Complexity is the enemy of intractable

You see jewelry where I see sculpture on a small scale; you see the orchestra conductor conducting; I see that conducting more as a dance. I witness the birth of the family’s first child; you see the first child give birth to a family. You see the sketched outline of a toy sailboat (or other desideratum); I point out that the boat’s image is the space left behind after all the other images have inlined it. We both, on the other hand, see the hole without its doughnut.

I ask, when is biotechnology bestiality? You ask, are gardens zoos without the cruelty? Isn’t heroism first violence to oneself? Is burglary a kind of architectural criticism? Are galleries a novel way artists handle storage problems? Does burning down a lumber yard mean houses have been destroyed? Doesn’t our continuing inability to safely store nuclear weapons waste reveal the Cold War to be the first war in modern times where the continental US took direct hits because of an enemy?

What does the US look like when one realizes it is a country where more men are likely raped than women? (Think: its male prison populations). What if those rigorous, time-consuming studies to model and validate the life cycles of threatened and endangered species become weapons of mass destruction?

Other examples can be added, but the point remains the same: There is no one way to look at things, when they are complex. The world is not one way only because the world’s complexity—its many components, each component with multiple functions (I am a husband, father, blogger…), and the many interconnections between and among components, functions and the wider environments in which these are embedded—enable all manner of different interpretation, explanation and description. No single one can cover, let alone exhaust, that complexity. The upshot of this inexhaustability is that complex problems can be cast in multiple ways; or to put it from the other direction, any complex problem that has no other description than “it’s intractable,” “a wicked problem hic et nunc,” is an exaggeration that has stopped well short of further recasting.

We have space for three major implications that follow from this conclusion. First, silly begets silly. If you think the most salient fact about domestic murders is that they happen at home in the kitchen or the bedroom, does that mean each household member should order takeaway and eat it alone in the living-room? The most salient point about domestic murders, surely, is that they are complicated case by case.

Second, the best advice is more experience with complexity, not more advice. Just look at the historical track record of advisers to leaders:

Aristotle and Alexander the Great; Seneca and Nero; Ibn Rushd (Averroes) and Caliph Abu Yaqub Yusuf; Petrarch and Emperor Charles IV; Montaigne and Henri IV; Descartes and Sweden’s Queen Christina; Voltaire and Frederick the Great; Diderot and Catherine the Great; and in case you want to add to the list, Adam Smith and the Duke of Buccleuch or Goethe and Prince Carl August, und so weiter—all these and more even before this new century. . .Or if you really want to be cringeworthy, just consider André Gide recommending against publishing Marcel Proust, Edward Garnett against publishing James Joyce, and T.S. Eliot against publishing George Orwell. . .

I mean, let’s get real: If these guys didn’t advise effectively, who the hell are we to think we can do better? (And, puhleeese, don’t throw up Kissinger and Nixon as the alternative!) Better than advice is more experience with complexity which affords opportunities for rethinking/ redesribing/revising difficulties, that is, to see these difficulties differently and to act differently than before without denying their complexity in the process.

Third, the litmus test that an issue is overly complexified or overly simplified is whether or not it can be recast in ways that open up fresh options for intervention without gainsaying its complexity. If—and yes it is a big “if”—a simplification can be recast as complex in ways that new interventions are now plausible or if the issue thought to be so complex no further action is possible can be recast to show otherwise, then the gist of the matter has been pushed and pulled beyond the current exaggerations.

But how to do this? For me there is no better place to start than with the fact humans have always been many-sided, and so must our responses be. Examples I’ve used in the past include:

  • Bad policy mess: It is said that one out of every two young African-American men in major US urban areas is enmeshed in the criminal justice system. But that’s a large number of men, right? Good policy mess: Why, then, are we not interviewing the other 50 percent of young urban African-American males outside the criminal justice system to find out what they are doing, and what the rest of us could learn from them?
  • Bad policy mess: At one point, three to four billion people—up to two-thirds of the world’s population—lived in regions without adequate water supplies or sanitation. Good policy mess: Now that is a very, very large number of people. This is such a huge distribution of people without adequate water supplies that some of them must be doing much better than others. That, without being Darwinian about it, means then there are tens of millions —hundreds of millions?—of people who have many things to say about how to better survive without adequate water to those millions more who are also trying to survive without it.

It also should go without saying that any recasting is not definitive and at best sufficient for a period of time to make and keep a decision. What matters is the pragmatist’s use-criterion: Does the recasting work? And yes, of course, recastings are never guaranteed. That, though, is an empirical issue established case by case, one that cannot be decided a priori or beforehand via full-stop declarations of policy intractability when—and this is the good mess we are in—those issues are, yes, complex.

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