draught“The cause of the draught in the Southwest is a lack of rainfall.”  A friend read this newspaper quote to me as we sat together over coffee.  Now, I’m sure the that the climate expert being quoted had much more than that to say about draught, but the stand-alone sentence left us both speechless.  This became a hilarious theme of our subsequent conversations that morning.  “The cause of the team’s losing record is a lack of points.”   “The cause of the person’s death was a lack of heart beats.”  You get the idea.  The sentence was so preposterous in its simplicity, it begged to be played with.

The sentence provides a great example of how we so often think simplistically about issues that are in fact complex.  This particular sentence was taken from an article about climate change, an issue of such scientific complexity that some simplification is needed if we nonclimatologists are to understand and converse about it.  But too often we overly simplify other issues, particularly social, moral, ethical, and political ones that should be addressed in their complexity.

Recent examples abound.  During last month’s government shutdown and debt-ceiling debate, each side slanted and simplified issues of enormous complexity and consequence, because doing so allowed them to then stand at a microphone and accuse the other side of not negotiating on issues that, from their perspective, were simple and clear.

Pro Life Pro ChoiceSimilarly, we simplify the debate over abortion into two hyphenated phrases:  Pro-Life and Pro-Choice.  Once framed into team names, we can choose sides without really thinking through the emotional, medical, moral, and social complexities.  Once we’re on our team, we can assume that we have the moral high ground and we can label the others as immoral or uncaring or worse.

The diverse views about the Second Amendment are boiled down into one phrase, “gun control.”  The use of the word “control” is enough to drive people into camps of “for” and “against” where they can cheer their cause without acknowledging the wide variety of common-sense options available to protect public safety as well as insure constitutional rights.  It’s not surprising that both sides of the debate use recent acts of violence to promote their own narrow perspective.

It seems that whatever issue is being debated in Austin or in Washington, simplification and polarization are the goals, gridlock the result.  The Affordable Care Act, immigration reform, marriage equality, climate change, education reform, the buying and selling of political influence, and a host of other issues get simplified to the point that no useful discussion in public or on the congressional floor takes place.

If any of these issues were really that simple, it would seem that the solutions would be simple, even obvious.  The fact that the views are so diverse and so passionate should be a clue that, rather than immediately taking sides, we need to ask, “What more do I need to know?”  Too often, though, most of us, I include myself, ask only one question, “How will this affect me?”  We then settle for the answers that support our predetermined position and our own personal interests.

Whenever the debate resorts to labeling and name-calling, whenever a complex issue is summarized into a bumper sticker slogan, and whenever we are encouraged to think only of our own situation, the message might as well be, “Let someone else do your thinking.”

If our leaders who are simply making proclamations from entrenched partisan positions rather than researching, collaborating, seeking solutions, and voting their conscience, they are not doing their jobs.

If we as the voting public are simply listening to those with whom we already agree, if we are simply hunkering down and defending our position against all arguments, regardless of fact, reason, or consequence, we are not doing our jobs.

Printed in the Abilene Reporter News, Sunday, November 10, 2013