It’s become a truism today that complexity is bad and that we should strive for simplicity. I agree. Kinda. Sorta. I’m here to offer a qualified and narrow argument in favor of complexity. Of course, the people who hate complexity don’t read things such as this anyway, so I figure I know who’s still reading.
In almost every discussion, the complicated and nuanced position is at a disadvantage. The simplistic and emotional appeal is almost always going to win most people over. I know because I tried both in politics. The only thing that works is dumbing things down, because very, very few people are willing to take the time to understand a complex idea well enough that it seems simple to them.
In the first election I ever managed — when I still didn’t have a clue what I was doing — we consciously decided that we were going to talk about issues and not personalities and trivialities. We ran a full-page newspaper ad with more words on it than you’ve ever seen from a campaign in your life. We issued white papers recommending policies based on ideas from think tanks. We talked about what the issues really were — and we got something like 3 percent of the vote. A couple of years later, we took the same candidate and ran again (for a different office, but in the same city). This time, we didn’t mention ideas. We didn’t mention policies. We didn’t mention philosophy. We just talked about what a great guy the candidate was. We won.
I applied the lessons of those races for the entire time I worked in politics. Although I’m a big fan of philosophy and nuance and deep thoughts, I worked hard to make sure that my clients never talked to voters about those things. It was depressing and cynical, but it’s the way you win popular elections.
So if being simple and dumbing ideas down is what works in elections, does this mean it’s the way we ought to think? At the risk of sounding ironic, I’d say the truth is more complicated than that.
There are two extremes that are equally bad. One is when people use overly simplistic heuristics that lead to horribly faulty understandings of the world. You see this in politics all the time, especially in slogans and bumper stickers that are popular among the simple-minded True Believers of all types. The other extreme is when people overcomplicate things to the point that nobody understands what any of it means.
I had an insight into this recently that I thought was original, until I did a bit of research and discovered that a number of people had talked about it in the past. I’d just never noticed, proving again that I know less than I like to think I do and that original ideas are less common than we like to imagine. The idea is that there are three different categories of understanding of ideas:
- There’s a dumbed-down kind of simplicity that ignores the fact that life is complicated and that issues aren’t as easy as solving single-variable equations to come up with black-and-white answers
- There’s the middle ground where everything is complicated and muddled and poorly communicated and nothing makes sense to most people — like something out of an Escher painting.
- There’s a third category past that where the complicated issues are organized and coalesce into an ordered, kind of like how the complicated twigs and branches of my photo here end up organizing themselves into a larger whole. When seen at this level, the underlying order makes the complex seem simple and beautiful.
The 19th century writer Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. summarized it better and more quickly than I could:
“I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.”
I don’t have much use for ignorant people who oversimplify the world — such as those seen on TV holding up signs, for the most part — but I also don’t have much use for the people who merely make things complicated enough to be muddled and contradictory. For me, the goal is always to reach that third category. I don’t always do it, but that’s what I’m striving for.
Note: I took the photo accompanying this article in my back yard in February in the middle of a driving thunderstorm. The elements of the scene were complex. The overall beauty was very simple.