We live in times of extraordinary complexity. Perhaps it was ever thus: were there ever truly simple and straightforward times? Yet, our willingness and our ability to discern complexity is under attack as never before. It is under attack from social media; it is under attack from the rise in sentimentality we’ve seen over this last twenty years or so, and it is under attack because of the fashion for hyperbole and over-statement.
The deplorable rise of “spin” – the use of language to conceal, obscure or divert people from the facts – has much to answer for. The use of carefully chosen, politically charged, and nuanced phrasing, has, paradoxically, eroded our capability to discern nuance.
We look back at events like the Great War, and perhaps see simple causes, straightforward effects, obvious and clear protagonists and antagonists. We view such events through the simple lens of modern thinking. Cliches such as “senseless slaughter” come to our lips; we take off our hats, and rightly, spend a moment in silence to remember the fallen.
But it was never that simple: that war was no simple struggle between good and evil, nor even a titanic battle between two great empires, the British and the Austro-Hungarian. Britain, even the British Empire, was part of an alliance, and not even the senior partner at that.
And then, consider what else was happening at the same time as the Great War. The struggle for female emancipation and women’s suffrage. The Easter Rising and the struggle for independence in Ireland. The Russian revolution. The technical innovation happening as a result of the war; the changing relationship between the New World and the Old.
All of it points to a time of complexity to which we don’t do justice by over-simplifying what happened. It is not less true today. I’m minded to reflect on our shortening attention span. My boss wants 3-5 bullet points, size 21 font, one slide in Microsoft PowerPoint – just the salient facts to present to the Board. In the second war, Churchill reputedly turned to his underlings and asked them to provide for him a “report on the current state of the Royal Navy – on one side of a sheet of paper”. As writers we do have a duty to keep things simple, to use short words, sentences and paragraphs, and to cut out unnecessary waffle. There is a case for simplicity – but we have made the case for simplicity our idol.
How are we going to comment meaningfully and profitably on the hideous complexity through which we are now living? Three bullet points won’t cover Brexit nor explain the reasons for and against it. One side of a sheet of paper may not cover the reasons for our changing culture. A few photographs will not explain the balance of power between the West, China and Russia. The job of the commentator is made doubly difficult by the fact that everyday folk have lost interest in complexity. Today we have Twitter and Instagram – but think of the walls of text in a Victorian newspaper. Today we want to see things reduced to three bullet points, the sound bite, the black and white. We want to see the spectacle of wrong and right, of bread and circuses. Who needs a judge and jury when you’ve got Facebook?