When we are children we crave simplicity. We don’t want long and involved explanations, we want goodies and baddies, princesses and witches, children and wolves. We want fairy tales that tell us that however desperate and complicated things look, everything will turn out all right in the end. We can have the happy ending if we just believe.
And that’s OK. Young children obviously don’t have the cognitive ability to deal with ambiguity, multiple variables and uncertainty. They need simple, common-sense stories that help them navigate a confusing world.
But it’s not OK when we carry that craving for simplicity into adulthood. The world is not simple. Life is not simple, and to pretend it is not only prevents us from fulfilling our potential, but also risks us making costly and damaging mistakes that harm us and those around us.
There are two areas that I think are a cause for concern in modern ‘western’ society – personal infantalism, and wilful political ignorance. I’ll explain why…
What I am calling personal infantalism is embodied by the seemingly increasing trend for people to prop up their fragile psyches with reassuring and facile platitudes. Social media is awash with such things – an image of a beautiful tropical beach with a slogan that suggests all you need is [love/self-belief/true friends etc]. We seemingly have an overwhelming need to convince ourselves that everything will be all right if we just let go of our worries, banish the negative people from our lives and live in the moment.
I’m tempted to quote Socrates’ ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’, but I recognise that comforting self-deception is sometimes justified. We all go through difficult times when we need reassurance simply in order to keep going. But the problem comes when we try to turn this into a way of life. What to some people reads like positive, inspirational advice that will lead to a happier and more tolerant world, to me reads like meaningless ignorance that encourages people to ‘see the good in everyone’ rather than getting off their backside and doing something tangible to improve the world.
It’s maybe not so important when we do this kind of thing in our everyday lives. It’s not like it is a picture of a minion with a positive quote that is stopping me help build schools in Africa. But it is a big problem when we carry this craving for simplicity into the political arena.
What has struck me about the recent general election campaign in the UK is the complete lack of acknowledgement from the main political parties of the real challenges of delivering policy in a complicated globalised world. Instead we have been fed simplistic solutions that will, apparently, make everything all right again. There has been no nuanced argument, just – trust in me and I’ll make it better.
And the reason politicians do this, is because this is what we want. Voters never choose complicated uncertain policies, they choose the seemingly easy and simple path. Just look at the things that always get the masses nodding along in approval…
All naughty children need is a smack, send the immigrants home, bring back grammar schools, bring back hanging etc etc. What the tell-it-like-is-is simple-common-sense brigade always fail to notice is that these kind of solutions never worked in the past and don’t work where they are still practiced now. Countries with the death penalty still have some of the highest rates of violent crime in the world, insular countries still have economic and social issues. There is, unfortunately no magic bullet. There is no problem that can be solved by returning to the 1950s – globalised capitalism has made the world a much more complicated inter-connected place where simplistic solutions simply don’t work.
However much we long for childish simplicity, the only way forward is to realise that the world is a complicated and confusing place and progress can only be made through well thought out, nuanced, evidence-based policies built on a strong basis of international consensus and co-operation. Anyone selling anything else is taking us for a ride.