Hanlon’s razor just makes me stroppy

Let’s please all promise to stop quoting this, and all variations on it:

Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence. (link)

When people drag out Bonaparte’s (or Hanlon’s if you like) tedious old canard about malice and incompetence, they’re essentially acting as naive apologists for a certain kind of organization. These companies have tacitly adopted a policy of maximizing localized incompetence. They’ve worked out that you can wield incompetence like a tool, deploying it surgically to precisely those bits of your organization that don’t make enough profit.

I claim that there is a financial motivation for all commercial organizations beyond a certain size to take steps to avoid, or at any rate discourage the sort of engaged, sympathetic communication with the individual customer that you would expect. Good customer service is very difficult to scale in a manner that doesn’t eat into the bottom line; the easiest thing is just to let unwelcome communication gather dust; this works especially well when there’s no oversight, or when such oversight as exists has failed. (This is why we have to keep reinventing regulatory bodies, for a start. And also why the larger multinationals often make a big deal in publicity about pretending to listen to customers.)

Meanwhile, fools on the internet, who have learned some phrase or other that sounds rather catchy, help to establish a prevailing discourse in which incompetence is distanced from malice; this quite neatly whitewashes the motivations of those for whom incompetence is merely malice with clumsy fingers. I dare say that this silly vanity, on the part of people who want to read themselves saying something profound at the bottom half of otherwise good blogposts, makes certain employees of these aforementioned organizations rub their hands with glee, like serried ranks of moustachioed Dickensian villains.

If you have, or claim to have, certain responsibilities; whether corporate or personal; and if you neglect those responsibilities; whether through ignorance, or through feigned ignorance, of the consequences of your action, or rather inaction: in that case, I think “malicious” quite adequately describes your behaviour. Certainly, most of the other adjectives that spring to mind are what my mother would call unprintable.

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