Privilege, Slights, and Hanlon’s Razor

I think one of the reasons for my discomfort with many of the arguments I see online (especially in the Twitter context, like the #stopwadhwa2015 campaign I recently discussed) comes down to my disposition, as manifested in my career. I’m slow to anger and accusation, I’m influenced by Buddhist notions of compassion and inter-being, professionally I’ve spent my time facilitating consensus and teaching (including conflict management). There’s been much discussion about online shaming recently, for which I also have a reticence. (The only shaming I enjoy without much guilt is dog shaming.) My sentiments are captured and were shaped by a suitably geeky maxim known as Hanlon’s Razor: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” I think this to myself at least once a day, especially when I feel slighted.

Even so, I absolutely support identifying problematic behavior and holding those who engage in it accountable. And I recently came to realize that my use of this Hanlon’s Razor is privileged. I was speaking with a colleague, a women of color, who was rightfully complaining of microaggresions (a notion I’m sympathetic to, although I find the term imprecise). I responded that perhaps it is “better to assume stupidity than malice” but immediately realized – and acknowledged – that this is an easy maxim to hold from a privileged position. I thought of this yesterday too, while listening to This American Life’s segment on “cops see it differently”. In Miami Gardens, the police’s effort to crack down on crime took the form of a competitive race to “bring in the numbers.” This runaway system, for which no one has been found accountable, generated enough “stop-and-question” contacts to include half the city’s population, including thousands of children and a 99-year-old “suspicious” man. The worst case was that of Earl Sampson, who became an easy target for the police whenever they needed a boost: he was arrested 111 times, 71 of which was for trespassing at his workplace! In this case and others, small systemic stupidities can be an injustice greater than personal malice.

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