Friday, February 25, 2011

The value of complexity

I was struck by two articles I read, recently. One was on Slacktivist, and the other on Starts with a Bang.

Two very different blogs, two very different styles, two very different subjects. I found it interesting that they shared a common theme, which is that people are attracted to the illusion of simplicity. The first article discusses the complexity of the bible and the strange lengths we'll go to in order to completely ignore readings that require much effort of thought. The second discusses the recent O'Reilly tides debacle in which Bill O'Reilly claimed the nature and cause of the tides was unexplainable and was thoroughly mocked by the internet. O'Reilly then referred to anyone with more than a 7th grade education a pinhead. Stay classy, Bill.

So why the desire to take beautifully complex and inspiring things and ignore or mystify them to the point of uselessness? I don't know that I have a theory, but I definitely have some experience in the matter.

I once loaned my father Firefly, the Joss Whedon series. He likes science fiction, and he likes westerns, so I thought he might enjoy it. I was happy to discover that he did quite like it--it's always a bit hit or miss when trying to predict his tastes. I was immediately perplexed by his explanation as to why he enjoyed it.

"It's black and white. Good guys and bad guys, and you know who's good and who's bad, and there's no gray area stuff messing everything up. Right is right and wrong is wrong and wrong gets punished by the guy who's right."

I wondered if perhaps someone had switched the dvds in the store and I simply hadn't noticed.

For those of you who haven't seen Firefly (and, by golly, you really should) it's the story of a couple of old soldiers who were on the losing end of their rebellion. The monolithic government entity wins, and the rebels make their way to the farthest reaches of the 'verse to try to avoid their grasp. On the way they gather up a young, female mechanic who's impossibly gifted, a mercenary in the purest sense of the word, a goofy and pacifistic pilot, a wandering preacher with a questionable past, a highly paid and respected concubine/prostitute, and a doctor and his sister who're hiding from the same government entity the rebels are attempting to avoid. They get by with petty theft, and are often struck with the dilemma of keeping the entire crew safe, keeping money enough to feed the crew and maintain the ship, and still do right by those they come in contact with.

It is, quite frankly, marinating in grey area.

The entire point of the series and all of its character development is predicated on the notion of tough moral choices and contradictory motivations thriving within the same individual. None of the issues any of the characters cope with are straightforward or easy. Even Jayne, the mercenary, the character with the simplest motivations of all (survival, profit - in that order) is placed in situations that require nuance barely within the realm of his capacity to act upon.

I couldn't understand how my father could have such a perspective if he'd really watched the show. He claimed he watched every episode available, and described familiar plot points. He knew all the characters, strange and flat as his versions may be.

I finally decided that he simply ignored the bits that were outside of his comfort zone. That's sort of how he copes with life, really. He simply ignores the complicated bits, glossing over nuance and augmenting things to fit whatever it was he wanted them to be before he ever encountered them.

It is exactly what he does with the bible.

When I was young we used to spend hours upon hours arguing about the bible. Looking back, it's a lot of time we could've spent discussing the content, but that's not really important on planet Bizarro Christianity. No, what's important is that you believe the bible can only be read with a literal interpretation. Note that I did not say "what's important is that you read the bible literally" because on planet BC you don't actually have to read the thing at all, so long as you purport that were you to do so your reading of it would say things like the earth is 6,000 years old and homosexuality is icky.

Round and round we'd go, with him yelling and pleading and fearing for my immortal soul and all of that business. I, meanwhile, had already had a crisis of faith, abandoned christianity completely, rediscovered the value and complexity of christianity and started on a path that led me to where I am today. Wherever that is. We still had this argument every few years, up until just a few years ago when we stopped talking with enough frequency to actually upset one another in any meaningful way.

But those arguments shone a light into the sort of world my father lives in, and it's a strange place indeed. In his world, things must be simple. There must be Good and there must be Evil, and he must be on the side of Good. He simply cannot cope with anything more sophisticated than that. Contradictions are ignored; mistakes are met with defiant anger or even violence.

My father has never been terribly happy.

There are a lot of people out there who are very much like him.

I've never really understood the attraction, to be honest. Intellectually, I suppose I understand the illusion of simplicity. I definitely understand repeatedly doing something that isn't actually working, flailing about and being vaguely aware that it will never provide the intended result, yet being completely unequipped to recognize any alternative. I, however, have always enjoyed complex and nuanced things. I love digging in as deep as I think I can go only to find more soil. And really, I suppose that's part of what confuses me. If one has made the choice to believe with all their heart in the precepts of christianity they typically claim that it brings them joy. What is more joyful than being able to grab hold of this thing you love and unfold it almost infinitely before you? The more you study the more there is. It changes and confuses and reveals and teaches and you leave with more questions than you had before but there is an endless well of answers for an endless well of questions. You will be wrong about them, and you will go back and revisit and it will mean something entirely new and different.

That has profound value.

Regardless of what you believe or do not believe about the bible it is valuable. Used one way it can lead you to a greater understanding of a divine force that you personally feel. Used another it can lead to a greater understanding of oneself; your inner thoughts, feelings, and experiences manifesting themselves on the pages as you project your life onto this collection of stories and it reveals things you didn't realize were there. Used another way it can lead to a greater understanding of historical or even current cultural context.

My father would frequently tell me I was being disrespectful to the bible, and therefore its author: god. I've heard that on more than one occasion. Considering the bible versatile, adaptable, nuanced, and sophisticated being a disrespectful view of it is, of course, complete nonsense. He was, of course, saying that I was being disrespectful of him, which he often said whenever our opinions on anything differed.

So we're back to why. Why is it attractive to remove all substance from something before being able to enjoy it? Why must things be simple, stark, and utterly boring? I can only guess that to leave those complexities and contradictions leaves us with the very dangerous possibility that we may see the complexities and contradictions within ourselves and there are those among us who simply do not have the tools to do such a thing.

It is unfortunate that they don't realize the only way to develop such tools is to struggle with the substance they've stripped away, as that's where it dwells. It's as if they throw away the meat in favor of just the bone, for fear their stomach will not be able to digest anything more significant. As they waste away, they become yet more convinced their weakened constitutions would merely reject anything more substantial.

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