Simplicity is an enduringly attractive ideal. The clarification of mind and idea brings with it a singularity of focus and purpose, a drive to act, and a knowledge of what is right. To boil down a problem to its essence gives us confidence that we understand, and the ability the reason, we think, more adroitly. Nodding our heads, we proclaim that we understand—yes, now, finally, we do.
We do not.
Simplicity is a great boon when problems are complicated by our own confusion and misperception. But simplicity is a dangerous canard when the problems we face are complex, multi-faceted, and refuse to yield to silver bullets.
There is no one solution. In acknowledging that, we bring down upon ourselves a deep despair, a feeling of something so large as to be intractable, and a fear that we will never gain its measure. Yet that is the true state of things, and as we look upon destruction (that we did not stop) born of ignorance (our own), the allure of simple answers can and must be resisted.
We can recognize, correctly, that the progressive movement has lost a core following in the working class, and that bridging that class divide must be a core task. It must. But it must not be the only task; we cannot treat the recognition that we have missed one group as an excuse to abandon others. A coalition of exclusion is one without sufficient power to stand against prejudice—if we will learn anything, let us learn that.
I see the drive for simplicity too strongly in the wake of our moment to learn that simple is insufficient and inappropriate. We want to be able to say to ourselves “ah, yes, it was the working class that elected this man.” It was, but not only.
There are real racists. And we want to be able to say, “ah, yes, it was the racists who elected this man.” And it was. But not only.
And there are the evangelicals for whom single-issue voting on abortion was powerful enough a drive to eliminate all the other ways this man was the antithesis of their avowed beliefs. So we want to say, “ah yes, it was the hypocrites who elected this man.” And it was. But not only.
And yes, it was all of the Democrats who didn’t vote, didn’t turn out for a candidate that didn’t excite them, and didn’t feel they were represented. And yes, it was all the people for whom the background noise of sexism made them see one candidate, despite her strengths, in a worse light, and another candidate, despite his glaring failings, in a better one. And yes it was…
But you see my point. It was not one thing. And to call it one thing is to do a disservice to the reality: that we failed to see a truly complex problem, and presumed things were better than they are in so many areas. And that is why, now, to fall into a “ah yes, that was the problem” mindset will not work. We were not wrong in one small way with an easy answer—we were wrong about how far America has come (not as far as we thought) and how much work there is left to do (so much).
To lean on the crutch of simplicity now is to repeat the same unjust presumptions that led us here.
And it will assuredly divide us if we do: to reject as ineffective the strides we have made in fighting prejudice and protecting marginalized identities would be deeply foolish. To reject the importance of the class issues that we failed to address would also be deeply foolish.
So what is left is to reject simplicity. To say no, there is no easy answer. To reject the idea that any one solution will be enough, and to say instead “yes, and also…”
And when we say that, we must mean both the “yes” and the “also” with equal conviction. The one cannot be in silent opposition to the other. We must continue to do what we do well, and do it better. We must also do what we have failed to do, and do it well. We cannot afford to judge one another for having different priorities—instead, we should gently critique one another when our priorities become exclusive.
We should be upset about colonialism, and also we should worry about what to say to our families over the holidays. We should be upset about the growing cabinet of deplorables, and also we should worry about not judging our friends who support them too harshly. We should call out racism, and also we should be gentle and open to help the people for whom that is not a useful starting point.
And most of all, we should focus on building a coalition of inclusion, and also we should focus on seeing the needs of those already inside.
Move forward. But in a moment when the world seems totally unlike what we thought it was, fill in the missing pieces instead of throwing out the ones we have.
Image Credit: Parée