I have long held the position that one should never attribute to malice that which is explainable by incompetence or ignorance. Inherent in that position are two presumptions: first, that intentions and actions can be judged separately in the same cases; second, that most people are selfish, but not malicious. In most situations, that means presuming good intentions even when a person’s actions cause harm or damage common goals. With most people, I find that presumption is justified and leads to better relationships and easier problem-solving.
Yet I have been struggling lately with where to draw the line. At what point is the explanation of incompetence or ignorance no longer plausible? How much foolishness must I allow to cover over blatant harm? Yes, I can believe that many people act on specific priorities to benefit themselves, and without anticipating the consequences.
But what do you do when someone has been given every chance to uncover their own errors, and refused? At what point does willful refusal to consider different perspectives cross over from ignorance to malice?
The resolution of this question seems, to me, crucial for anyone intending to be an active member of American democracy over the next few years. Already some people would prefer to normalize the events—the unending chain of aberrations—that has characterized our politics for the past year. Already the pressure exists to ignore the prejudice so blatant during the campaign and accept it as “missteps” or “slips of the tongue.”
But there is no indication that these positions or events are normal. To pretend they are is to reject them after the fact as completely as we did before the fact. I already consider myself complicit in the next four years of American politics, because I did not think this was truly on the table. I didn’t think the American people would vote into office a person so inconsiderate of truth, decency, and my fellow citizens.
Instead of doubling down on ignorance, then, I intend to learn from that mistake. If I give in to the pressure and pretend this state of affairs is mostly normal or acceptable, I also become complicit in the consequences.
Which is why I find myself trying, and failing, to sort out when ignorance becomes malice. The incoming administration has demonstrated ignorance and incompetence both in spades, and some, like Steve Bannon, are avowedly malicious. Others, like Trump himself, may be only ignorantly dangerous. So how much of a chance should I allow? How much should I give his intentions the benefit of the doubt?
For the time being, I’ve only been able to resolve this by looking at the consequences. If the consequences are dire, even well-intentioned incompetence earns the concerted condemnation that malice would demand. And if the person in question refuses to listen, they can and should be obstructed. The benefit of the doubt, which I try to extend to intentions, does not extend to actions, and certainly not to actions that hurt other people.
In recognizing that, I begin to see something else that matters for the coming four years. So much of our discussion is centered on motivation, and yes, that matters, but no, it is not the right measure. We talk about Trump’s administration as racist, sexist, xenophobic, and so on, and it is indeed shaping up to be a prejudicial hydra of unprecedented proportions. Those words, though, for many people, are nouns and not verbs. When we focus on the idea that Trump or his cabinet “is” something, we focus the criticism, and the debate, on who and what they are, not who they hurt and how.
So, for my part, I’m going to try to change the language I use. I’m going to stop saying “Trump(‘s cabinet) is sexist, racism, xenophobic, etc.” Instead I’m going to focus on their policies, and I’m going to try to state who gets hurt and how.
Are they maliciously prejudiced? That’s a question of motivations. That’s not the debate I want to have—the debate I want to have is how do we stop it.
“Creating a Muslim registry would be an attack on the fundamental freedoms of the United States.” It’s a xenophobic and unpatriotic act. Do I know whether Trump personally fears Muslims? I don’t. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and say he doesn’t, and he thinks through some chain of twisted logic that putting them on a list will actually make life better for them. But it doesn’t matter, because the action is too dire, too malicious, to give it the benefit of the doubt.
And so, I return to my own first presumption, that actions and intentions can be judged separately. Is Trump(‘s cabinet) malicious? I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and say no.
But are their actions malicious? Yes. Yes they are. When your actions are hurting other people, I no longer want to spend my time debating what you believe—I just want you to stop.
Image Credit: Oleg Shpyrko