Complex Answers

Berlin, 2010“You want it to be one way…” as the character Marlo Stanfield once put it. When we look out at the world or when we look to our various sources of information about what is happening to ourselves and to others, we seek explanations.  Explanations into how and why, into who wronged who, and to what is a solution if there is a solution. Some like the long detailed explanations, while more seem to want summaries, short versions, and just the latest info.  Often times, the more complex an issue is, the harder it is for us to grasp, and the lower the desire to take the time and energy to understand it.

From there come the simple labels, the us versus them, the quest to find who to blame, and the practice visualizing what side we want to be on. Liberals and conservatives; pro-life and anti-abortion; pro-war and anti-war; socialist and capitalist; hippy and yuppy; the list is far longer and spans the globe.  Rare is the individual who can resist finding themselves in such a group, even more rare is one who can avoid being placed in such a group by others.

Why does this happen? The quest to simplify it all perhaps. The need to take a complicated issue and break it into basic parts in order to decide what we believe is to be done about it.  This simplification is sometimes done after extensive or ongoing research, and sometimes it is done based on un-empirical influences.  Whatever side you take, whatever facts you choose to use, in the end you can look at a conflict and say “this is where I am on this.”  From there you can either sleep soundly, or spend your waking hours fighting like hell to communicate and bring to fruition the resolution you wish to see.

I thought of this phenomenon alot while I was in Afghanistan. But I think of it anytime I visit the US or even right here in the Netherlands as I watch socio-political debates on TV.  Some Afghans will tell you they don’t want any foreign military in their country, but if you keep talking to them they will tell you they do want foreign military assistance.  Some Americans who have read through the proposed new healthcare plan will tell you they don’t want this plan but they do want a universal healthcare plan.  An experienced Dutch journalist working in Afghanistan can tell you she is in favor of the Dutch sending people to help with keeping and improving peace in Afghanistan but she will also tell you she’s not in favor of just any kind of Dutch involvement.

Yet it is more common, or perhaps just more visible in today’s massive public sphere, for people to tell you it is one way or the other in any of the situations listed above.  Take most any conflict in any country these days, you’ll find a loud group of people saying it is one way, and a loud group of people saying it is the other.  Anyone who points out the complexity and tries to explain it is somehow considered not as legitimate, perhaps because they’re often not waving a banner in front of governments or standing in front of a camera on prime time television.

One of the great dangers of our time, as I have seen in my short life and extensive travels, is this push to simplify everything so that it all fits in a box or a category and we don’t have to learn and appreciate the complexity of what is happening around us.


  1. Nofar
    January 23, 2011

    I love this! This is constantly what My friends and I talk about everyone always tries to simplify important issues and it really just is not something you could (or should) do

  2. January 23, 2011

    Very good article that I would be willing to reproduce on the site I edit on peace journalism (attached). However, would byciclemark have a real name? Nicknames do not fare well for credibility reasons. I ask of my writers a paragraph about themselves for the benefit of the readers. Tks a lot. This is not a criticism but for accuracy’s sake.

  3. Cathryne
    January 26, 2011

    Simplicity seems to be a double-edged sword.
    – describing a problem often detriments from simplification if the listener/reader then isn’t able to understand it any-more. On the other hand, getting someone interested often requires reduction the knowledge level of the listener/reader.

    – solving a problem often benefits from splitting it into independently solvable parts. Of course, letting the big picture get out of sight or losing yourself in the details doesn’t help.

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