On Recent ‘Hate’ Incidents: Bigotry or Bad Jokes?

When we use logic rather than ideology to try to navigate outwardly racist behavior, we can find out what we are dealing with.

“Do not invoke conspiracy as explanation when ignorance and incompetence will suffice, as conspiracy implies intelligence.”

The above aphorism is an eponymous law that seems to hold its weight in gold these days. It’s called Hanlon’s Razor, and can also be stated as such: “never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”Every time someone screams their new favorite synonym for bigot, I wonder just how profound a difference the application of Hanlon’s Razor would make. If they could truly call a spade a spade, it would be colloquial to refer to our president as a fool, rather than a fascist. Alas, the contemporary McCarthyism that plagues Trump’s America leaves nothing to mere happenstance. This is not to say there is not cruelty and bigotry at work in society. The gravity of a hate-crime cannot be overstated, and liberal human beings must stand in solidarity. However, under the current ideological reign, almost everything appears to be attributed to malice. Sometimes they get part of it right, but even then it’s still too superficial.

Many journalists appear to scan for stories that can be most easily perverted to fit their agenda, taking few pains to fact-check or dig deeper than to reveal their victim’s ostensible racism. Just this year we’ve seen a hate-crime hoax and the smearing of a kid with a ‘MAGA’ hat. Many journalists took those stories in bad faith and ran with them—and people ate it like candy. And why wouldn’t they? It’s reassuring to know that your ideology is apparently true. Of course, it turns out, it wasn’t true. But, predictably, that didn’t change their minds. In fact, there are still headlines that have yet to be corrected- here’s one from the Guardian– after it came to light that the Native American man wasn’t actually the victim.

Despite the bad faith that is characteristic of many journalists today, sometimes they do get something right. This phenomenon includes the story of a group of upper-class white kids in California who made a swastika out of red party cups, and gave a Nazi salute over it. They got the ‘what’ correct. But far more revealing is the why—which I’d bet anything many journalists are going to get wrong. I’ll save you the trouble of reading through a whole swath of articles; the generic essay will sum up: “Racist rich white kids are racist Nazis, and they are that way because racism is normalized”. In fact, the coverage by NPR has already claimed as much. But maybe if we can actually find out why they thought what they did was okay, we can learn. And maybe if we can learn, we can bring people together—instead of relishing in political polarization.

Truthfully, what they did was racist. It was horrifying and tragic and the fact that something like this was able to come to fruition is unsettling—not just because of what they did, but how they could be so ignorant. My intuition tells me this was stupidity rather than malice, but good logic, their body language, and their reactions says that too.

For starters, what we’re looking at here is a group of privileged white kids who operate in a social circle that is bereft of ethnic or racial diversity- meaning nobody had the good sense to end a bad joke before it reached its punchline. I say ‘joke’ because, if you analyze these images in good faith, you’d recognize that this is a group of stupid, immature, naïve, drunk teenagers. People make jokes at parties, and if you’ve ever met a high school boy, they make dark and distasteful jokes. And what’s the darkest and most distasteful thing a high school boy can think of? I’m thinking it’s Nazis.

Now I’m not saying that just because it was a ‘joke’ it excuses what these kids did. But if we look upon these kids with unbiased and empathetic eyes, we can understand the actual cause of this outwardly racist behavior. We have to be charitable, even to people that are objectionable—in this case, these high school boys.

Women prefer men who make them laugh, and men prefer women who laugh at their jokes. If you take a closer look at the photo, you’ll notice that every single boy is performing the Nazi salute, whilst two girls are taking a photo (one took the provided image), one is throwing a peace sign, and two are laughing but doing a “pseudo-salute.” Those who are participating are almost exclusively boys. This isn’t to say that it’s all the fault of the boys, but it makes sense that the perceived ‘joke’ would originate from them in a foolish and inappropriate attempt to gain the support of their female counterparts.

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Does this excuse the behavior? Absolutely not. It was inappropriate and insulting and hateful. Was it intended to be a casual Saturday night veneration of Hitler? I have serious doubts. But that doesn’t make good journalism, does it? Bad faith arguments sell, and it takes too long to dig below the surface.

If we were to compile this information in good faith, it starts to make logical sense that the why of last weekend’s situation maps onto Hanlon’s Razor quite well. We would expect those high schooler’s to be ashamed of their stupidity (rather than doubling down) once it came to light, and that’s exactly what was reported in Los Angeles Times. One of the seniors at the high school at Newport Harbor in Newport Beach said, “Some people at the party thought they were making an edgy joke, and they were completely wrong.” There it is. They know what they did was wrong, and they’re sorry. And, we should forgive them. For goodness’ sake, if we can’t forgive our children, who among us is might evade society’s wrath?

When we use logic rather than ideology to try to navigate outwardly racist behavior, we can find out what we’re dealing with. Hanlon’s Razor is indispensable in situations like these. The truth is not simple, it is high resolution. And, if we wish to navigate it, we have to go further than the surface. Why people do what they do is far more useful—and interesting for that matter—than what they do. But it’s also far more difficult to demystify, and that’s why we need good faith discussion—though I fear society is all but bankrupt of such an impulse.

Even after understanding why these high schoolers thought “Nazi rage cage” was a good idea, we’re still left with the problem of how to deal with it, and just as important, how it affected others. To be sure, I want to again stress that what these kids did was racist. There’s no getting around it. However, we have to be able to separate the action from the individual, however, and ask ‘why’ in tandem. And if it can be deduced from the motive that Hanlon’s Razor applies, we should strive to alleviate ignorance with compassion and dignity—especially with kids.

There is, however, a criticism of Hanlon’s Razor that I would be reckless not to address. To what extent can we declare everything ignorance and dismiss malice? The best way is to ask the perpetrator. We ask if they meant what they said, or if they are remorseful. This issue is still open-ended, to say the least. It’s dire to keep in mind that ignorance breeds hatred, and ignorance is not innocence. But it shouldn’t be a death sentence either. Should someone ask for forgiveness, we ought to give it to them. If we set a precedence of charity, there’s no telling where we’d end up–but my gut tells me it’s somewhere far from where we are now.

The growing movement to smear people who make comedic missteps is not new. Kevin Hart had to step down from hosting the 2019 Oscars because of a bad joke he made years ago, and last summer ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ director James Gunn got fired for the same reason. Everyone who has any public influence must be vigilant—but even that won’t save you; the social justice Inquisition purges all who might falter in their intersectional reverence. This appears to be a clear symptom of bad faith’s metastasis throughout society. Liberal human beings must do their best to extinguish the manufactured outrage that looms around every corner. Bad faith must be put to bed.

To my dismay, the high schoolers from last weekend’s mistake have already been identified on Twitter – thrown to the rather unforgiving jaws of enraged virtue signalers. Most rational humans are coming to their senses and realizing that smear campaigns are probably not the wisest form of arbitration. This is unfortunate, however, as many humans appear to be currently unfamiliar with rationality, or are, at the very least, immune to it. As consequence, we’re still seeing people’s lives torn apart from ‘social media mobs.’ We have to make a move towards forgiveness, and again I stress, especially for children—even if they’re unpleasant. My hope is that soon society can in good faith learn to differentiate between a fool and a fascist.

Alas, it will always be far more expedient to make an issue purely binary. Finding a nice snug little spot in one’s ideology is always going to be where most people bite. But what society has yet to grasp, is that there is value in the truth. If we can understand what’s actually going on—that not everyone is a racist, that some people just make bad jokes, and that there are some issues that don’t date back to Colonialism—we can focus on issues that are actually debilitating to society. Good faith inquiry is durable, and more than that, it’s ethical.

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