I sat across from Elfie Raymond, a philosophy professor in her 80s at the time, who escaped totalitarian Hungary, delved into the depths of Plato and Augustine, had a razor sharp tongue and an impish grin. Though I don’t remember what my undergraduate self had just said, I have no doubt it was something stupid. But as I have learned by observing many wise teachers, you don’t chastise when a student takes a wrong turn. Instead you channel them toward a solution to their intellectual problem. You give them a tool that enables them to do the work and come to a better conclusion.
She sat back, with a bit of a playful smile at the corners of her mouth, and said in her stately, Hungarian accented English, “There is a problem when we step back too far from the picture and it gets fuzzy,” and waved her hands demonstrably as I stared blankly. Carefully enunciating the long, latinate phrase, she said, “mo-no-cau-sal re-duc-tion-ism.”
She then referred me to some of Plato’s dialogues, asked me to read them and think about ‘monocausal reductionism,’ in preparation for our next meeting. I have turned this phrase over and over in my head in the years since. In a sense I ended up ‘falling for’ the ultimate monocausal reductionism, a belief in an all powerful creator, monotheism, where a single force is, at the deepest level, responsible for all that is and can ever be. But for that matter she herself believed in an expansive Protestant Christian version of the same idea.
Elfie’s point was not that abstract principles are nonsense. The problem is that in the world we live in, when we’re dealing with people, almost nothing can be reduced to one simple principle, one cause, one meaning. We see, as in another of her favorite phrases, ‘but through a glass darkly.’ A somewhat opaque piece of glass both obstructs our view and becomes reflective, a mirror which obscures our view looking out with a reflection of ourselves. More and more as time goes on, as technology advances and man’s ability to control his environment grows, we are increasingly in a world where everything is determined by decisions made by people, even if executed by machines. We have moved from pockets of humanity dotted through a natural world full of chaos to a world dominated by humanity with tiny pockets of tightly controlled and observed ‘nature.’ Yet it seems that as our understanding of nature’s mechanics has deepened, our capacity to understand one another has remained, or become distressingly shallow, and our desire to address the core issues which define our attitudes has dwindled. We revel in the power of the machine, but shrink away from serious thought about its consequences. We accept the computer as magic, Facebook as inevitable, and smartphones as indispensable.
Our view of each other, or political issues, or facts of life is often so shallow, in fact, that we fall back to a single cause, an accusation, an outlook, a principle, a single something to explain everything we don’t like. Our internal worlds are complex and aspirational, reaching toward perfection but failing to raise our damaged souls out of an imperfect world into the paradise we yearn for. But those who disagree are seen as soulless or evil robots, easily manipulated, marching to the beat of their masters or their own darkest desires toward a hellscape littered with the bodies of the righteous. We are Elves and they are Orcs.
Any perspective which moves the hearts of men and drives them to action is complex. To unravel the knot you have to follow multiple threads through a tangle of complex reality until you reach a clear, unified understanding. You can’t skip steps.
Conspiratorial thinking is built on monocausal reductionism. A simplistic understanding of the world that believes a small kabbal of people, usually assumed to be Jews, in a bunker somewhere are pulling all the levers of power to oppress you, be they the Rothschilds, the Elders of Zion, the Israel Lobby, the military industrial complex, the IRS, the NRA, Sheldon Adelson or George Soros, ‘the government,’ or ‘the anarchists,’ is comforting. We would rather rest with a simple falsehood than work through a complex truth. It feels better, but gets us no closer to the truth.
Elfie once said to me, “I will teach you to use words like a scalpel.” The thing about a scalpel is that it can kill or deform as well as heal. The more powerful the tool, the more precision is required to use it productively. The media and political environment we live in is fond of slogans, and that environment is increasingly created by us. A slogan is a weaponized form of language, which reduces and projects a stylized version of reality to a large audience. And these partial truths or whole falsehoods get repeated and passed around, photoshopped onto provocative pictures and shared widely to many likes and re-tweets, then uncritically repackaged and redistributed by court jesters on late night television. They are like music, arousing the emotions without taking any responsibility for them, and as often happens in ill conceived musical pieces, they merely pretend to signify a deeper meaning. These slogans might sometimes be reduced to single words or short phrases, like ‘freedom’ or ‘autonomy’ or ‘New Jew’ or ‘Zionism is racism’ or ‘socialism’ or ‘capitalism’ or ‘oppression.’ We are all expected to understand what they signify, but do we?
We toss these slogans around like silly string, occasionally catching on one’s intended target but ultimately meaningless and imminently temporary.
When Elfie regularly inveighed against sloganeering she may have been thinking about totalitarian posters of ‘The Great Leader,’ from communist Europe, slogans which sleighed tens of millions. But she also was keen to point out that in democracy slogans are no less insidious. They force us to dumb ourselves down to be heard, to simplify our message until it appears strong yet palatable and easy to swallow, reduced to sweet baby food, then spit on our enemies, until we all become a soiled, angry, reason-less mob.
In my own life I bounce between deeper readings and sloganeering. Utility overcomes many qualms. Reductionism and slogans are the easy default, and the messy untangling of reality and truth are hard and go against the grain. Under stress they lose ground, and no one is immune. But if we train ourselves to reject the over-simplified gruel we are fed, to respond to saccharine sweet slogans with fine wine, to fight the sledge-hammer with a scalpel, we may, with a bit of luck and God’s help, avoid the precipice.