixated upon it. His efforts to hack Starfleet looking for data on the warp bomb were detected, leading Admiral Kabreigny to question if there might not be something there, and tighten security. The heightened security convinced Thorson that Starfleet knew more and was hiding it, while his determined and repeated efforts to get at essentially useless data drove Kabreigny and Starfleet Security into fits of paranoia, to the point she couldn't trust Kirk because his fibbing on a report to protect Cochrane's privacy made him possible a member of The Conspiracy.
  • King Elhokar in The Stormlight Archive is an incompetent, weak king who gets in the way of the protagonists' plans, such as faking an assassination attempt to prove that there really are assassins after him, and throwing Kaladin in jail for accusing a high-ranking lord of a serious crime. Speaking to him as a person rather than a king reveals that he's very insecure about ruling a recently established kingdom (it was founded by his father within his lifetime and he only became king after his fathers assassination), and his actions are the result of poor judgement and an inability to determine which of his advisors have his or the kingdom's best interests in mind. Even several people who dislike him acknowledge that he's really not a bad guy, he's just a terrible king, but with how much power he has his intentions are largely secondary to the results.

    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 with Jon Stewart during several skits in which the correspondents argue whether Fox News's misleading reporting is due to them being evil or stupid. Wyatt Cenac and John Oliver represent "Team Evil" and "Team Stupid", respectively.
    • Followed up years later on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver when John Oliver coined "Stupid Watergate": "the scandal where everyone wants to be a criminal mastermind, but they're hampered by the fact that they're all idiots."
  • 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.
  • Arrested Development: The various crimes of the Bluth Family are done less out of actively criminal malice and more out of incredible amounts of short-sighted selfishness and both them and the people they surround themselves with being idiots. The event that starts the whole series — the discovery the family performed a multi-million-dollar theft of Bluth Industries' money — was done purely because the family wanted to live large and (except for maybe George Sr., and it's a big "maybe" considering the level of his lawyers) didn't knew this was a Federal-level crime.
  • During season 10 of the American version of The Amazing Race, the smart (both had Master's degrees and one went to Harvard for undergrad), fit Cho brothers who ran towards the top of the pack at the beginning of the season formed a large alliance group with the back of the pack teams. Both the other teams and the audience assumed they were using the "goat" strategy which is, in essence, intentionally working to keep around weaker teams to give you a leg up once you get to the finale. note  However, they weren't dragging along the weaker teams to thin out the crowd for themselves, they actually thought working with the weaker teams was a strategic move. This ended up being their downfall as well as the last of their allies weren't willing to repay their kindness of waiting around on them to finish and passed them up driving as soon as they got the chance.
  • 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 the Babylon 5 episode "Acts of Sacrifice". 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.
  • Dollhouse contains a powerful inversion. Topher and Boyd are investigating the enemy's hideout and come across the prototypes of the mobile memory removal/implantation device that Topher had invented. Boyd picks up one of the units and tries to use it on Topher, and notes that it doesn't work.note  Topher takes it away from him, assuming he was just being an idiot; it turns out he's actually one of the villains.
  • This trope was one of the central tenets of All in the Family, especially regarding main character Archie Bunker. Though openly racist, sexist, conservative, and distrustful of anyone who wasn't a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant man like himself (Jewish, gay, Catholic, Italian, Russian, communist, and liberal people were all fair game for his derision), the show often goes out of its way to show that Archie wasn't malicious, just uninformed and resistant to change. When genuinely hateful people showed up—such as an episode where a branch of the Ku Klux Klan moves into the neighborhood or one where Edith's gay Drag Queen friend Beverly is killed in a hate crime—Archie would be horrified at what happened and either try to keep them away from his family or comfort their victims. Later episodes also gave him a Freudian Excuse of an abusive father who taught him much of what he knew. It's part of what makes the character so appealing: he's not a bad guy, just a Book Dumb one.
  • Andor: Imperial toady Syril Karn kicks off the events of the series and gets a lot of people killed with his obsessive investigation of Cassian Andor. But he's not evil, and he doesn't cause all this chaos purposefully; he's just really stupid, overeager, and incapable of taking "no" for an answer.
  • Breaking Bad: Invoked, when Skyler has to help Ted explain away his massive tax fraud to the IRS. She acts like a ditzy moron who only became the company's accountant by sleeping with Ted, making the auditor think it was merely massive ignorance which led to the tax form discrepancies rather than intentional criminality, buying Ted some time to pay off his taxes and fine rather than being arrested.

  • 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. There is a note on the game mastering section that it's okay for the game master can play Alpha Complex as incredibly competent in moments in which he believes it would be scarier or more annoying to the players.
  • 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. In short, the Emperor treated several of the Primarchs with such horrendous incompetence, in many cases directly causing their Start of Darkness, that readers find it increasingly difficult to believe he wasn't deliberately trying to turn them against him for some unfathomable reason.


    Video Games 
  • An interesting version comes up in Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney: it becomes a plot point that a victim was sent a poisoned stamp, and it is presumed that having sniffed out the trap, he kept it in a frame to preserve it as evidence, which contradicts with the notion that he poisoned himself with the stamp after figuring it out. The reality is that he didn't know the stamp was poisoned, and he only kept it in a frame because his daughter liked the characters on it.
  • 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. 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?
  • Fallout: New Vegas: Despite the presence of the aptly-named Chief Hanlon of the NCR Rangers, the situation involving him subverts Hanlon's Razor. The Chief, a veteran and hero of the First Battle of Hoover Dam is rightly displeased with the course that the buildup to the Second Battle is taking, namely being done in the name of politics rather than actual benefit to the Republic at the hands of President Kimball and General Oliver. When the Courier discovers that someone at Camp Golf has been sending out falsified reports indicating that NCR positions are compromised, resulting in a number of deaths caused by the mismanagement of resources trying to solve the nonexistent issues, their investigation reveals that Hanlon was the one falsifying the reports. He wanted to put pressure on the top brass to end the Mojave campaign and pull back their forces before they got innocent people killed going up against Caesar's Legion, only to end up causing unneeded deaths himself in the process. Whether he's allowed to continue with his sabotage, gets exposed as a saboteur (which leads to him committing suicide), or is convinced to stop the sabotage, Hanlon never wanted more people to die, only to get everybody home safe.
  • 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. In the end he goes through with the marriage, eats the cake, and leaves, apparently not even realizing that a wedding involves, you know, marrying someone — Peach leaves with Mario at the end, without a fuss.
  • The hellraven Utsuho Reiuji from Touhou Chireiden ~ 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.
  • The single most destructive force in Hypnospace Outlaw is incompetence, particularly that of Merchantsoft and especially Dylan Merchant. The trolls, pirates, and even virus-writing hackers you have to chase down as an Enforcer are much less destructive than the numerous poor decisions of the company that runs Hypnospace.
  • This is a major theme of The Outer Worlds. The Board is not actively evil or malicious, and certainly isn't trying to run the Halcyon System into the ground and get all their citizens killed or worse. They're just staggeringly incompetent at their jobs thanks to a mixture of poor training, nepotism, loss of personnel, and a total lack of oversight, with the result that they cause just as much damage (or more) with their brainless attempts at governance as they would with a deliberate genocide.

  • Schlock Mercenary:
    • Subverted. 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.
    • During the "Mallcop Command" arc, Tagon allows their client to negotiate away their weapons and armor, making their jobs much harder. Shodan angrily asks if Tagon has turned into an adrenaline junkie who "needs more and more risk to get a fix." And then he realizes that Tagon is just a terrible negotiator.
      Tagon: The bonus for not scaring the shoppers was huge.
  • 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.
    • Goblinkind did not have a patron god until they raised one themselves, are Always Chaotic Evil, and were given the worst lands. Redcloak believes that this is because the Jerkass Gods wanted them to slave away as a Cannon Fodder race, existing only to provide XP at the end of a cleric's weapon. His main motive is to take the entire world hostage to make the gods acknowledge them and become equal with the other races by force. The Chaotic Evil god Fenrir was their original patron, hence their alignment. He wanted a race of followers with short lives and high reproduction, but was too impatient to wait and abandoned them. Their lack of good land was simply due to careless planning.
  • 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.
  • El Goonish Shive: One story arc had a griffin from another dimension looking for her wife Andrea, who had apparently gotten stuck in this one. The griffin suspects that the only reason Andrea would have gotten trapped is if she had been kidnapped and imprisoned, which almost leads to hostilities, but it turns out Andrea just has a terrible sense of direction, and is perfectly fine.
  • Anecdote of Error:
    • Talshko, the head of Mityaitimai Tshetshume School, assumes Atshi faked her magic score on her application, despite Atshi’s insistence that she didn’t. It isn’t until Litasha produces the application form, and sees the score is 14.9, and was rounded up to 15 (the minimum entry requirement) by mistake, that she lets Atshi go.
    • Ironically, when she catches Luntsha out after hours walking with the enemy soldier they captured, she suddenly remembers the razor and assumes that Luntsha was manipulated or deceived into freeing her, rather than doing it on purpose (which she actually did). She still expels her immediately, however.

    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: 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, theorizes 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 fiercely opposing something for a long time (birth control, evolution theory, gun control, 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."
  • Sarah Z: Sarah's video essay about Idiocracy inverts this, as she makes the argument that the film is too willing to dismiss instances of genuine malice as simple idiocy, and has no broad thesis for why its society became dominated by uneducated louts other than "stupid people are just like that." She claims that in real life, societal dysfunction is often the result of people who do know that what they're doing is wrong, and simply don't care. Well-educated and logical people are capable of making incredibly selfish decisions, and stupid people can often have bad intentions. They contrast this with Sorry to Bother You, where CEO Steve Lift is portrayed as a pretentious, hedonistic moron, but this doesn't prevent him from being shown as evil.

    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!
  • South Park hung a big lampshade on this trope in an episode debunking 9/11 conspiracy theories. The existence of conspiracy theories is itself 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 (with the exception of Sly Sludge, the only member of the rogues gallery who was interested in actually trying to profit from otherwise pointless pollution).
  • 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. In the Treehouse of Horror episodes this evolves into full-blown Grey's Law, with Homer being such a stupid asshole that he brings, at worst, the annihilation of all mankind, and he still can't comprehend his role in this horror even when he's told about it (at the absolute best he notices what he did way too late and gives a little "uh-oh").
    • To a lesser degree than Homer, pretty much the whole of Springfield may fall in this trope occasionally, as they tend to be gullible, shortsighted and selfish enough as to completely overlook the consequences of their collective actions. Even when they aren't actively being jerks as a whole.
  • 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 got No Social Skills.

    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 incompetence 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.
  • One theory points out that the Tlatelolco Massacre was a big shitty misunderstanding from start to finish. In 1968, in Mexico a series of pro communist/anti government protest held by college students had made the government paranoid as the 1968 Mexico Olympics neared close and the country would be on the worldwide eye. The whole thing started with a soccer game between two middle schools that turned awry and began to involve local street gangs that began to involve somehow, anti-government protesters, eventually to turn down the violence, the government decided to round up the teens into an old highschool which the students then barricaded to which the government responded by shooting a bazooka to the entrance of a very prized historical door which unleashed city wide peaceful protests, the government then started False Flag Operations of vandalism in name of the students. The Tlatelolco march, the biggest protests in the history of the country was a plan to march to Tlatelolco Plaza with over 10,000 attendees. The protesters were fast rounded up by the military and then planted agents posing as students shot the military and all hell broke loose. Some new evidence points out that the military circling the protesters and the planted agents were two different operations with no knowledge that the other would be there that day, the agents were supposed to disband the protest by shooting to the air and the military was there to protect and contain the protest and to boot the agents (Olympia Batallion) were acting independently from higher executive orders.
  • 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! Over half a century 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.
  • The death of Diana, Princess of Wales in a car crash in 1997 is generally accepted to be a tragic accident caused by her chauffeur being drunk while simultaneously trying to avoid the relentless Paparazzi who were more interested in getting pictures than road safety, yet conspiracy theorists still attribute the death to a deliberate hit arranged by Prince Charles, Mohammed Al Fayed, The Queen or any number of people.
  • 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 Josef Stalin's agricultural collectivization policies in 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 dictators 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.
    • Bernard Ingham, who was the Chief Press Secretary to Margaret Thatcher, once gave a very British spin on the same idea: "Many journalists have fallen for the conspiracy theory of government. I do assure you that they would produce more accurate work if they adhered to the cock-up theory." Interestingly, however, this was said in 1985, as an actual government conspiracy organised by his boss was in its final stages - Thatcher's plan to break the power of the National Union Of Miners, culminating in the Miners' strikes of 1984-5 that, in large part due to Thatcher ordering that coal be stockpiled in preparation, ultimately failed - as she had intended.
  • 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, 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 is hardly the only instance of such a situation. The Confederate States of America became notorious for its horrific prison camp, Andersonville, that bore an eerie resemblance to the concentration camps of The Holocaust, only their death camps were completely unintentional; the Confederates were not trying to mass murder and torture their POWs, the camps were just massively overpopulated, understaffed, and undersupplied, with disastrous results. The Union's POW camps were not much better, and unlike the CSA they did not suffer from the logistics problems the Southern nation had as an excuse.
  • After the disastrous handling of the 2020 Iowa caucus, a large segment of the online media has been screaming that it was an attempt to sabotage Bernie Sanders. Numerous people have had to come forward indicating it is a tech error due to poor management, and this trope has been specifically quoted multiple times.
  • There are still people who think that the Titanic disaster was deliberately orchestrated as some kind of insurance job, despite all the available evidence pointing towards a series of catastrophic human errors one after the other. The theory still persists because people find it hard to believe that so many things could go wrong all at the same time without deliberate intent.

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