#177: Thinking Beyond Caricatures

We seem to be more deeply entrenched in our positions than we ever have been. Nothing is really debated, all we do is to exchange unaltering positions, demand a no-compromise outcome and refuse to engage with each other. While there are some cases that are simply clear-cut and indefensible (like Putin’s war, for instance), we still need to be able to take a breath, recognize that there are more than one or two sides to an issue, take the other side seriously, make an orderly argument in a hopefully respectful manner, and aim to convince rather than coerce, and to always remain open to critically question also your own side. But that is simply not what is happening anymore. Just why is it that we don’t seem to be able to talk with each other anymore?

Maybe I am old-fashioned in believing in the power of argument. Maybe it is my professional bias – I am in the business of explaining and teaching complex issues to students – but I deeply believe that we should be able to complexify an issue and raise awareness about such complexity, even though we may not change minds completely. Of course, I do have opinions. I may be careful about putting them into writing, but you will nevertheless be able to tell that at least I have a pro-complexity bias. Not too many things in life are simple.

What makes things complicated are moral beliefs. We all have a sense of morality (i.e. deeply held cultural patterns about behaving in the right and correct way) and ethics (i.e. concepts of acting in the right way in each specific circumstance). Ethics may be situational, but morality is typically thought of as unchanging: a set of traditions and convictions that you are not supposed to change through compromise lest you compromise your morality.

And yet, when looking at moral issues, are they really that unchanging? Is there really a concrete difference between ethics and morality? Don’t we always decide what is right or wrong based on the current context that we are living in? Exceptions, of course, could be cases in which we refer to old-style morality – but even in these instances, we typically pick and choose: Some issues are simply not topics in our oldest cultural and religious texts, and any attempt to make our old texts fit our current concepts will be influenced by the ideological demands of today rather than a solid understanding of the past. Even when there seems to be continuity, it will become more complicated the more you know about the past, the more of the past context you understand and the more traditions have always changed throughout time. We simply cannot claim to know to be able to apply yesterday’s answers to today’s problems – because we live in completely different contexts.

Some examples: Abrahamitic religious texts typically are mute on abortion, because the belief that life begins at conception is a modern belief that requires modern scientific knowledge to determine what “conception” actually looks like. Homosexuality looked different and was practiced differently in antiquity, and modern reinterpretations of old wordings are not helpful. The Second Amendment to the US Constitution may seem to protect the right of sovereign citizens to keep and bear arms, but it was written in times where semi-automatic or automatic weapons were unheard of, and where law enforcement was not quite the same as it is today (and society was still focused on suppressing slave rebellions and fighting wars against indigenous peoples). Demands for Free Speech were and are commonsense democratic norms, yet when invented, were unaware of the frightening degree of fake news, deep fakes, bots and other outgrowths of our internet era. The past is indeed a different country, as L.P. Hartley said.

Now, knowing all this, we should be aware that each of our ideological positions has typically been the outcome of long debates, meandering changes of position, and indeed oftentimes best intentions on all sides. Nobody, typically, wants to be evil – this would be a caricature. Every single one of us is trying to make sense of a world that sometimes is devoid of sense, or leaves us with sensory overload that is akin to not making sense.

This is not necessarily a new problem – we have always been in a situation as human beings where the complexity of the world requires us to find some way of reducing it in order to make sense. We need to make a working model of our world in our minds – and we do this through language, concepts, categorizations, institutions, etc. We have an idea of what the sun is, even though none of us has ever seen it up close, and none of us ever will without extremely advanced technology. It won’t happen in our lifetime unless we meet extraterrestrials who help us. Most of us (I would assume) also have an idea of what a Hydrogen or Helium atom may be, but we again will operate with a mental model, typically a wrong one. I would assume that the typical idea we have of Hydrogen is of a proton, looking like a small planet, and a circling electron, looking like a small moon. We can forget all that when we think about quarks, the uncertainty principle, particles vs. waves, quantum states, string theory, or whatever – and most of us may have heard those words but don’t know what they really mean, yours truly included. What is true for physics is certainly also true for other sciences, social sciences and the humanities. It is simply normal that in order to make a theory work, we have to make mental models – and sacrifice complexity for the sake of understanding, communication, and applicability.

But when we do this, we need to do this with the important caveat in mind that whatever words we throw around – be they “atom,” “energy,” “evolution,” “race,” “gender,” “class,” “history,” “sovereignty” or whatever else, these are just models that point towards a much more complex history of ideas. In internet parlance, they are hyperlinks to volumes and volumes of text. If you just see the hyperlink, and maybe the heading of the associated article, but do not follow through with actually doing the reading, the work, the research, your understanding will be severely limited – and your resulting actions cannot be an adequate answer to the stated problem.

And yet, this is exactly what we seem to be doing: we skim, we stay on the surface, we pretend to know but we don’t, and we continue like this as assumedly powerless vessels in the endless stream of information. Complexity reduced to simplified models and eventually into caricatures that are hardly recognizable to the expert. And yes, we do need experts – even though, foolishly, we are somehow told that that would be undemocratic. Should we not be able to make up our own minds, do our own research, think for ourselves? Certainly. But for many if most issues, we would need training to evaluate what we find – and without adequate training or experience (without actually having done the work to actually know what we are seeing when we are seeing it), we would be lost, relying on whatever “common sense” is even in areas where common sense can be highly misleading.

Put simply (and yes, this is deliberately reductive): “Democracy” is a term that applies to how to organize political power and to answer the question of sovereignty. It is NOT a term that can easily be transferred to knowledge and understanding. If a thousand people think that an electron circles a proton like a moon circles a planet, and one nuclear physicist disagrees, it does mean that the thousand people with common sense are correct, but the physicist. If a thousand people believe that homeopathy works beyond the placebo effect, but the scientist disagrees, the thousand people are still wrong. Etc.

Thus, to conclude, we are somehow deluded into believing that it suffices to only have a surface level understanding of the world and the theories describing it. We then are dealing with caricatures of the world – which obviously are no longer really believable because we don’t recognize the complexity, the ambiguities, and the scientific discourse behind the terms.

And just as we are dealing with issues, we are dealing with people: we all know that we ourselves are complex beings with always changing opinions and an ethical stance towards the world that has to be suited to our circumstances – and yet, we (or many of us) seem to not be willing to extend the same assumption to others. In effect, we are real, but others are caricatures. Some of that kind of thinking may well be fueled by a media landscape that thinks that it suffices to reduce an issue to 280 characters or 15 seconds. It’s not an old problem – Neil Postman and Richard Hofstadter have written about similar questions before.

What to do then? It is up to us to foster a culture of complexity – and to lead by example. If not, the movie Idiocracy may have some uncomfortable answers for all of us. I sincerely hope that we are not there yet…