Malice or Ignorance?
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I was nearly out of the woods when I saw a man and a woman in the distance walking towards me.
It was a chilly day at the Ashley Reservoir, a 4.5-mile loop trail around an idyllic reservoir in Western Massachusetts. If it was a warmer day, there might have been more people walking around the reservoir, and I could have avoided the question altogether.
After all, it’s far easier to ignore others when you’re in a crowd—and even though the saying goes “two’s company, three’s a crowd,” it could be considered rude to avoid eye contact with so few other people around—and I like to live in a world where people feel seen, welcomed, and valued.
All of these thoughts are what led to my conundrum that day: When I say hello, who do I make eye contact with first?
If I look at the man first, the woman might be offended that I’m deferring to an oppressive patriarchal society—but if I look at the woman first, she might think I’m objectifying her and the man might think I’m trying to steal her away.
Yet these are only the projections of attributed malice rather than the attribution of my real intent which is to make people feel welcomed. It may very well be that they will ascribe this positive judgment of my true intent—yet it may also be that they wish to avoid a salutation altogether.
Yet it is also likely that I’m ignorant of other possibilities.
By the time they reached me, I had made my decision. With a “hello” and a smile, I looked briefly to the man and then briefly to the woman, and then quickly looked ahead as I continued walking forward.
This moment at the reservoir may speak less about our judgments than about my own tendency to overthink things—but there is a reason for these deep thoughts about what many may perceive as trivial social interactions.
I have no ill will, and wish to do no harm to others—and there is nothing special about me in this regard. Although outliers certainly exist, with the average person being average, I believe most people also have no ill will and wish to do no harm to others.
Yet despite this belief, every day we find new examples of people assuming the negative intent of others, leading to, in some cases, tragic results. And this begs a few questions:
These questions are especially relevant considering three stories our society wrote in the span of less than a week, all with a common theme:
While trying to pick up his younger siblings, a teenager in Kansas City, MO mistook 115th Street for 115th Terrace—a mistake that almost cost him his life. After pulling into the driveway of the wrong house, he rang the doorbell and, when the door opened, he was promptly shot.
In other news, late one night after cheerleading practice, a teenager in Elgin, TX was dropped off at her car, but when she got in she found someone sitting in the passenger seat! It was only then that she realized she had gotten into the wrong car—a mistake that almost cost her, and her three friends, their lives. The passenger got out of the car and began opening fire on the four teenagers, hitting two of them, before speeding away.
And finally, a group of friends were looking for another friend’s house in a rural neighborhood of Hebron, NY. When they arrived at the home, they realized they were at the wrong address and began turning their cars around, but by that point the homeowner was on the porch and fired two shots at the cars, mortally wounding a 20-year-old woman.
Why Do People Assume Negative Intent?
There are many possible reasons for why people assume negative intent first, rather than considering other possibilities. These may include, but are certainly not limited to:
These are just a few possibilities to consider, and certainly there may not be any one cause working alone. Perhaps several causes can be working together, all leading to offenses, threats, and a desire to “get” others before others “get” us.
But in the immediate wake of this week’s stories, one idea sticks out as something worth considering: Hanlon’s Razor.
In this context, a razor is a heuristic—a mental shortcut that can help us make faster judgments by removing unlikely and unnecessarily complex explanations.
Its ability to help us make better judgments is what makes Hanlon’s Razor so appealing, especially when the consequences of poor judgments can be lethal. It states:
“Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”
Here we must be careful to define the buzzword stupidity, which we refer to using synonyms such as ignorance, apathy, or poor judgment.
There is a qualitative difference between the judgment that a car in your driveway means someone is trying to kill you vs. the judgment that the driver just doesn't know where they are going—and this difference can have profound consequences for our actions as a result of our judgments.
Yet this same heuristic can be applied to those who do us harm.
Kurt Mausert, the lawyer working for the defendant in the Hebron, NY murder case, insists his client had no ill intention, but was rather afraid for his life when he pulled the trigger. In his words, he said:
“There were errors, there were misunderstandings that culminated in a tragedy. But the fact that we have a victim in a tragedy does not mean there's a villain. Villain, to me, requires bad intent and my client, I don't believe—the facts will show—that he had bad intent.”
The lawyer is using Hanlon’s Razor as a defense in the hopes of helping his client avoid the consequences of his actions, but the truth remains that his client could have applied Hanlon’s Razor himself before ever picking up the gun.
The physicist Marie Curie reminds us, “Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.”
With a little more understanding, we can perhaps come to find there is far less malice in our world than we might at first assume, and discover instead that there is simply far more ignorance, apathy, and poor judgment.
But we’re not out of the woods yet.
What might you do today to understand more and fear less?
Jonas Cain, M.Ed. is a storyteller, magician, musician, and facilitator of fascination. Through his company, Hashtag Positivity, he assists individuals, teams, and communities in “Being Well By Living Well” to experience abiding joy. Connect with Jonas today to discuss your challenges, goals, and obstacles: email@example.com
Jonas Cain, M.Ed. is a storyteller, magician, musician, and facilitator of fascination on a mission to help you experience abiding joy.