We make our lives manageable by simplifying and grouping our perceptions so we may understand them as types and so learn from experience, carrying over what we have learned from one event to another of the same type. In this way, we are able to simplify our choices, tasks, and beliefs so that, as we say, we know what we are doing. Every new day could not be entirely new for us, or we would live in continual confusion, never knowing what we were doing. We need simplicity, all of us, though some more than others. Indeed, simplifying is a survival skill. We humans cannot manage chaos; we must make sense of our many, many perceptions and experiences. We must find or make patterns, rhythms, or groupings that create order for our minds and even our feelings. Simplifying enables order, and order enables control, and we feel safe when we think and can demonstrate that we are in control.
Religion has always been one of the ways we humans have sought order in the mist of chaos, sense and meaning within life’s swirling threats and contradictions. Though writing specifically of religious simplism, Douglas John Hall says something here I think applies more generally.
But the quest for simplicity is not yet simplism. The quest for simplicity devolves into simplism when the threat to life is objectified and victory over this “enemy” no longer involves self-struggle and inner turmoil of spirit. This readily occurs in times of great peril. In anticipation of catastrophe, or in its wake, people revert to that type of irrational and plainly paranoid behavior which strikes out at the supposed cause of experienced evil, simplifying both the evil itself and their own (“good”) motives. (Thinking the Faith, 229)
My sense of stability is threatened. What or who is threatening me? Who is the enemy? What must be made to go away?
This winter, I have been listening for the sounds of fearful and angry simplism in the world around me. Here is a short list of the enemies I have heard people blame for what’s wrong in their lives:
• Muslims and their Qur’an (Koran) itself and even Islam as a whole.
• Christians and their Bible itself or even Christianity as a whole.
• Religious people and religion itself (any and all, as though it were one thing).
• Irreligious people or atheism itself.
• Politicians or even politics as such (the whole enterprise of trying to manage society for the public good).
• Authorities who restrict us instead of “them” (the people we think should be restricted).
• Poor people.
• Rich people.
• Socialists (often falsely equated with Communists of the Soviet style).
• Labor unions.
• Gun “nuts.”
• Gun control advocates.
• All the usual enemies named by our historic prejudices: black people or all non-white people, “rednecks,” homosexuals, northerners, southerners, Jews, professors or intellectuals, and all manner of foreigners or strangers.
Oversimplifying leads to misunderstandings and, therefore, to false solutions that fail to solve problems and beliefs that fail to offer life meaning and purpose or make us better people. When fear and resentment are whipped into rage that takes charge of the oversimplifying, we become a danger to ourselves and others. We become effectively insane (Hall, in the quotation above, uses the term “paranoid behavior”).
Are we not now in a time of such danger? We are hearing the chants of angry and frightened people who want a strong man to arise and make “them” (the evil enemies) go away, make us feel strong and brave and great again. Beat them down! Send them home! Rough them up! Kill them and their families! Destroy the evil that threatens us and our way of life!
We are in trouble. Fueled to rage by fear and resentment, simplism poses a present danger we underestimate at our peril. In quieter times, just admitting that something might be more complex than my quick and easy judgment of it imagines can be a good start toward overcoming the fallacy of simplism, but as this spring approaches, an angry tide of simplism is rising in our land. Working through the danger instead of being swept away by it requires more than just defeating a demagogue in the presidential election; it requires us to look for and find the humanity of the people we have named our evil enemies. Only then can we recover our own humanity and our sanity as a nation.