TO EXPLAIN IS NOT TO JUSTIFY. How astonishing, that in 2022 so few people appear to grasp this simple truth. It’s as if expending the mental energy required to understand what is happening in the world will, in some mysterious way, rob us of the capacity to make judgements about it.
And, therein, lies the problem: judging the world is now much more important than understanding it. Complexity has become the enemy of clarity – especially moral clarity. “Keep it simple, stupid” has become the motto of the modern politician: proof of just how dangerous complexity is now perceived to be. Such fetishization of simplicity certainly explains that other great political motto: “Explaining is losing.”
If the world really was a simple place, then the demonisation of those who attempt to explain it would not be necessary. It has always been a problem for those exercising authority over us that the longer we live in the world the more obvious it becomes that it is very far from being a simple place. The more ordinary people begin to appreciate the world’s complexity, however, the harder the job of ruling them becomes. While philosophers may argue that to know all is to forgive all, most rulers take a very different view. In their experience, the more people learn about the reasons behind the rules, the angrier they become.
Perhaps that is why it was generally considered wise, by the rulers, to bolster the authority of the state with the authority of organised religion. Nothing beats organised religion for whittling down the awesome complexity of the world to a few hard, fast, and – most importantly – simple rules. Moses made do with just ten!
Enslave people to the simple “truths” of their faith, and any need for them to come to terms with the complexity of human existence is averted. Omniscience is restricted to God. Only He is able to comprehend the entirety of His universe. Men and women need only know that the Lord moves in mysterious ways his wonders to perform. Keep his commandments and all will be well. (Oh, and it’s probably a good idea to keep the commandments of your earthly rulers as well!)
A partnership made in heaven, you might say. Or else, that heaven is the partnership’s most successful invention. Works either way.
The problem with organised religion and its simple truths is that the human imagination, combined with human species’ insatiable curiosity, are forever throwing up individuals who refuse to believe in the comforting fictions of their secular and religious rulers. They can, of course, be suppressed. (Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!) But the irritating thing about these seekers after knowledge is that they all-too-frequently come up with ideas and techniques that are simply too useful to ignore. Organised religion takes a hit. Living gets more complicated – and so does the whole business of governing an increasingly complicated population.
The answer to this new problem turned out to be relatively simple. Replace the voice of the priest in the pulpit with the voice of the teacher at the front of the class. Replace the wonder of God’s creation with the “nothingbutism” of science. Human-beings are “nothing but” the product of millions of years of evolution. Morality is what works. Evil is what works in ways that make no evolutionary sense. Bad equals broken. Good equals the absence of damage – and difference. The best thing to be is the same as everybody else. Uncomplicated.
The Internet makes simplicity easy. Thanks to social media, the voice of the teacher at the front of the class can be retired in favour of the voices on the individual’s Twitter feed, Facebook Page, Instagram or Tik-Tok. Sophisticated algorithms ensure that practically all of these voices are saying exactly the same thing – keeping the conversation as simple as possible. Never has it been easier for people to know what they think. Never have people had less cause to be tolerant of those who think for themselves.
Attempting to explain to others why they may be mistaken in their thinking is fast becoming a dangerous exercise. For many people, being wrong is an outright impossibility. How could it be otherwise when everyone they know is telling them they’re right?
Introducing the concept of complexity: the idea that in any given situation there are a host of competing factors at work; is interpreted by an increasing number of twenty-first century humans as a criticism of both themselves and their friends. Moreover, since they and their friends are always right, the person “explaining” can only be trying to justify being wrong. And pretending to be right when you’re not right, doesn’t just make you wrong, it makes you bad.
A complex world is incompatible with a simple world. Explanation is incompatible with acceptance.
Contrariwise, the ability to distinguish the majority view of reality from reality itself is arguably the most vital adaptation of human evolution, it’s what drives our species forward.
Unfortunately, it can also get you killed.
Unfortunately, it can also get you killed.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 24 March 2022.