EXPLAINING IS NOT JUSTIFYING. How amazing that in 2022 so few people seem to grasp this simple truth. It’s as if expending the mental energy needed to understand what’s going on in the world will, in some mysterious way, rob us of the ability to make judgments 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. That “Keep it simple, stupid.” has become the motto of the modern politician is proof of how dangerous complexity is perceived. This fetishization of simplicity certainly explains this other great political motto: “To explain is to lose”.
If the world were truly a simple place, then the demonization of those who try to explain it would not be necessary. It has always been a problem for those in authority over us that the longer we live in the world, the more evident it becomes that it is very far from just a place. However, the more ordinary people begin to appreciate the complexity of the world, the more difficult the task of governing them becomes. While philosophers may argue that to know all is to forgive all, most leaders take a very different view. In their experience, the more people learn about the reasons behind periods, the angrier they become.
Perhaps for this reason it was generally considered wise by rulers to bolster the authority of the state with the authority of organized religion. Nothing beats organized religion for reducing the awesome complexity of the world to a few hard, fast and, above all, simple rules. Moses settled for 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 avoided. Omniscience is limited to God. He alone is able to comprehend the entirety of His universe. Men and women need only know that the Lord moves in mysterious ways to work his wonders. Keep his commandments and all will be well. (Oh, and it’s probably a good idea to keep the commandments of your earthly rulers too!)
A partnership made in heaven, you might say. Or else, this paradise is the most successful invention of partnership. Works both ways.
The problem with organized religion and its simple truths is that the human imagination, combined with the insatiable curiosity of the human species, forever rejects individuals who refuse to believe the comforting fictions of their secular and religious leaders. They can, of course, be deleted. (No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!) But what’s irritating about these knowledge seekers is that they too often come up with ideas and techniques that are just too useful to ignore. Organized religion takes a hit. Life gets more complicated – and so does all of managing an increasingly complicated population.
The answer turned out to be relatively simple. Replace the voice of the priest in the pulpit with the voice of the teacher in front of the class. Replace the wonder of God’s creation with the “nothing but” of science. Human beings are “merely” the product of millions of years of evolution. Morality is what works. Evil is what works in a way that makes no sense in evolution. Bad equals broken. The good is the absence of harm – and the difference. The best thing to be is the same as everyone else. Simple.
The Internet makes simplicity easy. Through social media, the teacher’s voice at the front of the class can be removed in favor of the voices on the individual’s Twitter feed, Facebook page, Instagram or Tik-Tok. Sophisticated algorithms ensure that most of these voices say exactly the same thing – keeping the conversation as simple as possible. It’s never been easier for people to know what they’re thinking. Never have people had less reason to be tolerant of those who think for themselves.
Trying to explain to others why they can be wrong in their way of thinking quickly becomes a dangerous exercise. For many people, being wrong is an outright impossibility. How could it be otherwise when everyone they know tells them they are right?
Introduce the concept of complexity: the idea that in a given situation, there are a multitude of competing factors at work; is interpreted by a growing number of 21st century humans as a criticism of themselves and their friends. Moreover, since they and their friends are always right, the person who “explains” can only try to justify that he is 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. Refusing to equate majority opinion with correct opinion is probably the most vital adaptation of human evolution, it is what drives the species forward.
Unfortunately, it can also get you killed.