Why Hanlon’s Razor might help with our hair-trigger outrage epidemic.

Jason Chatfield
3 min readJan 31, 2023

I recently had a reader tell me what one of my cartoons was “really” about, which is always fun.

I’ve gotten used to it since it happens so often these days. My response is usually no response, followed by getting on with my day. This is — and has always been — the 2-pronged part of the job: 1. You put work into the world. 2. the response does not belong to you.

It was the above cartoon— a joke I’d collaborated with the longtime editor of MAD on to pitch to Airmail. The toon is what is known in the cartooning world as an ‘evergreen’, meaning it could run at any time and still be relevant. (ie. It is not topical.)

It’s a dark cartoon, I admit, but it’s very silly. It is also doing what my favourite cartoons do: de-fang dark and scary elements of life that people often treat with mortal fear. If we can’t laugh in the face of our certain demise, we’re missing the joke.

The reader had told me, “Well frankly, this one, which I assume is inspired by the death of Roger Angell, is just gruesome. I hope his family doesn’t see it. You are disgusting. Sigh.”

Here’s the thing: As it happens I admired Angell’s work enormously. (Heck, he wrote the foreword to my trusty Strunk & White!)

Here’s another thing: This cartoon was not drawn in response to the death of Roger Angell.

That connection — and subsequent disgust, anger, and judgement — was made quietly inside of the reader’s head, then flicked back at me like a lit cigarette. It’s a silly, stupid cartoon. I am a very silly person, and I like to make people laugh. This is my motive.

Ascribing malice to someone (usually a stranger) when you’ve made a quick, definitive, and negative assumption about their motives is easily avoided by employing a very simple, very old mental model known as Hanlon’s razor.

Bear with me, because I know this might come off as condescending, but:

Hanlon’s razor is a rule of thumb that states: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

Known in several other forms, it is a philosophical razor that suggests a way of eliminating unlikely explanations for human behavior.

(It is likely named after Robert J. Hanlon, who submitted the statement to Murphy’s Law Book Two (1980). Similar statements have been recorded since at least the 18th century.)

In defence of the reader:

In this case, the coincidence of the event of Roger Angell (a beloved Baseball essayist) dying, and this cartoon being seen by the reader within several months of that event, could be interpreted as connected.

In defence of the creator:

If you’re then going to make that deeply grim assumption about the creator, you ought to take a beat, run it through the old noggin one more time, correcting for ‘what if it’s just a stupid coincidence?’ — before emailing an acerbic missive to the creator.

1. You put work into the world.
2. the response does not belong to you.

This adage was written before the age of algorithmically rigged outrage machines that now dominate our waking hours: Social Media. Our minds have all been hijacked to try to find outrage and offence wherever we focus our gaze. As a result, we are becoming more and more divided.

No longer can people put work in the world and just shrug if someone doesn’t like it. Shrugging becomes hard to do when people aren’t satisfied to tell you they don’t like your thing, and then go to your employer and try (and often succeed) to get you fired, banned, censored, or defenestrated as a result of their false/flawed attribution of malice.

Further Reading:

The Fundamental Attribution Error




Jason Chatfield

New York-based Australian Comedian & Cartoonist for the New Yorker. Obsessed with productivity hacks, the creative process, and the Oxford comma.