We don’t normally describe as “simple” those people whom we wish to compliment. In common language, “simple” has a distinctly negative overtone to it when we apply it to people.
“He’s a bit simple…”
And still, at least in mainstream American culture, simplicity remains a point of pride to be embraced, a virtue to be nurtured. It is easy to want to assign the culture of simplicity to rural Americans: people in the south or the heartland, farmers, hillbillys… And it’s true there are more movies than I can specifically recall offhand in which the return to simplicity is the dominant message, typically set in rural and/or southern contexts. Certainly a great deal of country music has been sung extolling the virtues of simplicity, and there are the obvious linguistic conventions – “I’m just a simple farmer…” (and innumerable variations thereof).
After “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Free Bird”, “Simple Man” is probably Lynyrd Skynyrd’s most successful single.
But as I said above, the virtue of simplicity is by no means constrained to rural or southern or “country” culture in America. It is mainstream. We talk about slowing down to enjoy the simple pleasures or to keep something simple. Colleagues who can “translate” dense technical prose into “simple English” are applauded. In some contexts – engineering or design or fashion, for example – simplicity is even almost synonymous with “elegance.”
It is also important to understand that this value of simplicity in American culture is very closely tied to the idea of nostalgia: that habit of remembering the past through rose colored glasses, and in many instances today, remembering a past that one did not even personally experience. A past when things were supposedly better, more simple.
The basic premise of the American “Tea Party” movement is grounded in this dual notion of simplicity and nostalgia. Or, if you will, nostalgia for simpler, more straightforward times. Every time I see the Tea Partiers, I can’t help but think of the lyrics to “Garden of Allah” by Don Henley: “… I remember a time when things were a lot more fun around here… when good was good, and evil was evil…before things got so………fuzzy.”
At the end of the day simplicity in our culture connotes genuineness, honesty. A simple person is honest and good, someone trustworthy. By contrast, complexity very often is instinctively seen as the opposite. Complex people are less genuine, less honest, ultimate less trustworthy. Complicated things, complicated situations are best avoided; complicated answers more difficult to believe.
As the lyrics of Lynyrd Skynyrd go: “So be a simple kind of man. Be someone you’ll love and understand..”
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The thing, though, is that the supposed simplicity of yesteryear and of American culture is completely mythical. The America portrayed by Normal Rockwell was no simpler and no better than the one we have now. In fact, one could easily make the argument that today’s American, even with all of it’s issues, is far better in many ways.
And yet, the desire to be simple and to see things as simple and to make things simple – even artificially – remains a dominant value in American culture. Whether the issue is “radical” vs. “moderate” Islam, ethnic pluralism in the United States, or why teenagers should not be deployed as volunteers in disaster zones, we want to default to simple analyses and simple explanations.
“It’s complicated” may be an amusingly smarty-pants relationship status to choose on Facebook. But when that’s the answer coming from a politician, religious leader, or aid agency representative in response to a hard question, “it’s complicated” sounds to an American audience an awful lot like someone being slippery or evasive or talking down to the simple, genuine, honest people who just want a straight answer. Even when it really is complicated. In this context, the difference between “simple” and “simplistic” frequently becomes an unmanageably narrow space.
Because for better or worse, the real world is complicated. It always has been. Politics are complicated, as are issues of race and ethnicity and culture and religion. As is humanitarian aid work.
Right now we’re dealing with an increasingly aware and engaged general public (the “Third Audience”). An engaged general public whose default setting is to assume that both the challenges we face as aid workers as well as the solutions are simple ones. Their perceptions of what we do and how shape how they give, who they give to, in some cases even how they vote.
We have got to tell them the truth about what we do. We have got to stop selling simplistic versions of aid to the public.