Sunday, July 21, 2013

Cartoon Thinking

The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function - F. Scott Fitzgerald
Sometimes I think the public's intellectual sophistication in the past few decades has been inversely proportional to the sophistication of its video games. Video games have become high-resolution, near-photorealistic affairs, while the thoughts you see expressed online have regressed to the level of Pong--black and white, unsophisticated, and not very impressive. 

I know this is probably an illusion. I doubt people are really less mentally sophisticated than they were 30 years ago, though they might be more polarized and have shorter attention spans. It's mostly just that people's thoughts are now on display, so we can see them in a way we never could before. And it's not a pretty sight. 

The rudeness, the fear and loathing, and the lack of logic can be pretty discouraging. But what I want to focus on here is something a little different: the lack of complexity and nuance. I've started calling it cartoon thinking. People take complex, multidimensional realities and simultaneously simplify and exaggerate them, turning them into a caricature of the real thing. They do this with individuals (Obama wants to destroy America), with groups (Tea Partiers are all racists), with ideologies (If it's not capitalism, it's socialism), and with ethics and loyalty (You're either with us or you're with the terrorists). This kind of low-resolution thinking won't cut it. It's like trying to watch high-definition movies on a 1992 Apple Macintosh. It won't give you a clear enough picture, because reality is complicated.

People, for example, are complicated. Barring a few true psychopaths, pure heroes and pure villains mostly just exist in fiction. Very few people are all one or all the other, and lots of people are both at different times in their lives, or in different areas of their lives. As much as I admire some things about Thomas Jefferson, for example, the man owned slaves, and even fathered children with one of them. Was he a towering historical figure with a phenomenal intellect, or a slave-owning bigot who thought women and blacks were inferior beings? He was all those things. People are multi-faceted, and just won't fit in a nutshell. Walt Whitman's description of himself fits most people, to some extent: "I am large. I contain multitudes." Granted, Joe Sixpack down the street may not be as large and multitudinous as Jefferson or Whitman, but he's still more complex than he seems.

Categories are complex things, too. We talk about groups of things or people as though they were all alike and had hard and fast boundaries, but many of them don't. You hear people say things like, "Men are more prone to violence than women". Well, that's certainly true on average, but a more accurate way of thinking about it is to imagine two bell curves. If we plotted the propensity for violence from left to right, then the curve for women will be to the left of the curve for men. They may not be exactly bell-shaped, but one thing is certain--the two curves overlap. Even if men are more violence-prone on average than women, some women are far more violent than the average man, and some men less violence-prone than the average woman. Most men, thank goodness, are not nearly as violent as Bonnie Parker or Lizzy Borden. This is why it's wrong--both ethically and logically--to judge a single individual in a group by statistical characteristics of that group as a whole.

Categories very often have fuzzy boundaries, too. It's silly to try to decide definitively if the Chevy El Camino was a car or a truck. It was a little of both. For that matter, some people with odd numbers of sex chromosomes are not exactly male or female. They're somewhere in the middle, or possibly even their own category. It's not always either/or.

Ideologies and economic systems also have fuzzy boundaries, though people seem to forget it. In the last few years, it's becoe common to hear people talk as though capitalism and socialism were on opposite sides of a canyon, with nothing but a gaping abyss in between. Any deviation from pure free market capitalism gets called socialism these days, as though if you're farther left than Milton Friedman you must see eye-to-eye with Lenin. But that's ridiculous. There are all kinds of shades of grey between pure capitalism and pure socialism, and no country on earth is all one or all the other. It's not like an on/off switch; it's more like a continuous dial (and the correct setting is somewhere in between, in my opinion). 

To speak accurately about individuals, groups, categories, and ideologies, then, we can't make sweeping generalizations of the sort that fit on bumper stickers (well...generally speaking). Reality is complicated, so our thoughts need to be complicated enough to do it justice. Take patriotism, for example. The other day in an online discussion, I mentioned how I didn't care for the practice of requiring children to say the Pledge of Allegiance. I maintained that people give it too much weight, as though it were a founding document like the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, or the Bill of Rights. It isn't. It was written by a Christian socialist in 1892 as part of a campaign by a children's magazine to sell a bunch of flags to schools. "Under God" wasn't added until the height of the red scare in 1954 (though it does come from the Gettysburg Address--Lincoln seems to have inserted it on the fly in his speech). I'm not at all sure that people like James Madison or Thomas Jefferson would have approved of affirming our freedoms by requiring kids to stand up and recite a pledge in unison. That is a little contradictory, after all.

The response to this was, "So we should throw out patriotism too, since it's all a joke!?!?!?" (Don't even get me started on the excessive punctuation.) Apparently her reasoning was, "He has problems with the Pledge of Allegiance, therefore he thinks we should get rid of patriotism". Which is wrong. She was engaging in cartoon thinking, assuming that my views are more extreme and less nuanced than they actually are. The fact is, I couldn't describe my view of patriotism in less than a couple of pages, because it's pretty complex. I might even have to use compound sentences, like, "Yes, we should support our troops and respect their bravery and sacrifice, but we should also question the necessity of something as horrible as war." Of course I love my country and want what's best for it. I have the deepest admiration for most of the principles in our actual founding documents, and would fight to defend my country if it necessary. But I also know patriotism can become a kind of violent, exclusive nationalism, and that sort of thing has caused a lot of terrible things. I also know that questioning people's patriotism is a popular method of enforcing conformity and suppressing dissent. Patriotism has often been, as Samuel Johnson said, "The last refuge of a scoundrel". 

I could go on describing all the nuances of my idea of patriotism, but I'll spare you. The point is that it's very complicated, because the realities surrounding patriotism are very complicated. Lots of people will disagree with me, thinking patriotism ought to be simple. "I'm a patriot, no ifs, ands or buts about it". Well, sorry, but those ifs ands and buts are necessary. Of course, I understand why people shy away from more subtle, less decisive thinking. They think that if we get too caught up describing every nuance, or weighing every pro and con, we'll get bogged down and lose our clear vision of right and wrong, or our ability to stop thinking and take action. That is a legitimate concern. It happens, and sometimes you do have to stop thinking and say, "No, I have to draw my line here". But the flip side of that (you knew there would be a flip side in an essay like this, right?) is that people draw those lines too quickly, thinking that the task of understanding what's true and right is easier than it really is. We shouldn't fall into an endless cycle of hand-wringing, but at the same time, we also shouldn't succumb to mindless knee-jerking and cartoon thinking. Life is too complicated for that.