THR Blog   /   January 23, 2020

It’s Complicated

What’s up with us humans, us American humans, that we’re committing ourselves more and more to unbending postures?

Mark Edmundson

( Giant lollipops for sale in Barcelona, Spain. (Michael Ströck, via Wikimedia Commons.))

In the second episode of HBO’s Watchmen series, Angela Abar, also known as Sister Night, explains a few things to her adopted son, Topher. Sister Night is one of the decidedly earthbound super heroes who works along with the Tulsa police force in its war against a White Supremacist group called the Seventh Kavalry. Angela’s mentor and friend on the police force, Judd, is dead, found hanging from a tree and it appears that the Kavalry is responsible. Topher, who looks to be ten or so, has lost his biological parents to the Kavalry, and now his adopted uncle, Judd, is gone. Some people think that world is rainbows and lollipops, Angela tells Topher. But “we don’t do lollipops and rainbows. We know those are just pretty colors that hide what the world really is.” And what is the world really? The world is “black and white.”

More and more of us seem willing to share in Sister Night’s wisdom. There is black and there is white; there’s right and there’s wrong. No lollipops, for sure, and no multi-toned rainbow zones, either. As a nation and a people, we are what the pundits like to call “polarized.” We are divided, radically and insistently on any number of matters: abortion, immigration, race, the politics of gender, homosexuality, or transgender rights. We’ll even fight about who’s going to use which bathroom. For many, if not most of us, it seems there is no going back and no backing down. Right is right; wrong, wrong. What more is there to say?

Every issue is manifest in extremes. Someone is not “racially insensitive” if he laughs at a dopey joke. He’s a racist out and out. Pose questions about the motives for gender transition? You’re a transphobic, and that’s all there is to say. Don’t believe all women all the time when they discuss sexual assault? Misogynist.

It works both ways. Question the president’s fitness to lead? You’re disloyal. Maybe you’re a traitor. Ask moderate questions about abortion rights and join the ranks of the baby-killers. Insult the military, refuse to honor all the police all the time: Maybe you’re not a real American.

Not only have our opinions become more emphatic and violent, served up like roundhouse punches. We’ve developed a proclivity for suppressing the opinions of others. We cancel. We de-platform. Some of us stage a riot even before hearing the scheduled talk by the controversial speaker. We will not risk our own simplicities by exposing them to the views of others. Direct, clear, and emphatic is what we aspire to be, making our pronouncements from the judge’s elevated chair.

What’s up with us humans, us American humans, that we’re committing ourselves more and more to unbending postures? Why have we developed what seems an allergy to nuance, complexity, irony?

One answer might be that the world has grown radically complex—perhaps unbearably so, for some of us. Or at least it has taken on the appearance of boiling complexity. Information comes our way at an unprecedented speed and in unprecedented amounts, through our various technologies. Step into the world of the Internet and you can see how much blooming, buzzing, laughing, teeth-gnashing, mind spinning confusion is on offer.

It’s natural, isn’t it, that we would revert to simplicities and reductions in the face of all this whirl?

Another reason for this state of our culture is what could be called the pleasures of judgment. The more affairs threaten to run out of control, the more it may help to have not only a firm position but also a judgmental temperament. Judgment brings order. We go thumbs-up, or we go thumbs-down, and so appear to rule our own lives in imperial fashion. When we judge emphatically, it seems that the world is our domain. Simplification (which we might also call “reduction”) and judgment: These are the ways we hold complexity at bay.

The Internet? We shape our tools, Marshall McLuhan famously said, and thereafter our tools shape us. The most powerful tool of our time is the Internet, which McLuhan would probably call an extension of the mind. (To McLuhan, tools are always extensions of the human: A shovel extends the hand; a steam-shovel is a super-extension. The mind is made larger by the Internet, but it is made more confusing, too.) We’re not being shaped by this tool so much as we are being mis-shaped by it—confused, disordered, maybe slightly deranged. That’s not the way it’s supposed to be with a tool as marvelous as the Internet, but that appears to be the way that it is.

Robert Frost, an incisive social thinker as well as a great poet, said that human beings seem prone to believe that they live in the worst of all possible times. Maybe we think ours is so barbarous and fraught because we believe the world has never been so complex. Never has there been so much of such import happening and never has it been happening so fast! It’s a cry of pain to say so, no doubt, but as Frost suggests it’s a piece of boasting,

We might ask ourselves: Has the world become so much more complex, or does the way we mediate it make it seem so? Nothing really organizes the Internet. You jump from site to site to site, often in random hops. Nothing vets the Internet. There is no authoritative voice within the system to help you begin to distinguish true from false. No one strongly regulates the Internet: Images and ideas pop up, circulate, and disappear in a moment’s time.

Is the Internet chaos? It may approach that condition. But the Internet is also a collaboration (if we follow McLuhan), a collaboration between the mind of the individual and the scattered, revealing, often invaluable pseudo-mind of the technology. A person takes of two things, says Chaucer, that which he finds and that which he brings. To use the Internet well, you need to bring a lot. You need an existing cognitive and (dare one say it?) spiritual frame to order what you learn there. You need to know some history, and preferably more than some. It helps to understand the rudiments of philosophy, religion, economics, and science. You have to have an education, in other words, to be educated by the Internet. You need to have created a context for what you know and what you might learn. You also need to have standards for what to believe and what not to. A built in bullshit detector, a la Ernest Hemingway? Nothing so emphatic, but surely a strong, functioning sense of skepticism. To be educated by the Internet, you first need to be educated by something other than the Internet.

Without that primary education, you’re likely succumb to the confusion of the medium and revert to simplicity as a defense. Now, we have people who have been brought up almost exclusively by the stimulating, superficial, and potentially deracinating power of the Web. What can they do but live amid their confusion? Or fight it, with reduction, simplification? Keats wrote memorably about living in uncertainties, mysteries, and doubts. But the uncertainties must have limits, the doubts must not be all-encompassing, the mysteries cannot be omnipresent, at least if humans want to maintain their sanity.

We don’t read much anymore. Read books, I mean. As a professor at a large state university, I see students with a million different things that they can do. And though many have a generally positive sense of what reading can deliver, few have the time or interest to give themselves over to the pursuit. But reading matters acutely in the era of complexity and reduction, and one kind of reading matters above the rest. It matters, I think, even beyond the context-creating sort of reading you need to do if you’re going to get much that’s useful out of that ancillary brain, the Internet.

This form of reading, the one that can help us out, maybe save us from our own tendencies to simplification, judgment, and (all too often) rage is hard to master and not widely practiced.

I call it literary reading, by which I mean the reading of literary texts in a literary way. Such texts, to be worthy of the name literary, are complex. They demand a kind of engagement that merely informative reading does not They make you pause and think, stop and consider. You cannot read John Milton’s Paradise Lost without deepening your sense of evil and good. Satan, you find, embodies so much that is attractive, maybe more than attractive, maybe right and just. Perhaps, as critics like William Empson and Percy Bysshe Shelley have suggested, Milton’s God is a tyrant. Isn’t it right to rebel against him? Read Milton and understand the complexities of the tensions between evil and good. Read Milton and have your life complicated in an enrichening way. Life will be more complicated, but if you read wisely and well, you will not be led into anything like chaos—Internet chaos or any other kind. Instead, you will arrive at a place between the world of loud simplicities and the world of chaos and old night. This middle zone is one in which feeling and thought inform each other, where feeling is deeply thought and thought is deeply felt. This zone is preeminently literary.

All too often we read even literary texts for the message. Is the author on our side? Does his ideology line up with our own? Is the writer a good dues paying citizen of the progressive present? The urge to read for simple political content takes the one resource that might help us emerge from our current difficulties and turns it into part of the problem. It is also a form of reading for people who don’t really like reading, and want to short-circuit it with posturing and posing. It’s not real reading at all.

We need a context, we need some taste for subtlety, we need to read and think with our opinions at least partially in abeyance so that we can perceive the world as the complex—but not chaotic—place that it genuinely is. It’s not lollipops and rainbows, but it’s not black and white, either, and never will be.