Speeding Past Complexity and Nuance

Written by: Terry Link

Primary Source : Possibilitator, September 11, 2016

As the handful of readers who have visited this blog a few times are likely to notice, I write a lot of things sparked largely by what I read. While some of those reflections are sparked by essays, articles, blogs or shorter pieces, the majority I believe ( although I haven’t done a content analysis of the 200+ blog entries scratched out over the last four years) are from books. I’ve been averaging about 20-25 non-fiction books a year for the past four years or so. And any frequent visitor to this site will note they cover largely political science, philosophy, economics, psychology, theology, environmental science, and international relations.

I finished Thomas Weiss’s 2014, Governing the World: Addressing Problems without Passports today.

 I am partly through the following titles I alternate between:

Jan Scholte, et. al New Rules for Global Justice: Structural Redistribution in the Global Economy

John Harris, How to be Good: The Possibility of Moral Improvement
Cover for 

How to be Good

Anthony Flaccavento, 

Radhika Balakrishnaan, Rethinking Economic Policy for Social Justice

William Guadelli, Global Citizenship Education
Global Citizenship Education: Everyday Transcendence (Paperback) book cover

I note this not to display how widely read I am, but to note my own curiosity to better understand the world we share and how we might better reshape it. In each of these books and in all that I have noted in this blog over the years, they share at least one thing in common.

They are willing to wrestle with complexity and nuance. 

Let me cite just one example from Weiss’ book this morning. Weiss is a Presidential Professor of International Relations at CUNY Graduate Center. Weiss’ book is a relatively short 101 pages of text looking at the feasibility of creating a more effective global governance system. To support his ideas he marshalls more than 240 references, some of course from the same source, but a quick review shows the vast majority of references are unique citations. Reading books with this type of serious thinking and scholarship opens the reader up to complexities and nuances on the topic we would likely miss without the more lengthy space to develop the ideas. (I was told in a former position that if I wanted my reports to be read by upper level administrators they had to have a one page bullet-point summary. The likelihood of them reading the entire report was about nil).

With social media we’re now down to 140 characters. Lost in this fast paced race to decide is any real ability to investigate complexity and nuances. Busy administrators, CEO’s, elected officials rely on the shorthand version of reality, where those at the table or who have the loudest voice get to have their points raised, but others are left out.

I am fearful as I watch this presidential election campaign move forward, that there will be no room for educating voters about complexity or nuance. The world is painted as black or white, red or blue. Campaigns are built largely on sound bytes to fit the 30 second advertisement, the bumper sticker, the brand and much of it aimed at how bad the other candidate is. Even the upcoming debates (?) promise nothing much different. There is absolutely no commitment to build any deep understanding about issues and the type of decisions and processes we need to employ to come up with workable solutions.

It is perhaps, at least partly, but I would suggest, significantly, because politics has become more of a game, where winning is the only thing. Any way one wins is acceptable. I don’t see any long-term benefit from this approach to governing. The process celebrates, if not feeds, public ignorance. Our mass media is in part to blame. The purchase of elections through media sound bytes is surely part of the problem. 

But if we could see elections as a chance for candidates to find common ground instead of bludgeoning their opponent for a misstep, we might increase our chances to craft solutions that stand before us as a human family on a finite planet.Scoring points from simplistic statements is a poison that we might hope education could provide and antidote. 

Appreciating scholarship and how it can help us see the complexity and the interdependencies that surround us,I am reminded of  a fine little film my wife and I watch last night, The Man Who New Infinity, a 2015 film on the life of Indian mathematician, Srinivasa Ramanujan who lived in the early 20th century. We see the struggle of using rigor to strengthening our understanding of the world we share. Reading book length analyses can help us all gain a needed does of humility. We have much to learn, together.

Beware the simplistic statements from candidates.

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Terry Link
Terry Link is a retired MSU librarian, former founding director of the MSU Office of Campus Sustainability, and co-founder and former chair of the American Library Association’s Task Force on the Environment. He recently served as associate editor for the two-volume encyclopedia, Achieving Sustainability: Visions, Principles, and Practices(Gale/Cengage 2014). He has also served as executive director of a regional food bank and as a county commissioner. Currently he is president of Starting Now, LLC, a sustainability consulting firm, a Senior Fellow for the U.S. Partnership for Education for Sustainable Development and serves on numerous non-profit organization boards.
Terry Link

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