If you have watched The Big Bang Theory, you may remember references to Occam’s Razor. “Razors” are just general rules or assumptions, and in a nutshell, Occam’s razor proposes that the simplest explanation or solution is often the most likely reality. Big Bang Theory cites Occam’s Razor often, which is a bit ironic since the entire show is based on making everything simple as complicated as possible.
Hanlon’s Razor is similar: Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity. (I love Wikipedia!) This glib razor is actually traced back to a joke book submission (again, Wikipedia!), but an aunt might express this more compassionately: “Bless their heart, they just didn’t know any better.” Unfortunately, Hanlon’s Razor cuts both ways, for ignorance of the law of gravity won’t protect anyone from a hard landing, whether they were pushed or blindly walked off a cliff. However true Hanlon’s joke may be, it is still a very harsh and cynical way to look at people.
I prefer an earlier version of Hanlon’s Razor attributed to Johann Wolfgang Goethe that is much more forgiving: “Misunderstandings and lethargy perhaps produce more wrong in the world than deceit and malice do.” (Yup, Wikipedia.) Goethe’s view is much more accurate in my experience, especially when it comes to human disagreements. Zealots and trolls surely exist, but miscommunication and misunderstandings are at the root of most problems between rational individuals who are open to consider both context and intent. Malice takes over when those disagreements escalate and communication deescalates, however. Unfortunately, in our social media age we can no longer extend the benefit of the doubt, only vitriol. Only the worst (and most complicated) options are considered such as malice, deceit, or stupidity. Occam’s and Hanlon’s razors have now been replaced by the Troll Razor: Attribute absolutely everything to malice and stupidity, even if it could be otherwise attributed to mere miscommunication or an innocent mistake. (Not Wikipedia.)
How many people’s lives, careers, and reputations have been ruined due to misunderstandings, bad thumb dexterity, or being too busy to think through a click? We no longer allow for context or intent, so misinterpreted or mistaken tweets have literally destroyed dreams. People in a hurry have “liked” a comment or photo from a friend without thinking through the sociopolitical implications of a newly defined word, misplaced comma, disordered sentence, or typo. Every email, text, or post can now drag anyone to virtual execution. Life on the edge of the Troll Razor provides no grace to anyone, whatsoever, unless they agree with us.
Good men and women on both sides of the political aisle and from all backgrounds have suffered the slice of the Troll Razor. I personally know people who have experienced this at all levels, from private citizens to politicians, over the past year. But if you think this culture is tough on adults, we cannot even fathom the Troll Razors slashing at our children and teens. Online and virtual reality is real world for the smartphone generation, and we know kids can sometimes be vicious. We may have all faced bullies on the playground as kids, but the bullies can now follow kids home and live in their heads.
Nevertheless, our kids handle this better than many adults. After facing it so much, they are learning to dull the Troll Razor by ignoring, deleting, and disengaging, which is quite remarkable considering how many adults around them wield the Troll Razor with impunity. After getting cut both ways, our children are learning that not every offensive post, email, or text is spawned by pure evil. They are often just misunderstandings, hurriedness, or poor thumbing. They are learning that rational people can disagree and even make mistakes. They can even “like” the good in something without “liking” the bad, embracing people, despite their flaws . . . and their own. If our kids can extend grace in a social media age, maybe adults can, too. In fact, I am sure we all will, for eventually everyone gets cut by the Troll Razor, and we will begrudgingly follow our children’s examples. And by the grace of God, someday, rational people will put away their blades, leaving the trolls alone in their caves to slice and dice each other.
Tom Deighan is a public educator and currently serves as Superintendent of Duncan Public Schools. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org