Attributions of Malice

Hanlon's razor famously quips that we should never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity. I'd like to add that we should never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by a different but equally valid world view.

I've noticed something occurring in politically charged discussions much more frequently than it used to. The attribution of malice or immorality on the other side of the political isle, sometimes even escalated to personal dehumanisation.

What is most striking to me is that this is coming from people I respect highly, people who have very nuanced views, deep thinkers, people usually highly respectful of other people's viewpoints, and who have historically avoided personal attacks. Perhaps I'm just become more attuned to it rather than it being on the rise. I certainly hope so.

I think I understand the subtle thinking that leads to such pronouncements of immorality. It's not a simple crass kind of demonizing; rather, it's a deep logical fallacy that leads people to believe that they are actually right and are actually taking the moral high ground, all the while subtly (or not so subtly) depersonalizing their political rivals.

Let me sum up that deep logical fallacy. It goes something like this: "You see what I see, yet you chose the bad option, therefore you are a bad person."

The fallacy comes as two parts.

The first part is that what you see is not actually reality, but a superstructure within your mind that is built up upon the actual reality. Objectively the universe is undifferentiated. But humans need to differentiate and organize these abstract ideas. That is a very complex process that can be done in a myriad of different ways.

The second part is that the universe is meaningless and cannot be an arbiter as to what is good and what is evil. Yet humans are compelled to judge ideas and actions and consequently people as either good or bad. That is also a very complex process that can be done in a myriad of different ways.

We don't all see the world the same way. We don't all judge it the same way. In most cases, nobody is right or wrong. Political differences are mostly normative, rarely factual.

To believe that your rival sees things the same way that you do is an easy mistake to make. It common human nature. We cannot read each other's minds. We can infer a lot from their words and emotions, but our inferencing leaves behind gaps. These gaps are magically pasted over with our own world view in order to build a cohesive model of their mind. As we converse with them, if indeed we do (recently it's en vogue to presume malice and not converse with the other side) we learn what our mistakes were and we correct them in real time.

But it's very expensive (in terms of energy expended by the human brain) to bother to actually understand the viewpoint of your opponent. Additionally many people have a low threshold for 'certainty'. And once you become certain, it's very hard to see things any other way.

People are certain that Trump abused power. And they are consequently certain that Republicans who voted to acquit are immoral.

For those unfamiliar with it, the alternative view is that Trump had probable cause to request of Ukraine an investigation into the Bidens, and that this request was for the benefit of America. If Trump also hoped to dig up dirt on his political opponent, that is fair play within that context, and as such intent is irrelevant. The question of quid pro quo is also irrelevant; quid pro quo is par for the course in international negotiations. And sometimes international negotiations carry more weight when they come from the top, so the criticism that Trump should have left that to the appropriate agency doesn't land.

Paul Krugman, New York Times columnist and economist, recently went on Firing Line to be interviewed by Margaret Hoover and when asked about his prior comment that republicans are bad people, he clarified that "professional" republicans are bad people. When asked if there is any way to engage in the arena of ideas when you have demonized your opponent in that way, he responded "well, um, is it demonizing if they already actually are demons?" From his discussions and writings, he clearly believes that republicans hold what he calls "zombie" ideas, rather than perhaps holding a valid but different world view and a valid but different organization of priorities. By believing this of the republican, it becomes impossible to have a discussion and to come to any kind of solution.

After Trump's acquittal in the Senate, Larry King said about Trump on the Rubin Report "He certainly, he certainly was saying to Ukraine, 'hey do me a favor' and we all know what that was about, and every Republican knew what it's about." By asserting that every Republican knew what that was about, he makes them all evil, he asserts that they know Trump should have been removed from office but that they chose their party over doing what was right. But the fact is that many republican senators feel deeply that acquitting Trump was the right and moral and upstanding thing to do. And denying this is really bringing us closer to something like a civil war.

David Farrar, a right-wing never-Trumper blogger in New Zealand, blogged that Mitt Romney was the last honest Republican Senator, because he was the only republican who voted not to acquit. He says that "with one exception they put party before country," "as they say, these truths are self-evident," and "if only others were so brave." But this presumes far too much. I firmly believe many of them did put country first, law first, doing the right thing first. They simply did it under a different world view, a different perspective on the same set of facts.

In discussing my concerns about this kind of thinking on the left, and in particular my concerns that many on the left talk as if they can read minds, a center-left co-worker of mine to my utter suprise defended the idea that they can indeed read minds (and diverted into controlled lab studies by psychologists). He seemed to lean heavily on the ability of the left to see into people's intentions, and strongly implied that those on the right (in particular Donald Trump) have empathy gaps and are essentially partially blind to emotion, or at least see it in low resolution. I will grant that those on the left statistically have broader empathy based on Jonathan Haidt's work, but I resent the idea that I can't discern another person's emotions in high resolution, and I don't see any objective reason to think that to be true. I see plenty of emotions not listed among the basic eight, just as I think everybody does. For example, the basic eight are anger, fear, sadness, disgust, surprise, anticipation, trust and joy. But I also see confusion, jealousy, hatred, suspicion, excitement, trepidation, deception (tells), annoyance, antipathy, playfulness, thoughtfulness, grief... I could go on. Hundreds of subtly different words describing subtly different emotions.

So my conclusion for the moment is not that I am emotionally blind and they can read someone's intent while I can't; rather, I must conclude that most everybody has the ability to read other people to a similar degree, but that the left have become enamored with themselves in their belief of emotional and empathic superiority to the point of over confidence, and that this over confidence has led to striking attributions of malice wherein there is no malice.

Scott Adams often points out the fallacy of mind reading, and I have to agree with Scott on this one. I think we all have a tendency to over-estimate our understanding of each other. And unfortunately this seems to be on the rise, to ill effect.