What It Means To Recognize Complexity

I could have written the introduction to a recent New York Times column by Frank Bruni. In fact, I’ve written some posts that sound eerily familiar! Those of you who’ve read this blog for a while will recognize the similarity; here’s his lede:

I warn my students. At the start of every semester, on the first day of every course, I confess to certain passions and quirks and tell them to be ready: I’m a stickler for correct grammar, spelling and the like, so if they don’t have it in them to care about and patrol for such errors, they probably won’t end up with the grade they’re after. I want to hear everyone’s voice — I tell them that, too — but I don’t want to hear anybody’s voice so often and so loudly that the other voices don’t have a chance.

And I’m going to repeat one phrase more often than any other: “It’s complicated.” They’ll become familiar with that. They may even become bored with it. I’ll sometimes say it when we’re discussing the roots and branches of a social ill, the motivations of public (and private) actors and a whole lot else, and that’s because I’m standing before them not as an ambassador of certainty or a font of unassailable verities but as an emissary of doubt. I want to give them intelligent questions, not final answers. I want to teach them how much they have to learn — and how much they will always have to learn.

When I was still teaching, I echoed every bit of that message–adding to the repeated admonition about complexity a lawyer’s reminder that issues are inevitably fact-sensitive. In other words, “it depends.”

Bruni’s essay goes on to address something my previous posts did not–why the recognition of complexity matters. It’s about humility. As Bruni says, recognizing that “it’s complicated” is a bulwark against arrogance, absolutism, purity and zeal.

As eminent jurist Learned Hand famously put it, “The spirit of liberty is the spirit that is not so sure it’s right.”

Arrogance, absolutism, purity and zeal…could there be a more succinct, more accurate description of the crazies in the Senate and especially the zealots in the House of Representatives who are currently preventing thoughtful governance? (We should have a t-shirt with those words printed on it sent to Indiana’s own version of Marjorie Taylor Green, Jim Banks…)

Bruni asserts–I think properly–that humility is the antidote to grievance, and that grievance is the overwhelming political motivator these days.

We live in an era defined and overwhelmed by grievance — by too many Americans’ obsession with how they’ve been wronged and their insistence on wallowing in ire. This anger reflects a pessimism that previous generations didn’t feel. The ascent of identity politics and the influence of social media, it turned out, were better at inflaming us than uniting us. They promote a self-obsession at odds with community, civility, comity and compromise. It’s a problem of humility.

 The Jan. 6 insurrectionists were delusional, frenzied, savage. But above all, they were unhumble. They decided that they held the truth, no matter all the evidence to the contrary. They couldn’t accept that their preference for one presidential candidate over another could possibly put them in the minority — or perhaps a few of them just reasoned that if it did, then everybody else was too misguided to matter. They elevated how they viewed the world and what they wanted over tradition, institutional stability, law, order.

Bruni reminds readers that successful government requires teamwork, and that any significant progress requires consensus. “Governing, as opposed to demagoguery, is about earning others’ trust and cooperation. Exhibiting a willingness to listen to and to hear them goes a long way toward that.”

The entire linked essay is worth reading. Its message is especially pertinent to Hoosiers as Indiana winds down to the May 7th primary election. The vicious, nasty, dishonest ads being aired ad nauseam by Republicans running for Governor and for Congress are reminiscent more of monkeys throwing poo than messages from serious individuals willing to act upon their understanding of the common good. These contending political accusations display no hint of humility, no recognition of complexity, not even a nod toward civility. (Research suggests that voters’ response to such negative campaigning isn’t a vote for the particular monkey throwing the poo, but rather a decision to stay home on election day. That’s an unfortunate, but understandable, reaction.)

America faces complicated, pressing issues. We really need to stop electing purists and zealots who are ill-equipped to understand the complexity of those issues and too arrogant and absolutist to engage in the democratic negotiation and compromise necessary to solve them.


  1. I’ve said this before, but I can’t help myself. I obsess. I put a lot of thought into trying to understand the reasons the rightwing people think and act as they do. Sheila’s blog spends a lot of time on this exact question. I do it because to successfully persuade another to understanding my point of view (if not accepting it), I need to know what they are thinking and why.

    The question I always came back to is: do the people I’m studying try to understand the leftwing in a similar fashion and for similar reasons? And the most upsetting thing for me is that I think they don’t. At all. Which means there can be no conversation, no understanding, no growth or change, no path forward.

    It’s intensely depressing to me. It’s like purposely cutting oneself off from learning and growth, which I feel is a core part of being human.

  2. It is a valuable exercise to try to understand what motivates people and their various beliefs. There are those who will respond thoughtfully to a well-reasoned argument. there are also those who think that being thoughtful and listening is being a “snowflake”. So, when a good opportunity arises to listen and respond, I do so, but I do not spend too much time trying to persuade people to change their minds. Just shrug my shoulders and move on.
    Franklin Covey is credited with saying “Seek first to understand, then to be understood”. I used to tell the students in our day camps that they have two ears and one mouth, and they should be used in like proportion.

  3. The difference in teaching format from my elementary school education to that of my children, just one generation, and the requirements of “correct grammar, spelling and the like” had been lost. Teachers somehow found answers they had taught somewhere in the lack of correct spelling, grammar, punctuation and erasures to the point of holes in the paper were accepted and given passing grades.

    But there is the current movement to end two spaces between sentences as if it were vital to the content. My cell phone texts do not capitalize the first word of the following sentence without two spaces. We do have more important issues before us than changing what we have been taught in schools since typing began being taught.

    I, too, keep seeking reasoned thought behind the conditions of our current crime-ridden Presidential campaign foundation on the right and why it is not directly and repeatedly confronted by the left as it happens. The world is watching, in many nations their lives and futures will be affected by the outcome along with our own. It is deeply complex; even in Trump’s childish, untrue blathering 24/7; sadly, because it is protected by democracy, Rule of Law and the U.S. Constitution he is working so hard to destroy. Trump’s goal is NOT complex; it is the terrorism from within our nation’s very foundation being accepted that IS complex.

  4. Your first-day comments to your classes sound a lot like mine. You and Frank make a lot of sense.

  5. Almost anytime I comment on a Facebook post, it gets wordy, because “it’s complicated”. The denigrating meme that was posted, while it might have a kernel of truth, makes a lie out of the issue because it’s much more complicated!

  6. I’m going to add a version of these comments to the intro of my classes too!

  7. An answer to “it’s complicated” is KIS – keep it simple. The Right does that “beautifully” and with screens and current education dumbing down the world, it fits. DEMs want to acknowledge that “it’s complicated” and they do (and likely will) pay the price. It’s a foreign language in the land of everyday amusement.

  8. Humility is an often misunderstood concept. So is truth.

    I disagree with Frank’s comment: “The ascent of identity politics and the influence of social media, it turned out, were better at inflaming us than uniting us.”

    The people I follow on social media are challenging the status quo, breaking down the lies and propaganda that have always been fed to the masses by our legacy media. The more people investigate for themselves, the closer they get to the truth. Those with a grain of intellectual capacity and the willingness to dig deeper will be satisfied with the results. Sifting through the propaganda is rewarding, but awakening to this reality is disheartening because the untruth is so prevalent.

    Neither liberals nor conservatives have the answer. As Sheila says, “It’s complex.” Our egos attach to the identity of being liberal, conservative, Democrat, or Republican. “I am a Democrat” is an ego identity.

    Therefore, if you think you’re always right on a topic, there is a good chance you are not. Humility is knowing your humanness. As humans, we are frequently wrong. Accepting that is the first step in being humble. 😉

  9. One certainty that existed for centuries was the concept of “capital T Truth.” Contemporary society recognizes that, as you notes, it depends. Wars and genocide at the result of TRUTH.

  10. Sadly, Lester’s comment reveals why the gop liars manage to get their people to the voting booths. The gop figured out decades ago that people would listen to simple statements. They realized that simple sentences that stirred up anger and hatred got people’s attention. None of it needed to be true – just short and simple. Those statements get people to show up and vote straight R tickets.

    As the wealth gap continues to increase here in Indiana and across the country, wars rage across the globe and climate change causes more frequent destructive weather disasters Fox viewers are consistently fed messages that all of their personal and our country’s troubles, financial or otherwise, have been caused by Democrat politicians. It may take generations to resolve the divisions they’ve created within our society via their 24/7 spread of anger and hatred, if that is even at all possible.

  11. Yes, very interesting today! And, I’m guilty about not checking and proofreading, lol! It’s just if I find a time to express an opinion, that’s about as much time as I have 🤔.

    I would venture to say that the thought process is a jumble of diverse paradigms. So many directions available, that without proper discernment, one can absolutely take the wrong path.

    Everyone tends to propagandize opinion to make it more palatable. I haven’t quite figured that out concerning my personal writings, oratories and such, although sometimes it’s by design.

    What a person says does not usually correlate with what they do. We can claim to be liberal-minded, All the while rejecting other avenues that do not completely correlate with our own. Criticality of thought is more urgent now than ever! To not use it is lazy at the very least. Things don’t have to seem overly comfortable to be correct. But in logical thinking, usually Truth has a particular ring to it. Most folks have a Schrodinger’s cat locked away in their subconscious, where something can be yay or nay at the same time. In reality, that’s the ultimate in swaying with the breeze. If the breeze is blowing, you’re cool with whatever direction it takes you. So there you have it! Leopards don’t change their spots nor a tiger it’s stripes, that way you can truly identify who or what you’re dealing with. Hypocriticality is something that’s always lurking in the backdrop, sometimes it’s not even recognized until it’s ensconced deep in one’s psyche. It’s not a one-way street though, it absolutely runs both ways.

  12. Nancy,

    Almost, but Sheila’s sentence: “The vicious, nasty, dishonest ads being aired ad nauseam by Republicans running for Governor and for Congress are reminiscent more of monkeys throwing poo than messages from serious individuals willing to act upon their understanding of the common good.” is what this election is about.

    Republicans have NO agenda for the people they presume to govern. They are NOT complex people. They only serve their inner masters of greed and power. The rest, as Einstein said, are just details.

  13. Todd exemplifies this theme of complexity by saying that today is about tearing down, which is almost always so much more straightforward than building up.

    A couple of revenge-minded terrorists figured out how to destroy the original World Trade Center. How simple was that compared to rebuilding them?

    Putin and Netanyahu both figured out how to destroy whole civilizations. How many people will it take to rebuild them?

    Trump and Murdoch (never the sharpest knives in the drawer) have figured out how to destroy the American Dream. How many brilliant minds went into building the most influential civilization in modern times?

    Neuronal networks have already shown the ability to surpass every individual human brain in knowledge recall. However, technology has a long way to go before it surpasses the ability of collaborative human brains.

  14. Teaching children to be aware of complexity and think critically requires a teacher who is aware of complexity and capable of critical thinking. Even then, it is time consuming. If a parent can’t do it, how likely is it that the child will be taught these things in school? Based on my decades of experience in public school classrooms, I say, it is very unlikely. Even a teacher who is capable of such teaching and tries to employ it rarely has the time to do so. Dealing with children in batches of 20 or more, a teacher with multitudes of responsibilities faces many obstacles to teaching even basic curricular content. Yet, it is in a child’s early years that such teaching is most critical. Perhaps the real division in this country is less a matter of red versus blue than it is of capable thinkers versus shallow thinkers. The current Republican party has simply found ways to exploit this division for their own benefit.

  15. Thank you, Sheila.
    I voted for (or against) the person running, not the Party.
    Be sure to VOTE, it is a way of using YOUR voice and YOUR choice.

  16. What patmcc said!
    Those voters still in tfg’s camp can not be reached by reason, or they would not STILL be there.
    And, while Voltaire was not commenting on the 1/6 idiots, his comment still holds water: “Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.”

  17. In an authoritarian system an individual’s anger and grievance is a negative since conformity and compliance are its goals. It’s vital to be able to recognize one’ anger and look for the cause to look for better ways to deal with what’s causing the anger. When we feel powerless to address our grievances the frustration can turn to negative outcomes especially if amplified in herd mentality.
    In this country our freedom of speech and the right to air grievances is our way to share what’s going on and find positive ways to deal with it.

  18. Thank you again Sheila for this wonderful post. It’s a good thing that I don’t have a brick handy when the Republican candidates’ ads come on my TV–especially around the time of the local and national news. What I will never understand is whether are Republican voters are really as dumb and racist as they seem to think they are. They trip all over themselves to out-conservative and out- pro- police each other–one of them even poses with an assault rifle–and to out “pro Trump” each other. Some of the ads are shamelessly racist and misogynistic–e.g., displaying photos of “The Squad”-Reps. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts –all women of color. And what, exactly, would the loser who puts out this ad DO about “The Squad” anyway, and more importantly, what does this say about Indiana Republicans that a candidate would believe that pandering to racism and misogyny would win them votes? Are all Hoosiers tobacco-chewing high school dropouts that resent more-successful women, especially those who have been elected and re-elected to Congress? Then, you have Braun guaranteeing “respect” for law enforcement–just how would a governor go about “guaranteeing” how people feel about law enforcement, especially in view of so many police shootings of unarmed suspects? I could go on and on, but I’m ashamed to live in Indiana to the extent that politicians putting out these ads believe they reflect the values and views of other Hoosiers.

  19. If the worst happens, how many of us will be able to trust out own family members, let alone friends to resist forced compliance with the religious dictates of extremists?
    William Barr has publicly stated his intentions to vote for tfg even in the face of the criminality and mental instability demonstrated daily. His reason is that anything is better than Biden and those the policies he represents.
    Watching the continued erosion of education at all levels by “christian” ideologues, knowing that the future of the country, much less the world, will be driven by those for whom self-interest is the only goal, is disheartening at best and terrifying at worst.
    Young people who have the ability to continue their education spend time and energy demonstrating about distant atrocities while ignoring the loss of the rights of so many in their own country, voting rights and bodily autonomy, rights that will have a profound, direct impact on their own lives makes me angry and sad at the same time.
    Forcing others to conform to your religious beliefs, and that is what they are, makes a mockery of our founding documents and all those who have died to defend them.
    VOTE while you can.

  20. That majority of Trump supporters are not planning to vote for him because they like and respect him. They are planning to vote for him because they have been groomed to hate Biden. By insinuation and direct lies voters have been led to believe that Biden alone is responsible for every problem facing the country including inflation. As if he were over at Kroger marking up the coffee as we read.
    It has always been easier to get people to hate and fear than to get them to respect and trust. The Republican Party with the help of Russia and China have become very skillful at this deadly game.

  21. Vernon Turner, I would argue that where Republicans are coming from, is more complicated than that!

  22. Thanks, Lester, for sharing Washington Post Article, that was quite a read. I hate to see Magas labeled as Christian since they obviously support non Christain ways and means. Lies, corruption and violence are in no way Christian ideals. Imo the problem with Christianity is the authoritarian stance and means to promote their beliefs without allowing individual conscious. Also Imo the church doesn’t have a corner on “God” that you have to go through them to find your inherent (some would say God given rights). In the Constitution they called them inherent rights.
    The article suggests that Magas see drumph as a Christ figure being persecuted. According to history when Jesus was brought before Pontus pilot for his crimes of speaking truth to power, Pilot didn’t want to condemn him to death. It was customary at that time of year to offer to the crowd two criminals, and one would be spared by show their voices. Pilot thought for sure the crowd would spare Jesus, but instead the crowd called for Barabas a long time criminal and murderer. I would suggest that the Maga crowd today is calling for Barabas in drumph to be freed, and to hell with Christian values.

  23. As usual I read posts here because I enjoy the conversation.
    I too am so tired of the conservative ads here in Indiana.
    I’m also tired of people who don’t understand nuance.
    For example, seeing Victoria Sparks dressed in a hunting uniform with a gun in her ads. It sends a message to people without her having to say a word.
    And Trump does things in a nuanced way at times as proven by the Stormy Daniels pay off. How the Supreme Court can’t see that Trump is as nuanced at times as a mob boss is beyond my understanding.

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