The Rising Tide of Fear and Anger


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.
• Feminists.
• Liberals.
• Conservatives.
• 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).
• Immigrants.
• Poor people.
• Rich people.
• Women.
• Socialists (often falsely equated with Communists of the Soviet style).
• Capitalists.
• 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.

One Snapshot of Simplism: the Migrants


Not so long ago, the migrant farm workers would arrive at the farms almost unseen. People not involved might not know where they came from, but who cared? They picked the crops and then were gone. While they were there outside of town, they lived in housing on the farm and were transported to shopping centers in special migrant worker buses, and so they were kept mostly apart from the town and its life. They came, they picked, they moved on.

We needed them, and we need them still today. But regulations and inspections made housing them on the farms expensive and bothersome, and so now they must find shelter in the town, making it harder for them to live in the shadows and easier for landlords to exploit them. They don’t disappear at night. They are people with needs, families, and the physical presence among us that makes some in the town nervous. They speak another language, look different, and seem to have a lot of children who have entered the town’s schools. They used to come from Puerto Rico and so were U.S. citizens, but now they come from southern Mexico, from places with names that sound strange like Oaxaca, Puebla, and Chiapas. Others come from Central America, from dangerous places. They look different to eyes trained to see northern European as normal and minds trained to regard normal as right and proper, different as alien and wrong.

Why are they here? And why are they still visible after sunset? And in town with us? Why don’t they speak English? What are they saying about us when we hear their Spanish in “our” supermarkets, banks, and shops? Are they taking jobs away from Americans? Radio ranters and some politicians are calling them a horde of invaders.

Send them all home! Make them go away! Build high fences and keep them out! They’re “illegals”! which is an non-word used to criminalize people themselves, but “undocumented immigrants” sounds too neutral and “politically correct” to the ears of the fearful and resentful threatened by the lingering recession and frustrated by the new globalized economy that has slammed in their faces the door to the American dream, as we have called it so long. Now many Americans who thought they were middle class find themselves saying, “So long,” to that dream.

But what does simplism have to do with the fears and resentments? Aren’t we really talking about bigotry and xenophobia, antipathy toward strangers who come into our sheltered world from outside? Yes, we are talking about bigotry and xenophobia, but defending against the ugliness of those terms requires rationalizing the antipathy toward the outsiders who have come in, and simplism provides the means for that rationalizing.

Last night, I listened to Congressman Steve King of Iowa extol “the rule of law” he says was smashed by President Ronald Reagan when he granted amnesty to people who had entered the United States illegally. In Congressman King’s eyes, that one act of self-interested, practical leniency shattered the foundations of our country, leaving our whole system in ruins. Invading a country, Iraq, that had not attacked us did not, for him apparently, even chip the rule of law. Letting hugely profitable corporations get away with paying no taxes apparently does no damage to the rule of law even though it hurts the nation and its people. Enabling Wall Street gamblers to fleece all of us and investors to pillage our public school systems apparently does no harm because the laws needed to cover such harmful actions get passed when the beneficiaries of the harm want them passed. But those poor among us who pick our food are now made the very embodiment of lawlessness, the personifications of illegality and national ruin.

Why do they come? They come because we want them here for our use. They come because they can no longer support themselves and their families in the lands they leave to risk their lives crossing our southern border. Some come because their home countries have become too dangerous, and they don’t want their children killed, enslaved, enlisted into gangs, or forced into prostitution. The new economic conditions favor the rich among us while enabling many of us to maintain the illusion of being middle class because we can buy stuff on the cheap made by exploited labor. Those new economic conditions do not favor Americans who have lost their jobs, had their unions broken, or been forced to work more and more for less and less; neither do they favor the poor in Mexico’s southern states or in Central America.

The situation is complex. Just the economics of it are complex, and the human complexities of it are many, varied, and often heartbreaking. But simplism follows the lead of people such as Congressman King in reducing all the complexities, hopes, dreams, and tragedies of the human situation to a hypocritical reverence for the rule of law. Then people sold on the simplism bellow, “What part of illegal do you not understand?”

Here simplism functions as it does often to guard against empathy and compassion, its two great enemies that get in the way of selfishness, fear, and prejudice by calling their self-justifications into question. As long as simplism is kept in place, what’s to understand? Keep it simple, stupid. It’s the rule of law, stupid. They’re not people but an invading horde of illegals, stupid. For those who have taken refuge in simplism, complexities seem evasions of the simple facts, the plain truth, the tell-it-like-it-is honesty to which simplism pretends.

The history of immigration into the United States and the history of migrant labor are complex, varied, sometimes heroic, often tragic, and always human. To this day, the story of migrant labor is one of courage, wage theft, hope, fear, contempt, love, and violation, but simplism doesn’t want to hear it. Complex truth has its way of confusing our conclusions and inviting us to care about people we’d rather not.

From Simplicity to Simplism – and Back?


1. The Need to Simplify and Its Danger

We human beings learn, survive, and prosper by simplifying our experiences and perceptions of the world around us and of ourselves in relation to that world which, of course, includes other people. Without simplifying, we would not survive because we would be unable to make sense of our lives or our own thoughts and feelings.

To process reality, we must simplify and group our experiences. Think of a filing cabinet. What good would it do me to put each individual paper or document into a folder all its own? If I had a thousand papers to file, I would need a thousand folders, and the label for each folder would be nothing more than the first few words on the paper. How would I find anything? For the filing system to be useful, I must group papers according to kind: all the bank statements in one folder, recipes in another, business letters in yet another. If I have many business letters, then I must separate them according to a finer differentiation of kind. Only then can I find what I need when I need it. In a rather analogous way, our minds file experiences and the feelings attached to them.

Does fear, for example, always feel exactly the same, and is it triggered by exactly identical experiences? No, of course not, but we group the experiences under the category of fear; we put those experiences into our fear file, so to speak. The child does not know she’s grouping her experiences, but she is. That’s how she learns what to fear and how much.

As she grows, she will need to make more internal folders because there are fears and, then, there are fears. Dangers must be assessed; otherwise life would terrify her daily. We speak of people who are afraid of their own shadows because they don’t differentiate one suspected danger from another, and so fear dominates their responses to life. Without fear, we would be unlikely to keep ourselves safe and sound or even to survive. Without assessing the dangers and managing our fears, we cannot function capably in life.

Experience counts, both positively and negatively. The child savaged by a large dog may, understandably, grow into an adult afraid of large dogs or, maybe, all dogs or even all animals. Here we see a sign of the danger in our native ability to simplify and manage. We must simplify, and we must categorize in order to group together similar experiences and perceptions even though they may not be so genuinely similar as we make them in our minds. Right here the need to simplify life and manage our feelings can turn into prejudice. Mark Twain wrote this:

We should be careful to get out of an experience only the wisdom that is in it – and stop there; lest we be like the cat that sits down on a hot stove-lid. She will never sit down on a hot stove-lid again – and that is well; but also she will never sit down on a cold one anymore (Pudd’nhead Wilson’s New Calendar in Following the Equator).

Instead of concluding that a hot stove lid makes a painful seat, the cat decides a stove lid makes a bad seat. For the cat, that oversimplification and its resulting false generalization are fine, even though the cat is now prejudiced against stove lids disregarding the fact that some are hot and some cold. So what? How does it matter for a cat? In human beings, such prejudice causes terrible problems for us, each other, and our world.

This blog post is intended to be the first in a series about simplism. People regard as wise the acronym KISS meaning, “Keep it simple, stupid.” If stupid wishes to remain comfortably stupid, that advice freely applied works well (until it doesn’t), but complex situations and issues are better seen in their complexity, especially when they involve human beings, whose lives are never simple even when they appear so to the eye of prejudice. Children’s lives are quite complex, as are children themselves, who are learning and developing at a much faster rate than we adults.

Balance is needed. To learn from experience, process our daily lives, and manage our feelings as well as our relationships and responsibilities, we must simplify and categorize. We cannot treat each new event, each experience, as utterly new and unique. We would exist in chaos. We would see life through kaleidoscope eyes. Nothing would make sense, and we would not learn how to deal with anything. When, however, simplification leads to simplism, it causes us trouble and grief.