It’s More Complicated Than That

I recently had lunch with a very close friend. We hadn’t seen each other in a while, so we lingered before even looking at our menus, and later over our meals, drawing out the get-together to something like an hour and forty-five minutes. We caught up about what each of us is doing, our families and our many mutual friends. We reminisced about things we had done together at various times long past. Until the last couple of minutes, we carefully avoided talking politics.

My friend didn’t have to tell me that he despises President Trump, or that he is furious at me for not doing so; we both knew those things from white-hot arguments that we’ve had over the last couple of years. What he did say, though, was that he had almost canceled the lunch, unsure that he could sit down with me given my refusal to see the world as he does on a matter so fundamental to his sense of right and wrong.


As you may know from previous posts, I’m doing a lot more reading these days than I had the hours or energy to do when I had a full time job. Directed by the two book clubs of which I am a member and my own choices, which are almost as random as our book club selections, I am reading more widely than I have since I was an undergraduate. In the course of this reading, I have developed a pet peeve about certain kinds of books that may cast an oblique light back onto the political disagreement that re-emerged at the end of lunch the other day.

I become irritated by books purporting to explain history based on a simple premise. Guns, Germs and Steel, for example, describes human history as largely a function of those three things. Really? Culture, the development and impact of the written word, technology generally and the decisions of countless individuals count for little?

Other books explain human history largely in Darwinian terms. One book club meeting very creatively featured two books – one claiming that the advent of Christianity had snuffed out the classical world’s ability to reason, bringing on the dark ages, and the other claiming that Christianity had led to “freedom, capitalism and Western success”. It’s easy to find books that claim – one hopes tongue-in-cheek – that Muslims, the Irish, the Scots, or almost any other group that has a book-buying cheering section, single-handedly saved civilization. Right now, I’m reading a Pulitzer Prize-winning book that ascribes astonishing causality regarding the Renaissance’s revolution in Western culture to the rediscovery of Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura. Ah, … maybe.

I’m sure that the authors of all these books are convinced that they convey profound truths. And I don’t doubt that each one has a story to tell us, maybe even something worth reading. But I do doubt that the pictures they paint give us anything like well-rounded perspectives on the many things that really caused history’s fundamental shifts. At each moment, the confluence of an almost limitless number of causal facts make up the contexts of our lives. Any one of these facts can be made to look like the key to understanding what has happened or is happening.

Often, there seems to be one sine qua non that, at first glance, has near-complete explanatory power. Hitler blundered by deciding to invade Russia; if he hadn’t, the war would’ve turned out very differently. But what pushed him to make that decision? Causality is a line of strings, stretching backward endlessly. At the same time, people are not marionettes, so it’s possible to argue this way or that about virtually everything that has ever taken place.

Many historic turning points seem in retrospect to have the air of inevitability about them: if Darwin hadn’t written The Origin of Species, somebody else would have; in fact, somebody else basically did, and at the same time. Lots of momentous discoveries were made essentially simultaneously by different people in different places: when widely dispersed knowledge allows for something useful to be learned as the next step, it probably will be – which makes some of history’s great turning points look a good deal less abrupt than they otherwise might.


So how is my distaste for books that I think too stridently present one cause as the key to understanding momentous shifts in history relevant to disagreements regarding politics?

We are all, of necessity, highly selective thinkers. At any given time, we see only a tiny fraction of the things that are right in front of our noses – how the driver in front of us is behaving, if we’re on the road, or where the exit ramp begins. If we tried to take in literally everything that’s within our lines of sight, we couldn’t actually drive. Or do much of anything other than look.

Mostly subconsciously, but also willfully, we narrow our focuses to the criteria we think are most relevant for what we want to do – a process that is relatively simple on the road (which is why autonomous driving is possible) but results in radically divergent decision-trees regarding subjective, value-laden matters such as religion, interpersonal relations and politics.

My friend could have, as he has in the past, argued fiercely that Trump is unworthy of the presidency for a thousand reasons (most of which he finds evidence for daily in The New York Times and various network news programs). Some of those reasons might even be valid – but since they all confirm what he’s strongly inclined to believe, he believes pretty much all of them. For the same reason that we narrow our decision-making criteria regarding the world around us, confirmation bias afflicts us all; we are born simplifiers.

Had my friend re-made those arguments, I would have responded, as I have in the past “yes, but … I like what he has done as president”. We would then have argued right past each other, coming at many of the same facts from radically different angles. Fortunately, this time we had the wisdom to pull back, recognizing the greater value of our friendship relative to another fruitless argument.

One of the joys of being human is that we are capable of understanding many of reality’s layers of causation and meaning – but we can’t begin to understand all of them simultaneously. It’s the layers of which we are unaware that should give us pause before describing history in simple terms – or passing judgment on the views of others regarding fantastically complex, necessarily subjective matters.

Humility, as has been said many times, is the beginning of wisdom. Apart from anything else, it can help us make – or keep – friendships.


M.H. Johnston

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