Complexity – Part I

Perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned this year is to better recognize and appreciate complexity. We, as humans, love nothing more than to simplify things, to create simple black and white dichotomies, to attempt to find simple answers for complex problems. It’s only natural, but it is terribly dangerous. My aim is to create a series on complexity to examine this phenomenon a bit more closely. In Part I, I will look at the recent death of Osama bin Laden, and specifically, the reaction to the news in America. I believe the popular reaction is incredibly revealing in ways that most of us fail to recognize.

One of my professors, Peter Nolan, has built a career out of challenging common assumptions and beliefs about culture, cultural history, and values. I highly recommend his books, Crossroads: The End of Wild Capitalism and the Future of Humanity and Capitalism and Freedom: The Contradictory Character of Globalisation. In both, he presents detailed historical analysis showing how what is often taken as “fact” about cultures such as Islam and China are little more than distortion. In the end, while cultural differences are certainly real and important, they are neither as deep nor as immutable as commonly believed. The relationship between cultures, past and present, is best described as complex.

For me, the most recent proof of this misinterpretation of difference is the reaction to Osama bin Laden’s death in the US. First let me say, bin Laden was a vile human being and the world is better off that he is no longer in it. However, when I read the news of his death, it left me feeling empty, not elated. Apparently, judging by the large-scale celebrations outside the White House and in Times Square, many Americans felt differently. And you know what those scenes, which I found right from the start to be peculiar and out of place, reminded me of most?  News footage from countries in the Middle East.  You know what I’m talking about. The grainy videos of young people celebrating in public spaces and waving flags to mark some momentous (and often incredibly violent) event. Take the execution of Saddam Hussein and the public celebrations in Iraq as just one example.

So, it would seem to me that these two cultures, which often seem to be in great conflict, share yet another thing in common. Within at least some fraction of both societies, there is a true love of violence and vengeance. Perhaps then, our cultures collide not because they are so different, but because they are many ways so similar. As many of us have experienced, fights between brothers can be much nastier than fights between strangers. It is important to remember, as Professor Nolan points out quite eloquently, the so-called “Enlightenment Values” that are purported to form the foundation of Western culture, were formed in Europe during a time period (the 18thcentury) that was quite brutal. Consider, for example, Charles Dickens’ account of the aftermath of the Gordon Riots in England in the late 18th century, a series of bloody riots that resulted from anti-Catholic fervor (at least on the surface, however, as is often the case, pseudo-religious zealotry was used as an excuse for general ruffianism). From Dickens’ historical novel,Barnaby Rudge, “(A)nd even little children were held up above the people’s heads to see what kind of a toy a gallows was, and learn how men were hanged.”

Of course, I recognize that I am falling prey to the same trap that I warned of…over-simplification. Cultures are very broad as well as deep with heterogeneities throughout. The actions of a vocal minority do not necessarily represent the values of the whole. However, I think it is important to examine things from other perspectives. Thus, I think it’s time, once again, to look deeper…to take a closer look at ourselves and not just our enemies. Do we like what we see? Are we remaining true to our values? And even more, what are our core values or what do we want them to be?