American Culture 104: “Simple Kind of Man”

13 Sep

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..”

* * *

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.

14 Responses to “American Culture 104: “Simple Kind of Man””

  1. @viewfromthecave 13 September, 2010 at 2:37 pm #

    Great job again J. I love this series and am happy you are picking back up on it. I think it was on Penn and Tellers ‘Bulls**t’ when talking about organic food that they say something like, “It is foolish to want to live in a more simple world. Life a few hundred years ago was really hard. Innovations were made to make it easier and more effecient. We have not come this far in farming by dragging farmers to make their work easier. We have come to this point largely because it is the best way to deliver food and reduce the concerns and volatility of sustenance farming.” They said it much better than I just did, but I think that they show, effectively, that simplicity does not mean better.

  2. aidlife 13 September, 2010 at 2:50 pm #

    I’m totally with you TFTH, and good stuff as always. But it has to be said that simple people do often confuse ‘complement’ and ‘compliment’🙂

    • J. 13 September, 2010 at 3:41 pm #

      Hahahaha… Outstanding. I’ll adjust momentarily.

  3. ptna 13 September, 2010 at 3:52 pm #

    I feel your pain, dude! It’s a tricky dance to explain complicated things to people who have little to no foundation for understanding them (and therefore, need an introduction to the complexity before (but not instead of) a full explanation of the complex issues themselves).

    It takes a great deal of committment to walk any audience through an education process — to make sure that there is genuine understanding, not just ass coverage for ourselves. That process is an investment — and you don’t get donations immediately, if ever, out of that investment. But whether or not it’s better for our organizational bottom line to operate in the context of an educated public, it’s better for the world in general and, specifically, for the people we try to serve and empower.

  4. c-sez 14 September, 2010 at 7:34 am #

    I can’t really speak to the American cultural references. But I do want to push back… and to the left a bit… on the general issue of simplicity and complexity.

    To an uninformed outsider, I think many fields of practice look simple. Being a bricklayer? That’s bloody easy mate. My dad taught me how to mix up concrete and lay a straight wall in an afternoon eh? Except it never is. Not really. Not if you’re responsible for people’s lives if that mix isn’t quite right, if that wall goes up shonky and comes down in a flood.

    Aid work is a highly interdisciplinary mess of questionable theoretical gumph (and I don’t mean that perjoratively – part of the job can be trying to answer those questions), established technical understanding that needs to be applied, project and financial management, and people skills. It is rudely complex at the best of times.

    And yet.

    Day to day, month to month, I see a lot of increase in over-complication created in response to admittedly complex problems. Quite clever and dedicated people create multiple new pathways in decision making, in innovations in practice, in organisational understandings of best practice… because what came before didn’t quite work 100% right. And we move 1% closer to doing it better by adding 5% in cognitive overhead and bureaucracy. Or there’s a situation where new staff coming and going on fixed term contracts didn’t understand and didn’t do what previous staff who worked here for 5 years didn’t need to have written in a manual to understand. So we write an extra six SOPs to try to codify that, but those SOPs are ambigous or contradict other guidelines laid out by other parts of the organisation or sector. Lather, rinse, repeat for a couple of decades and you’ve turned any consultant’s flowchart of the way you work into spaghetti.

    Somewhere on the other side of the complicated nature of the day to day lies the simplicity of *mastery* of a field or profession. Having a good mental model based on enough trial and error not to need to make mistakes of the past all over again. This is likely with enough time at an individual level and I think a sisyphean struggle at an institutional level. But it is there and we can reach it sometimes – the ability to analyse what we’re doing, and improve the way we do things in the direction of simplicity, rather than adding on complexity. At our best we reshape how we work in the direction of clear language and clear understanding.

    But it comes from knowing the complicated mess inside out, not lobbing up on the internets and saying you’ve been thinking about Saving Africa for a week now and have got it all figured out.

    • J. 14 September, 2010 at 12:51 pm #

      You’re right, of course, and I think I can agree with you without recanting any of what it write in the original post.

      It’s not so simple as just saying, “it’s complicated…”😉

  5. trayle 14 September, 2010 at 6:01 pm #

    I agree with you (and dig Lynard Skynard), the comments and most strongly on your last comment “It’s not so simple as just saying, it’s complicated…” It is HOW you do it. Got any ideas? I guess “it’s complicated.” 🙂

    Sometimes even when I try to find that clarity between simplicity and complexity (in explaining this thing we do) it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. Even an intellegent audience will simplify what you say, sometimes to the detriment of what you are trying to say. Even a good teacher can simplify the subject too much in trying to accomodate the audience.

  6. Catherine 24 September, 2010 at 5:08 pm #

    This is one of the most thought-provoking and well-articulated blogs I’ve ever read. Kudos.

  7. Alex Ademokun 21 July, 2011 at 7:39 am #

    Einstein said ”make everything as simple as possible, but not too simpler”

    I think we do the public an injustice by sparing them complexity. This leads to an uninformed public with a simplistic world view. This happens both in our professional and personal lives. The number of times I (and I have heard others do this) return from a trip abroad (don’t even say the field when you mean a hotel in Nairobi) and when someone asks you how it went, we instinctively recall all the bureaucratic nonsense and all the negatives. Bad sh*t sells.

    We have a responsibility professionally and personally to talk up the good stuff too. Even when it is complicated. Yes we did not achieve a 100% of what we set out but that 25% means X lives, or so many children in schools or food for Y families.

    The UK Development minister (who I think does a good job) said when he started, that he expected a 100% return from every pound. That is a bit ridiculous and no other government spending has such expectations but he was responding to a sense from the public that aid money is wasted. In return he reduced the international development discussion to a return on investment statement which the public can buy. It is interesting watching the British government on the one hand stand by their foreign aid spending but on the other hand struggle to explain it to the public particularly in these days of austerity. Those of us who work in this field should do our bit personally and professionally by making it as simple as possible but not simpler.


  1. 11 concerns about ICTs and ‘social media for social good’ « Wait… What? - 18 September, 2010

    […] to public perception that aid organizations are just giant bureaucracies (kind of true) and that a simple person with a simple idea could just go in and fix things without so much hullabaloo (not the case most of the time). The […]

  2. Concerns about ICTs and ‘social media for social good’ | Global Health Hub - 23 September, 2010

    […] to public perception that aid organizations are just giant bureaucracies (kind of true) and that a simple person with a simple idea could just go in and fix things without so much hullabaloo (not the case most of the time). The […]

  3. Who Are You Calling Shallow? « @laurenist - 27 September, 2010

    […] In a recent blog post, my dear friend J. at Tales from the Hood makes the case that in America, we idealize a simpler era, one presumably without Twitter and smartphones and LiveJournal and all the other things that make life worth living. We like simple pleasures and simple solutions. Complexity, we disdain. “Complex people are less genuine, less honest, ultimate less trustworthy. Complicated things, comp… […]

  4. Humanitarian Aid 101: #2 – Aid is never simple. « Tales From the Hood - 18 July, 2011

    […] update: See also “Simple Kind of Man” from the “American Culture” […]

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