One of the signs I look for in people to see if they’re smart, open-minded and well educated, among other things, is the rejection of simplicity. As someone who has sinned of being too passional and simplistic in the past, I now value meeting someone who realizes that almost no explanation is as simple as a) our initial reaction might indicate, b) the media tells us, or c) history tells us.
I have been a part of many debates where someone is tempted to explain the actions of an individual or group of individuals with concepts like racism, xenophobia, stupidity, evil, laziness, etc. While tempting, this way of reasoning is nothing short of simplistic, incomplete, and probably wrong. Some examples:
- The casting director of the movie The Hobbit was fired for not hiring a black person to play as a hobbit, allegedly because he was racist. Is this racism, or is the director trying to stay loyal the original story and the way Tolkien portrayed it?
- Are people like Hitler and Stalin evil assholes, or are they acting because of more complex motives?
- When we procrastinate, are we being lazy, or are we being victims of a context that overwhelms our capacity to dictate our actions?
It seems to me that these concepts, as powerful and rooted they have become in our society, are now obsolete, or at least, weaker. I see the old vague terminology, the same way I see religion: a way to explain something that we couldn’t explain in the past. Now that we can, we must proceed to more solid (and correct!) explanations. Just because certain ideals or values haven’t disappeared yet, does not mean they are suitable for present times. Maybe science has not yet reached the point of knowing exactly why people procrastinate, or why there’s more corruption in Mexico than in Switzerland, but it has advanced enough to prove that explanations based on laziness or racism are wrong. I’m not trying to banish those concepts, because they do exist, they do play a role. However, I do suggest being more cautious when using them.
It’s important to clarify that I’m not looking to justify anyone’s wrongs, rather than get us closer to the actual reasons behind what should be prevented. Jarred Diamond proposes the same in his acclaimed “Guns, Germs and Steel”:
“If we succeed in explaining how some people came to dominate other people, may this not seem to justify the domination? Doesn’t it seem to say that the outcome was inevitable, and that it would therefore be futile to try to change the outcome today? This objection rests on a common tendency to confuse an explanation of causes with a justification or acceptance of results. What use one makes of a historical explanation is a question separate from the explanation itself. Understanding is more often used to try to alter an outcome than to repeat or perpetuate it.“
In other words, a problem needs to be seen as clearly as possible before an effective solution can arise. If we assume that someone didn’t get something done because he’s lazy, then we are accepting it as if it were a characteristic of that individual, like being tall or blonde. Hard to change. If, instead, we dig deeper we may find that there are more complex factors at play behind someone’s productivity. For example, a concept like guiding structure will give us a more realistic and gentler understanding of why we procrastinate and what we can do about it.
There’s one important thing that must happen if complexity is to be embraced: we must disconnect our sensitivity and ego from every subject, in order to be able to analyze it thoroughly without a) fear of repercussions, and b) history-motivated stubbornness and passion (“because that’s the way it’s always been”). One should be free to ask any question to the world, for the sake of curiosity and solution seeking, and expect a deep debate that provides a complex answer:
- Do men only think of sex?
- Are women less intelligent than men?
- Was there something positive about 9/11, the holocaust, the Latin American dictatorships, etc. to justify them?
- Why do people drop out of college?
- Why do people believe that most criminals in the US are blacks/Mexicans, and the same in Argentina with Paraguayans or Bolivians (when, at least in Argentina, this has been proven wrong)?
The most brilliant people I know excel at this. For those that say that achieving this disconnection is impossible, I say that’s the simple mind speaking. If we can have meaningful conversations about the most sacred topics, then we can get closer to solving any issue. As fun as it may be to hear the same debates with the same incorrect reasonings that never help with anything over and over again, I’m ready to move on.