Simplicities are us

Posted 04.23.16

SHAWVILLE, QUEBEC | Speaking from fifty years in journalism and especially in editorial-writing, I am continually impressed with our predilection to go with the simplistic solution to any problem. As the problems become more complex and convoluted, as many political and social problems do, our desire for a simple answer grows stronger.

Drug-injection site? Illegal immigrants? Off-shore tax havens? Youth suicides? It's easy to use simple language, and simplistic explanations, and we all do it, from editorial writers to cab drivers, clerks to priests, and government officials to businesspeople.

Simplistic language and explanations are not always the result of sloppy thinking or mental laziness. We use them often as a form of shorthand or to summarize a problem quickly. We call a leader a dope, not really believing he or she is one, rather that they do dopey things. That's quite natural. It allows discussions and meetings to move along, for one thing, and avoid getting bogged down in almost-irrelevant details. We can all remember meetings or family get-togethers when that has happened.

Shorthand is a legitimate communications tool. And we should be intelligent enough to be able to summarize a situation without falling into exaggeration or hyperbole. Simplistic explanations can cover a lot of ground, and we can avoid a lot of confusion if we do remember that we are deliberately using simplistic explanations, that we are using shorthand. And, of course, if we resist the temptation to pull out a big, dramatic conclusion from our short-term view.

The big problem is when we believe ourselves, when we believe our own language and take the simplistic explanation as a true one, not just a convenient one.

And when we get into discussions of big social issue like poverty, climate change, or income inequality, the temptation to switch to simple mode grows so strong. It's gratifying, in some sense, to be able to dispose of a thorny issue with a couple of simplifications; it's an ego-booster to shout out a slogan or two, and thus deal with terrorists or fraudsters as if we were running for the US Republican nomination. "Build a wall!" or "Bomb them to oblivion!" are not real policy options, but they are ego-boosters.

The problem is, boosting our self-image is not the goal. We're plotting a course of action or considering supporting someone and their plan — stroking our egos won't get us far in contributing to solutions.

Our huge world is complex and getting more so. This is not the time to opt for simplistic proposals and for explanations that are so simplistic they dismiss the problem, not solve it. No, our job is to second guess ourselves. Our job is to take the steps and time necessary to get our facts straight, as straight as possible. Our worst option is to cruise on with a phoney wind in our sails -- believing someone's simplistic solution or simpler explanation.


Copyright © 2016 Fred Ryan/Log Cabin Chronicles/04.16