Common Ground

notrespassing_viaterrylawsonFinding common ground is not just an ideal of democratic society; it is a task of monumental effort that requires us to reject our own ideas and hold them, in common, with ideas we do not agree with. There is such discomfort in this that we generally avoid it: villainy is a comfortable foe, but nuance unmasks it. Nuance transforms villainy into foolishness, and our righteous anger crumbles into confusion and pity.

I wrote not long ago that there is no common ground left—that we have occupied every inch of it with partisan certainty and left nothing in the middle. Perhaps this is why there is such an appetite for lies these days: there is no ground left to seize, unless it be wholly invented. There is no battle left to win, only scraps to scrabble over on the edges. But create a lie, and you can draw a new line down some imaginary patch of ground, and crow heartily as you defend it. Create a villain, and you can occupy new ground.

But I believe finding common ground is the only path forward, and that requires nuance. Yes, we need righteous anger and villains to motivate us. But they must be few and far between. If we want common ground, if we want a united states, that ground must be worked and planted, not occupied. Continue reading

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Yes and Also…

keySimplicity 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.

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The Difficulty of Offering Solutions

bandaids_viaLenaMany writers take the time to carefully delineate some problem or other in society, spending huge chunks of books, papers, or theses to do so.  Certainly the description of a problem is important, and a critical first step in understanding and addressing any issue. And I do this myself—in many ways, writing is a way to wrestle with ideas and refine them.

Yet once a problem is understood, I become hungry for more than platitudes. Many authors have held my full attention as they explained the complexities of a major problem, but then have ended these otherwise compelling pieces of writing with trite clichés. Use compact fluorescents, recycle, buy sustainably, vote—as if those things alone, or even all of them together, could be enough.

I give them credit for the effort, but I wonder if they, and I, miss the mark. Even though I want elegant single solutions, I am never sure they really exist. Social problems are complex structures with long feedbacks and a diversity of inputs and outputs. Societies are ponderous entities that lag far behind their most progressive members. So I think no individual inner journey, no matter how compelling, will change a society. No amount of careful shopping will make change; even if a majority of people changed their shopping habits, they would still be a minor force compared to the structural forces controlling our economic system. And no amount of careful voting will solve big problems; even if problems like climate change could wait for the next election, or the one after that, top-down efforts can change only a small part of any social structure.

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