Stupid, Not Evil

A long time ago an acquaintance mentioned that it’s a really bad idea to assume evil intentions or conspiracies when you can explain the same circumstances by stupidity. It’s something I’ve kept in mind ever since because I am prone to jumping to conspiracy/evil as an explanation for the assorted disasters that politicians and bureaucrats (especially bureaucrats?) inevitably create.

It doesn’t help that what’s obvious to me is very much not obvious to others. I’ve learned the hard, painful way that I think at strange, often forbidden angles to normality, and that I have a tendency to see patterns in disparate events that most people wouldn’t think are related. It may come from being a puzzle nut: even though I don’t dare break out the mega-jigsaws because I’ll have furry “help” if I do, I play virtual jigsaws regularly.

So, whenever I’m faced with evidence of idiocy, I remind myself that it’s far more likely the culprits are stupid, not evil. Even, or perhaps especially, if they are nominally intelligent – as in have a college degree and probably decent grades. There’s a very special type of stupidity that comes with a certain level of education: it involves the hubris of thinking that because one has a certain amount of expertise in one’s chosen field, one is automatically an expert in any other field one cares to mention.

This kind of thinking (or lack thereof) is how we get abominations like the DMCA, the Patriot Act (both versions), the monster bailouts, and the list goes on (and is not limited to any particular political flavor). Honestly, the average dumber-than-rocks fantasy evil villain is usually smarter than this, because said villain at least takes into account the fact that people are going to respond in ways that preserve their lives and livelihoods. I’ve yet to see a bureaucrat or politician manage that.

Increase taxes on something? Of course people will buy less of it. If it’s essential, they’ll buy less of something else. Increase business taxes? Businesses won’t hire as many people because payroll is the biggest cost most businesses have. Increase regulations? Businesses won’t hire as many people because it costs more to comply.

And of course, the piece of idiocy that inspired this rant (and the reason I really need to kill my quora account), a question from an alleged employer wanting to know if it was legal to dock an employee’s pay for calling in sick then working from home… What a way to inspire morale. I was so tempted to respond with a rant on the topic of gastro-intestinal illness and why it’s possible to work when you have one, but not necessarily work in the office. I’ll spare you all that delight, because really, it’s entirely too colorful and blasts past almost all of my “civilized people” filters.

It’s a good thing fiction usually doesn’t display this kind of stupid. Because fiction – at least the fiction I read and don’t defenestrate with prejudice – needs to make some sort of sense or people won’t bother to read it. If I wanted to read about meaningless stupid shit happening to people I don’t care about, I’d read the news.

51 thoughts on “Stupid, Not Evil

  1. “I have a tendency to see patterns in disparate events that most people wouldn’t think are related.”

    #MeToo. It continually astounds me that some people can’t see a rising water level and wonder what that will do to the price of boats and the availability of dockage. I hasten to add that this does not make be a great businessman, but it is frustrating to see people adamantly refuse to connect the dots.

    Raise the minimum wage, obviously employment goes DOWN because businesses can’t pay as many people. Also, an “unforeseen development” McDonald’s restaurants and Walmart do the arithmetic and find it is cheaper to have robots do the work than people. Because robots don’t sleep and they don’t steal.

    That was the first thing I said when I heard that California (and Ontario Canada) was going to $15/hr. When it finally got in the news that automation was coming for all those jobs I just rolled my eyes.

    I do have one quibble. I can no longer view the above as mere stupidity. When employment tanks after you raise minimum wage, and businesses go under, and it takes years for the rest of the private sector to struggle its way back to where it was before you raised the minimum wage… and you’ve done that cycle twelve times since the 1920s and it goes exactly the same way every time… then it’s not ignorance of the results or a failure to forecast what will happen. It isn’t stupidity either. It’s a scam.

    Same thing with trans-women in the lady’s bathroom thing. Two things are immediately going to happen. First thing, women are going to be assaulted by creepers. Second thing, every business is going to take the mens/womens signs off the doors and make every washroom single occupant. Thereby ensuring that trans-women can’t go to the washroom because the waiting line goes out the door and down the sidewalk.

    It’s a scam. People are doing it for political reasons, to win elections. The practical result is unimportant to them, they don’t care what happens.

    Whether that’s evil or not depends on the the eye of the beholder to some degree, but I would argue that going ahead with a plan that you -know- will only cause lost jobs, lost money, pain and strife is not what a good and reasonable person would do.

    But then I’m the guy who makes those weird connections, so maybe those people just don’t believe the inevitable results were caused by their actions. Willful blindness is a thing too.

    1. “We have a saying in Chicago, Mr Bond: Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, the third time it’s enemy action.” — Auric Goldfinger

    2. Willful blindness is very much a thing. As is the kind of callous lack of concern for anyone else that generally follows the whole self-interest policies (but then, those minimum wage change things? And many of the others? With what it costs to run for election, politicians kind of need to follow what the loudest voices are shrieking if they want to keep their places, or they’ll be replaced by someone who at least promises to follow the loudest shriekers. And we all know who the loudest voices are right now)

  2. I wish I could remember examples, but Heinlein had characters who were experts in a single field and therefore “knew everything.” They were amusing. In real life they aren’t, but in fiction they serve a cathartic purpose.

    1. When I was in grad school I was the frustration of many of the faculty because I refused to “focus.” I couldn’t stay in one track, but kept reading and researching outside “my field.” Happily, I ended up in a specialty that dang near requires being conversant in various sciences, traditional history, poli-sci, engineering, and what have you, depending on your personal focus.

  3. Given the repeated results of certain political actions I have to think some of our politicians are actually evil rather than just stupid.

    1. It can’t be evil, because that would require judging other cultures and religions. Including cultures and religions that are fine with mass murder if it resolves the otherwise intractable obstacle certain religions and cultures may present to peace. :p

      Morality is totally relative, so anyone who does not object to a de facto legalization of rape can have no principled objection to wide ranging and indiscriminate mass murder as an answer to decriminalization.


      1. Nah. Morality is absolute. If it’s white and western, it’s evil. (yes, sarcasm. If it’s not already dripping off the screen it should be)

    2. Honestly? I strongly suspect that politics preselects for sociopathy at best. Sadly, though, bureaucracy tends to produce the greater level of evil, and that’s usually done by a whole lot of people just doing their jobs and never looking outside the little box said job delineates.

  4. The expertise in one field leading to expertise in any other field you happen to be discussing is a long-term issue in academia as I’m sure you know. I see it now with certain friends on FB. Because we’re friends, everyone is expected to give way to Person A because they are an expert…in a field totally unrelated. But, they have enough jargon that they can sound good. When I or somebody else challenges Person A, the response is usually a resume rather than an actual response.

    The next level down in responses to to question your use of the education we all received at Our College. Or, as has happened to me, questioning my fitness as a professor given that I’m obviously teaching evil wrongthink to my students (teaching them to think for themselves is in and of itself wrongthink doncha know?)

    I find that when I scope out weird patterns, they oftentimes become clearer to the rest of the world. Then I get to say “I told you so”. 😀

    1. I’ve done the “I must not say ‘I told you so’ because it pisses people off” more times than I care to remember.

    2. “I didn’t ask where you went to school or who hired you, I asked for the source of a specific claim you made.”

      Annoys me to no end, because I have folders full of links that I get from folks who actually have a source– or gave me enough information to find it myself. Which means that if I end up in a related conversation, I CAN SHARE IT.

      It’s to their interests!

      But a lot of folks are really, really reluctant to offer it, even when they HAVE a source.

      1. I refuse to even discuss most “interesting” topics without an Internet connection available to everyone involved. People make the oddest claims without evidence.

        1. *nod*

          Sometimes they’re just odd because what they’re saying isn’t what you’re hearing, or what they read isn’t quite what they were understanding– in which case looking it up is awesome because everybody gets to learn something that we’re obviously interested in enough to talk about.

  5. Failure to consider or care about the negative external consequences of your actions isn’t the definition of evil.
    But it’s definitely a subset.
    It’s in the same ballpark as treating people like things.
    The problem is, that evil is generally stupid. Which doesn’t normally lead to interesting stories. Entropy isn’t smart and savvy, it doesn’t design complicated machinations. It isn’t charming or seductive. It’s not dramatic. It’s the grit in the gears. The worm at the root. The idiot who left their shopping cart behind your car.
    Such acts spin out of control all the time, but focusing on that aspect makes a story feel contrived. You can get away with it if you patter through it quickly (e.g. the song Third Rock from the Sun) or drop breadcrumbs in a tale of the protagonist learning that he’s the villain (e.g. the movie Memento), but most of the time, it’s not going to hold up on its own.
    Worse, our culture is drowning in postmodernism. To have a character be bad, they must love evil, defend organised religion, or oppose coercion as a basis of economic activity. (Noting the obvious, 1 is unlikely, 2 mostly good, and 3 objectively good.)
    I was totally going somewhere with this. I think. But now I’m just wandering.
    Anyway… Digression aside, I don’t think drawing a distinction between stupid and evil is generally necessary.

    1. Drawing the distinction is necessary to keep me from spiraling into heavy paranoia. That’s reason enough.

          1. Some people say it’s Heinlein under a different name, “Never attribute to malice what can equally well be explained by stupidity.”

            Thing is, there comes a point at which it doesn’t matter – you have to act in self-defense.

            Personally, I was in a situation where things kept falling apart for decades. One person was at the root of it, and people kept telling me, “Oh, they meant well! Oh, you have to forgive them – family is family, you have to help them out!”

            Only last year I finally tracked down some very clear paperwork that it was neither ignorance or stupidity – said person had been deliberately manipulating the situation so they’d always have someone around who was “useful”. If that meant totally financially ruining me – well, that made me so much more useful to them as I tried to dig out.

            1. Sounds like you followed more Heinlein advice: “What are the facts? Again and again and again – what are the facts? Shun wishful thinking, …. You pilot always into an unknown future; facts are your single clue. Get the facts!”

              1. Indeed. I only wish I’d been able to get access to them sooner. But while one person was The Problem, a whole bunch of people were enablers – “So long as this doesn’t come out, we don’t have to deal with The Problem. It’s always been Chaos’ job to do it anyway. We’re not doing anything wrong! The Problem just asked us not to say anything about (long list of things). *Shrug*”

                1. Once people have been brainwashed and trained into not questioning, it is hard for them to get out.
                  Like our rescue dog from a puppy mill, who assumed that there was no up but a close ceiling, and no way to open doors or go through framed spaces. It took her a long time, and some follow the leader games, before she believed in up or out.

                  1. Exactly. You get really scary results when you remind some people that “following orders” is not a valid defense.

                2. Because if you ignore it, there’s a chance you can delay dealing with it until someone else lands the mess.

                  Of course, there’s always the chance that ignoring something like that will blow it up in your face, which usually ends up worse than cleaning the mess up would have been.

                  1. We’re working on teaching the kids NOT to go along to get along.

                    Our technique?

                    When they’re asked to clean a room, and I find they “cleaned” by stuffing stuff in a corner or something, I pull what they had out– and everything else, and then I go looking, and they have to clean up everything they shoved there instead of putting it away, AND what anybody else shoved in there, or any other hiding place.

                    (Only do that when we recognize one of the items is something they were supposed to put away, though.)

            2. Oh, assuming stupidity rather than malice does not mean ignoring the outcomes, nor does it mean not protecting myself from it. It just means that in some cases instead of treating some folk as enemies, I treat them more like unstable bombs: likely to go off on anyone including me at any moment.

    1. This thread reminds me of a quote from Black Beauty:
      “Only ignorance! only ignorance! how can you talk about only ignorance? Don’t you know that it is the worst thing in the world, next to wickedness?—and which does the most mischief heaven only knows.”

    2. “Willful ignorance is worse than malice because of the hardness of heart entailed.”

  6. “Group Think” may or may not be evidence of stupidity but it is more likely than a Great Conspiracy.

    Oh, I’m not sure if “I’m surrounded by idiots” is that much better than “The world/people are out to get me”. 😦

    1. Group think is a definite thing that drives human relations, especially in SF&F circles that I perambulate. And furthermore, group think leads to punishment by those in the group against those that don’t agree. Been there, got the wrong thought T-shirt etc.

      1. So sadly true. I suffer from chronic inability to find the “correct” group, so I’m doubly (triply?) damned.

    2. I follow The Husband’s philosophy there. “Everyone is stupid. Some people are stupid all the time, but everyone has stupid times.” Of course he also believes there should be open season on idiots, all the time. With minimum bag limits.

      1. I’ll add to your philosophy with, everybody is an asshole to someone. The only difference between assholes is that some are your kind of asshole and others are not.

  7. — …it’s a really bad idea to assume evil intentions or conspiracies when you can explain the same circumstances by stupidity. —

    What makes it a bad idea? Aren’t you assuming something here: i.e., that stupidity (the more generous explanation) is the more plausible one for some reason? If so, what makes it more plausible? Is stupidity really more common than evil, or do we just prefer to think so?

    — It doesn’t help that what’s obvious to me is very much not obvious to others. —

    In practical terms (i.e., the way it’s most commonly used), obvious really means overlooked.

    — …I have a tendency to see patterns in disparate events that most people wouldn’t think are related. —

    So did Dr. John Nash. However, you shouldn’t spend your Nobel Prize winnings until the check clears the bank.

    — If I wanted to read about meaningless stupid shit happening to people I don’t care about, I’d read the news. —

    Which leaves us needing an explanation for why so few people read fiction but do read the news! (:-)

    1. Oh, stupid is much more common than evil. Stupid is a by-product of being made of meat, as it were. We humans are wired to prefer short term gratification over long term rewards, to be lazy, and a whole lot of other things that are ultimately stupid. Evil tends to be a lot rarer and involve something having gone badly wrong with someone (who, if smart and charismatic enough can set up the circumstance to spread it to a whole lot of other people).

      More simply, I would say that almost every world leader is stupid. Putin is an exception – and may be evil: I don’t know enough about him to say, but he’s certainly *dangerous*. Several of the dictators are stupid *and* evil. The current US President… Either brilliant and somewhat insane (the level of trolling that man does *all the time* is terrifying), or stupid and lucky, some combination of all of that… I honestly don’t know for sure.

      1. ‘Evil tends to be a lot rarer and involve something having gone badly wrong with someone”

        like, say, your father selling stolen art for the Nazis?

      2. I am not sure I am willing to concede that stupid is more prevalent than evil. My experience leaves the field a wash. Stupid is very prevalent, but it is also often the tool of evil.

        As for Putin. Evil. Crafty. Clever. and one of the most dangerously evil bastards on the planet. No, I cannot cite sources so. *passes the bucket of salt.* Not THE most evil, nor most dangerous bastard of whom it has been my misfortune to become aware. But that particular bastard I hope they hung in accordance with his Five (?) death sentences before politics got in the way. I doubt it, though I haven’t had the courage to look him up to be sure… and not sure I’d trust the reports if I did. No. I can’t cite on that one either. So. *passes a second bucket of salt.*

    2. If nothing else, predictive power is better for assuming stupid over evil.

      Say, look at New York City and the nursing homes: they may be evil, in that they deliberately set out to infect as many of the expensive elderly as possible, and additionally kill off the non-nursing-home ill by forcing them to use ambulances to go to the hospital, then forbidding ambulances from bringing in those most likely to become expensive.

      Or we can assume stupid, and they fixated on “the hospitals will be totally overrun” and further assumed that nobody would be positive for COVID and not hospitalized until way after they were negative, thus requiring nursing homes to take in COVID patients would be very low risk and counter them being stuck with the expensive elderly patients; and the emergency responders were being restricted from all activities that might expose them to COVID, even though it meant those possible infection vectors died in their home. Minimizing the deaths, you can’t save people when you’re dead or dying.

      Stupid works better for prediction, because they haven’t changed their behavior much at all in response to new information; if they were evil, they would’ve been more effective, and when it came to light they would have made a huuuuuge deal about changing the behavior. They’d do something that looked good, even if it was ineffective.

      1. Yeah, there are loads of people who pretty clearly have a decision making process heavily based in magical thinking. Trying to succeed by acquiring labels they’ve heard are associated with success, fixation on simple models of things that could actually be a lot more complex, if holding a leadership title declaring priorities and doing nothing to see them implemented…

        Let’s be clear that I do not exactly have a track record of effective leadership. I’m aware I need to look at others for the possibility of certain issues, because I’ve had very bad experiences making those same mistakes myself. I’m not exactly interested enough in other people’s problems to figure this stuff out just from people watching.

        1. Let’s be clear that I do not exactly have a track record of effective leadership.

          You don’t have to be good at painting a fence to notice the spots where they didn’t get paint.

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