Engaging in Community and Complexity

Once in a while my husband, Kris, writes about issues he is thinking about. Here’s his most recent submission. Enjoy! 

Martin Luther King Jr said, we are “in an inescapable network of mutuality”. As individuals we interpret, listen to, and speak to those around us from a single perspective, often imagining we can see from a higher ground, but in a world of vast complexity, wise and rational decision making can only be realistically sought as we recognize this network of mutuality. We are prone to numerous errors in our thinking due to our biases, fears, limited insights, and self-focus. How can we resist our natural impulses and errors that only deteriorate our communities and society? We will dwell amongst many communities: our family, our friends, our social networks, our society, our world, how can we be a listener and a voice that enhances the collective wisdom and state of those around us?

We live in a highly complex world. The English Wikipedia that succinctly describes most major ideas, concepts, and identifiable objects in our world, consists of about two and half billion words. That is about the same as the number of seconds in the average lifetime of a human. There are roughly 7000 languages in the world, each with their own unique thoughts. Our world is continuing to grow more complex. Populations are growing, cultures continue to evolve, techonology advances, and new challenges and ideas are encountered.

As humans, we are constantly seeking to interpret the world into discernible patterns that can be understood by our limited intellect and experiences. This means that we are prone to reintrepret the world into our existing simplified patterns. The complexity of the world doesn’t fit into simple patterns, but nonetheless we trudge along trying to make everything fit into our simplified view. I’ve been thinking a lot about how this distorts our perspective and decisions. Recently we began a new series at our church that started with Proverbs (1:22):

“How long will you simple ones love your simple ways? How long will mockers delight in mockery and fools hate knowledge?”

Solomon realized that people are prone to try to simplify complex issues into simple good/bad, left/right, right/wrong patterns. This leads to the problem of creating false dichotomies as we analyze the world around us. The underlying motivation behind this is simply pride. Despite our limited finite nature, we wish to live under the pretense of understanding the world around us. This gives a feeling of superiority, enough that we feel entitled to mock. It is interesting that Solomon, one of the world’s wisest men, saw this issue even in ancient Israel. How much more do we face this issues in our complex world today?

As humans we tend to be very prone to a number of misleading ways of interpreting the world around us and to misleading those around, as we seek to assimilate our experiences into our limited understanding and share with others. To avoid the “love [of] being simple”, and being a “hater of knowledge”, let’s consider some of the misleading techniques of the simple (both for the listener/learner and the speaker):

Knocking Down Strawmen.
This is act of finding a weak point in someone else’s set of arguments, and attacking, or “knocking down” that weak point. Productive, well-intentioned arguments that really oppose another view must address the strongest point, not the weakest. But this entire exercise reveals a more sinister purpose. What is your purpose, what do you seek to accomplish by finding a weak point in a movement and knocking it down? Are you seeking to demonstrate your own superiority to another view, or to learn from it and engage it thus better understanding the issues? Does one who seeks to grow in their wisdom and knowledge generally have a goal to oppose others views or to learn from them? It would be pretty silly to look to the weak points if you are honestly in pursuit of the latter.

False Dichotomies
False dichotomies are when we confine a range of possibilities  into only two possible options. A classic aspect of simple thinking is the creation of false dichotomies, reducing the complex array of multi-dimensional factors, compromises, and ranges into a black and white option. A classic example of this is in economics, where so many people like to think they have a simple answer. Do you buy the false dichotomy that this is nothing but socialism vs capitalism, or are you willing to acknowledge nuances of well-balanced monetary and financial policies, the non-linearities of compensation, effects of foreign trade, the deviation from consumer rationality studied in behavior economics, and more in field that goes beyond what any single person, even with a graduate work in economics can fully understand?
“O simple ones, will you love being simple?”

 Once you have distorted a complex reality into simple obvious right and obvious wrong, it is now easy to transition into mockery. Parody can be the source of some fun when everyone is in on it, but often times it combines the worst of irrationality and negativity. But rather me pointing this out, it is worth looking at what King Solomon had to say about it. Solomon employs a remarkably clever bit of irony (the real kind) shortly after vs 22 in Proverbs 1. After warning mockers not to continue in their mockery, he goes to say for that those who continue, wisdom (the anthropomorphization thereof) will “also will laugh at your calamity”. Indeed it is a very ironic retort to mockery, a parody of wisdom, to in turn be mocked by wisdom.

So it might seem that I am suggesting that this verse means we need to have PhD level insights on every subject. This is definitely not the case. There are numerous subjects that I know very little about. I think we need to synchronize the verse from Proverbs with other verses that speak to humility such as:

Mat 18:4 Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

In fact, the warnings against naivety and simplicity, should bring us humility. A humble realization of our limits in most areas of life should drive us to be first and foremost good learners. It should go without saying that wisdom lies with those that are attentive listeners and learners.

Humility can lead us to one of the most assuredly certain insights: our own experiences. There is nothing that we can speak with more authority on than simply our own experience. We may draw false conclusions, misinterpret meanings, but recouting our experiences themselves are something can share with our community that truly bring new insights to those around us.

These fallacies I mentioned can prevent us from clearly understanding issues and prioritizing our values and resources, as we listen to the world around us. However, we should consider not only how we process and filter information we receive, but how we lend our voice in a constructive way to a community. Are our voices weighing down issues with further polarization, over-simplification, or are we adding to our collective understanding by providing nuanced focused insights that can further expands other’s views and perspectives, giving them new ways to see the world?

The web has amplified our ability to pursue each of these paths. We can research and learn amazing amounts about topics from incredible variety voices right from our computer. But on other hand, it has also amplified our ability to insulate our perspectives. In the past, we used to get our news and information from “the media”, but with the death of centralized media, and the proliferation of variety of more niche information sources, it is now incredibly easy to tailor your news and information that is served to you in way that will confirm all of your existing biases, preconceptions, and views. Many have concluded that the Internet has actually probably increased our polarization as a society because we so easily tend towards the latter instead of the former way to approach the web. This tendency to try to confirm our biases is a well-observed, studied, and documented effect in psychology. Based on this natural fault in our psyche, it is not surprising that this is the road we often choose. Do you use the web to read from people that you already agree with, or do you use the web to broaden your perspective?

We tend to be driven to assert our “opinions” in community, regardless of whether it will contribute to the collective well-being of our community. Of course we always think our opinions are right, or we wouldn’t have them, but we continue to hold opinions, and feel equally right to hold to them without consideration to real amount of evidence for them. But our opinions are more than collections of information that we pass on. We hold opinions, to a large degree, because they are a part of asserting our individuality, our uniqueness as a person. We want to stand out, and our opinions help us to do that. To be opinion-less is to fade into the background. At it’s worst, opinions are nothing more than us clamoring for attention, “hey look at me, I have an opinion to share, look how smart I am, look how right I am”.

But opinions don’t need to be just arrogant self-aggrandization. A key part of community is connecting, and really getting to know each other at a deeper level. The humble sharing of opinions can express our true identities by revealing our underlying values, passions, and motives. This can be done without being couched in veneers of superiority, or intellectual “rightness”. If and when you must share opinion, consider this; often what we have to say isn’t adding collective wisdom of your community, and thus your opinion can and often should be shared with humility, not as a force to move others, or a weight to bear on others, but as candid reflection of who you are, what drives and defines you.

I wanted to summarize the difference between naive individualistic thinking and engaged community thinking with a table:

Naive Individualistic Thinking Engaged Community Thinking
Oversimplification of issues Seeks to under the various facets of issues
Adds to polarization Disrupts polarization
Claims to be right about everything Focuses on a specific subject that one could provide a well researched addition to the community’s collective knowledge
Interprets with a conclusion in mind Can share experience for collective interpretation
Knocks down strawmen Seeks how to learn from other’s perspectives
Mocks individuals Seeks reconciliation

So I want to leave you with the challenge of considering your role in the community as you learn, listen, and speak. Are you willing to be humble listener, recognizing areas that you haven’t a full understanding, and willing to engage in the complexity of issues in areas that you are passionate about? Or will you continue ahead with your ignorance and arrogance, over-simplifying, seeking to confirm your own biases? Will you share your opinions as reflections of your values and characters, or as just as a way to draw attention to yourself? How will you add to the collective wisdom of your community, your friends, your society, your family?


3 responses to “Engaging in Community and Complexity

  1. Hey Kris, great expansion on your latest sermon. I think it ties in to that brief exchange on Facebook a few days ago (to which I was able to respond today, in case you don’t get a notification).

    Knowing our cognitive limits and natural bent to filter out non-supportive arguments, it’s so hard (at least for me) not to fall into the idea that we humans are far too flawed to ever come to accurate conclusions about truth and reality. Such a despairing attitude leaves one (me?) so skeptical of their (my?) own ideas that it becomes difficult not to resign to a type of pan-agnosticism. Even when those ideas are substantiated by several strong, objective pillars of verifiable truths.

    But anyhow, interesting insights into the use of the internet as a tool for further entrenchment – had not thought of that before. I could comment on a bunch more than what I write below, but I don’t want you to have to read a tome, so I’ll limit myself:

    Attacking a straw man argument, as I have understood it, is more of an attack on a misinterpreted claim than attacking a weak point. In other words, it’s a straw man not because it is weak, but because it is a rebuttal to a distortion of the original claim. The first person says thing A, then the second person ends up refuting thing B. This usually stems from misunderstanding the grounds of the other person’s view in the first place. Consider the following “conversation”:

    Person 1: Abortion should not be legalized.
    Person 2: It is wrong to force people to adhere to your religious views of morality. Separation of church and state.

    Person 1 never mentioned their religious beliefs, so person 2 attacked a claim that was never made, a straw man. Conversations that go back and forth like that are unproductive, and can be placated by engaging on a meaningful level: asking for clarification and extrapolation of the reasons one holds a view rather than making assumptions.

    So, I think we’re not to ignore weak points entirely, but to first ask the person if we understand what is actually being said. If we do have an accurate interpretation yet the weak point remains, we need to ask of ourselves if we’re being nit-pickers on an issue that really doesn’t carry much weight in the larger picture. Further, if we conclude the weak point is indeed worth bringing to light, before we open our mouths we must still ask, What is my motivation for doing so? Is it to bulldoze, belittle, rudely KNOCK down, or do we have a sincere desire to help another person see a strain of reasoning (or lack thereof) that has led to a harmful conclusion?

    (By saying all of this, I really hope I’m not falling into a straw man fallacy myself, so let me know if I’ve misinterpreted anything, haha!)

    *sigh* deepening the relationships in this “inescapable network of mutuality” is SUCH work.

    I think you hit the nail on the head in saying that pride is the biggest obstacle to engaging in complex community. I had one of those prideful moments last week. A co-worker of mine, a young kid (younger than me, so I CAN say that :D) who is always saying things of the flavor, “all religious people are brainwashed,” “upside down cross!”, and “burn churches to the ground,” came up to me and randomly started talking about the “Rose Line” and the Da Vinci Code. Usually I take these opportunities to listen and, where applicable, share truth in love. But this time my response was a terse, “Oh, you mean the one that has no basis in historical reality?” He immediately stopped talking and kind of meandered away to do something else.

    At the time, I was irritated by his constant assertion that religious people are brainwashed, yet he soaked in the claims of that book as unquestioningly as he accuses others of being. Additionally, I was prideful of my own research and knowledge and too absorbed in completing the task he interrupted to take time to talk in depth. I was being a mocker and steamrolled just to shut him up. It worked, but at the cost of closing the window of communication and hurting the chance to productively converse in the future =/.

    Truly, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (I Cor 8:1), and truly, I could “understand all mysteries and all knowledge…but [if I] have not love, I am nothing” (I Cor. 13:2).

    Thanks again for this post, Kris; convicting and well said. I think I need to go back this week, apologize for the rude response, eventually learn his ideas on the matter, and give a thoughtful reply in humility.

  2. Nichole, you are totally right about the straw man, thank you for the correction. Hopefully, the main gist of trying to sidestep the main point of someone’s view and knocking down something else is still conceptually similar, but your definition is indeed more precise.

    Anyway, thanks for the comments and feedback, I appreciate it. I hope I didn’t take up too much of your Saturday writing a response :).

  3. Pingback: Capitalism is a Tool « Kris Zyp's Questionable Assumptions

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s