The hidden complexity of simplicity


January 16, 2015 

It’s been a tough couple of weeks. I’ve had a terrible flu. Lost my voice for days and generally felt crappy. Then my wife caught the same bug. Having one parent down is bad. Having both parents sick is a nightmare.

Maybe it was my illness that darkened my mood as I watched the events in Paris unfold over the past two weeks. Glued to France24’s TV channel for hours on end, my depression and anger grew with each passing moment. As a journalist, I was outraged at this assault on freedom of the press. As an atheist, I was outraged that, once again, a group of religious extremists who felt their religion has been offended killed the offending parties.

The answer to me was simple.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could just do away with religion all together, I asked in several Facebook posts. No more extremism. No more weird beliefs that defy science. No one getting homicidally offended because their version of a mythical “ghosty in the sky,” as one of my daughters phrases it, got their divine nose out of joint. No more anti-women rules. No more hatred against those who were different than you. No more hatred because of a person’s sexual preferences. And on and on. Basically, Nirvana in my view.

And I wasn’t the only one saying the problem was simple. Far-right pundits, liberal atheist comedians, politicians of all stripes and nationalities, security ‘experts,’ journalists from all corners of the left-right divide, news channel’s talking heads, all offered ‘simple’ answers. “We must promote free speech above all.” “Radical Islam is the problem.” “Islam itself is the problem.” “There are too many Muslims in Europe.” “It us against them.” “Islam’s not the problem, it’s the French government’s war on religion and free speech that is the issue.” “What the terrorists did was wrong, but Charlie Hebdo offended millions of people with their work.” And on and on.

But there were a couple of people who did not go down that road. Hari Kunzru, in particular, wrote a piece in the Guardian that, in many ways, sent me down the rabbit hole. His view on the events of the past week challenged my simplistic view, and those of almost everyone else I had read or watched or heard.

There are no blacks and whites, he argued. There is only gray.

But we want black and white as a species, I thought. We demand it. We want our to know what to think based on 600 word opinion pieces, from 140 characters in a tweet, in a minute and a half news segment. We want online quizzes to tell us our personality type, what rock star we most resemble, what state we should be living in.

And we want these things to fit our comfort zones, our conventional biases. So we only watch the TV stations, read the newspapers, listen to talk show pundits who tell us what we want to hear. Who tell us our simplistic answers are the right ones.

But after the past week, I have come to realize that simplicity is much more complicated that we want it to be.

Yes, I wish there were no religions. But that is like wishing for flying horses. The world bulges with religious beliefs. And while most people live their religious beliefs peacefully, ALL belief systems – Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, you name it – contain elements that can be used by extremists and fundamentalists to justify their violent actions. I can rant and rave about the stupidity of it all, the destructiveness of so much of religion. Or I can try and find good people of faith who want to work with others to make the world a better place. It will not be easy. We will be constantly overcoming obstacles. It will be much more complex and hard than singing “Kumbaya” together. But we must try.

I want there to be absolute freedom of speech. I believe that freedom of speech means the freedom to offend everyone. But I can’t ignore that millions of good religious people, and not just Muslims, find the works of publications like Charlie Hebdo offensive, though they’re not going to kill anyone. Is there a way to protect freedom of speech and yet work to find a way not to needlessly offend? I don’t know. It’s complex. It will take hard work solution to find a solution. But try we must.

I wish everybody in the world thought like I did. But they don’t. We don’t live in a world anymore where we can just hang out with people who look the same, think the same, talk the same language, eat the same foods, worship the same gods. And people are scared at this complexity. They fear this grayness.

But we cannot go back. All our other choices lead only to hatred, death and destruction. This is the world we have, and we have to work through these complexities to make it better.

I find comfort in the words of two men. One a great religious leader. One a renown atheist.

As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable … Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”

The other, from Carl Sagan: “The significance of our lives and our fragile planet is then determined only by our own wisdom and courage. We are the custodians of life’s meaning … If we crave some cosmic purpose, then let us find ourselves a worthy goal.”

Copyright Tom Regan 2014

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Tom Regan

Tom Regan has worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and the National Film Board in Canada, and for the Christian Science Monitor and Boston Globe newspapers, and National Public Radio, in the United States. A former executive director of the Online News Association, he was a Nieman fellow at Harvard in 1991-92.







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