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There are no simple solutions anymore, only complex matters

George W. Bush and Barack H. Obama
Photo by Pool/Getty Images

David Axelrod, President Barack Obama’s Pygmalion*, mused: “(President Ronald) Reagan significantly changed the trajectory of the country for better and worse. But he restored a sense of clarity. (President George W.) Bush and (Vice-President Dick) Cheney were black and white, and after them, Americans wanted someone smart enough to get the nuances and deal with complexities. Now I think people are tired of complexity and they’re hungering for clarity, a simpler time. But that’s going to be hard to restore in the world today.”{1}

The description “Nuanced thinking to deal with complex matters,” is a dog whistle to the left. It’s onion matter for nuanced listeners that know that the “new and improved” method of packaging thought sells the product, in the same manner Proctor and Gamble packages "new and improved" products for greater sales, with minimal variation of the actual product. These like-minded listeners do enjoy watching black and white thinkers try to peel through the layered complexities, however, to get to something that isn't there.

Nuanced thinkers know that the complex problems, of the complex world, cannot be resolved with simplistic solutions anymore, and the key word in that sentence is anymore. Does that mean that the previous solutions were wrong, not necessarily, but it’s complicated. Does that mean that the current solutions are better than those in the past, not necessarily, but it’s a different world now, and what worked in the past may not work today. It’s complicated. I have to imagine that there are some that haven’t heard this line of thought before, for I know that there are some that don’t pay attention to politics and history. Those that know their history, however, and the strategies of such politics, know that this line of thought was probably used, in some incarnation, by some leaders, in early Mesopotamia.

Complex, nuanced thinkers get it. It’s their password into the club, and they feel a little sorry for those of us that struggle so hard to understand. They understand, and that’s what is important to them, and if they don’t get it, exactly, they know enough to fill in the blanks for those that don’t. It’s what intelligent, nuanced thinkers do.

The other thinkers, those black and white thinkers that need everything to be spoon-fed, grow confused, and no one wants to admit to being confused. Nuanced thinkers are never really confused, or surprised, by events. They know the world is complex, and nuanced, and they know that it's their leaders' job to avoid saying anything that could be pinned down in right and wrong arenas. The nuanced speaker learns to give himself an out in their speech, in case history doesn't line up exactly how they thought it would. This is, some say, good politics, for if history proves to contradict their position statements, they will say, “As I’ve said from the beginning … ” They then give the illusion that all previous position statements they made now line up in the exact manner they predicted. Did they say it that way in the first speech? No one really knows, because no one really knows what they said, in the first speech. This is what passes as approaching complicated matters in a thoughtful manner, using a nuanced approach.

Those that ask a nuanced speaker to clarify their statements and positions, are usually greeted with a minutes long filibuster that ends up either exhausting the questioner to the point of being embarrassed that they don’t really know what the speaker said, or that they feel satisfied that the speaker gave their question such thought and weight.

If you’re one that scratches your head anytime a nuanced speaker details his thoughtful, nuanced approach to complicated matters, or you’ve rewound your DVR over and over to try and get some sense of what they’re talking about, and you’ve felt dumber each time you’re tried to understand it, you can go ahead and stop now. You can go ahead and take your self-imposed dunce cap off. It’s not you, it’s them. They’re nuanced thinkers.

A nuanced speaker, or thinker, provides their nuanced approach to give the illusion that they are above the fray. They don’t seek simple solutions, like those other guys. They’re above that. They are the "new and improved". They are deep thinkers that receive applause from high-minded crowds, seeking high-minded approaches to this new, complicated world.

They marvel at the vocabulary "their" nuanced speaker provides, and they find the speaker’s sentence structure, and cadence, sublime. They don’t know any more about what the speaker actually said than anyone else, but they take comfort from the speaker’s ability to address it in a manner that captures these, most complicated times.

Bottom line, black and white, thinkers would be just fine with all of the flowery language, and the Ivy League theories, as long as below the bottom line, concrete results are achieved. They do achieve results, the nuanced speaker’s acolytes will scream, but they may not be the type of black and white results that can be placed in a spreadsheet. It’s way more complicated than all that. "We are not talking about accounting figures here," is something they might say. "We're talking about living, breathing human beings." That’s fine, say black and white thinkers, but at the end of the theoretical, nuanced thinker’s tenure, shouldn't they be judged on the totality of their performance? This isn’t a sports game, the nuanced thinker’s acolytes will say, and I think we’ll find that this whole question of performance will be judged in a sophisticated, complicated manner that displays the fact that thoughtful, nuanced thought wins out over simplistic solutions that fail to consider the big picture.

The annoying aspect of bottom line, black and white thinking is that it gets so caught up in judging performance that it fails to account for presentation, nuanced thinking, and compassionate, inspirational intentions. Black and white thinkers can listen to the same beautiful speech on a matter that “no one else wants to talk about” and stubbornly refuse to gauge the speaker on the merits of their intentions, and they will end up thinking that the speaker said a whole lot of nothing. They think that he avoided the complicated matters, to avoid placing his bottom on the line with clarity, and when they turn to their nuanced counterparts, they find that the "post-game" discussions involve more of what he didn’t say versus what he did.

“He didn’t say that,” the black and white thinker responds to the nuanced thinker’s assessment of the speech.

“He didn’t have to.”

“What?”

“Watch the tape again,” the nuanced thinker says. “It’s obvious what he meant.”

If you are a black and white thinker that debates theoretical, nuanced thinkers, you’ll often find them ceding to the fact that some black and white solutions may be viable ones, and that those solutions may even exhibit some understanding of the complexities of human relations, but they’re so black and white that they don’t account for the totality of the complexities involved. The import of their message is that black and white thinkers are not wrong, per se, so much as they’re not right enough.

The next logical question this argument provokes is, are nuanced thinkers really onto something when they suggest that we black and white thinkers aren’t giving complicated matters enough thought, or have they simply found artful answers that allow them to avoid appearing uninformed when they try to articulate an answer? Before we answer this question, one more, vital, point needs to be made. Black and white thinkers don’t necessarily say they are correct with their first solution and stubbornly adhere to that solution. Most of them are willing to adapt to complicated matters that arise in the course of their solution, but they think it’s important to formulate a well-thought out plan and adjust accordingly. The nuanced, theoretical mind will leap upon this characterization of black and white thinking with a counterpoint that suggests that all those adjustments should be made beforehand, and that that is the virtue of pursuing a more thoughtful approach. As we’ve seen in the current administration, and it’s defenders, however, this line of thinking usually leads the nuanced thinker to get so bottled up in the search for the perfect solution that they end up hoping that a solution will eventually present itself. Thus, the answer isn’t as simple as "knowing, and not knowing", but the presentation of most likely knowing, with the idea that "knowing" how to resolve a matter condescends to the complexity of it.

I’ve heard some black and white thinkers wonder why members of this administration won’t answer one question directly, “Just one!” they say. The answer, I believe, is that members of this administration probably don’t want to go down this road, for that would set a precedent from which they’d have to answer other questions directly, until their record on these matters could be firmly established, and they could be called right and wrong on a case by case basis, until the perception of their intelligence, and overall mystique, is damaged. It’s much easier to simply obfuscate, and filibuster, all answers that might lead to some favorable interpretations.

“I answered your question,” nuanced thinkers will usually reply to follow up questions. “I just didn’t answer it in the manner you wanted me to answer it. It's not a cookie cutter world anymore, in which one answer will resolve all complexities.”

As David Axelrod stated, Americans grew tired of black and white thinking after the eight years of the Bush administration. They found out that Bush's below the bottom line, black and white, and results oriented thinking was often wrong, and they wanted a leader that wasn't wrong. Or, at least, a leader that wasn't as wrong as a below the bottom line, black and white, and results oriented thinker can be wrong. They grew tired of the simple solutions approach, and a president that didn’t present himself well on the national stage. They wanted someone that gave them more confidence. They wanted someone that provided the nation a better leadership mystique package. They wanted a nuanced thinker that gave greater weight to complex matters.

The thing about nuanced thinking though, as evidenced by this current administration, is that too often complex matters are deemed unsolvable, and even though intelligence reports may label some matters inevitable, the nuanced thinker waits until all evidence is in before acting. When the inevitable eventually occurs, and it’s far more extreme than it would’ve been had they acted on intelligence, and enacted some form of substantial proactive measure, the nuanced thinker cautions all thinkers from believing that the outcome could’ve been any different with a simplistic approach. They state that those old, black and white, proactive, preventative measures that worked so well in the past, wouldn’t have worked in this case, because this situation, in this new world, is far more complicated than it used to be. A statement that various “new world” leaders surely made to their countrymen when Alexander “the Great”; or the Romans; or the early tribes in Mesopotamia threatened their borders and eventually took them over.

*Pygmalion is a figure of mythology that fell in love with a statue he had carved.

{1}http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/06/opinion/sunday/maureen-dowd-who-do-we-think-we-are.html?_r=0