Simple Ideas, a Complex World, and the Need for Nuance

Ideas Thinking Politics
  • 2022-23

The conventional view of a wood or forest involves trees competing for water and light, with the strongest trees growing and the weakest withering away.

More recently, this view of a competitive environment, with primitive rules of survival, has been revolutionised by the discovery that within forests there exist complex networks of roots, bacteria and fungi connecting trees to each other in a vast organisation that has been labelled the World-Wide Wood.

This interconnection between trees and plants helps them communicate, and there is research evidence that organisms cooperate to protect each other within the eco-system of the forest.

This subterranean social network is said to be 500 million years old.

World Wide Wood Network

This twin view of trees – in competition with each other, or cooperating with each other, operates as a metaphor for the human condition.

Humans are often selfishly competitive. You just need to see very young children play to recognise this, how they constantly grab things away from others. The idea of sharing needs to be learnt.

On the other hand, humans are intensely social creatures, enjoying a strong and instinctive sense of community.

So which is it? Are the social Darwinists right, that we are essentially animals and the survival of the fittest formulation applies just as much to men and women as it does from antelopes to zebra? Or does the same selfish gene actually promote a self-serving need for community so that, ultimately, the tribe and the individuals within it might thrive?

The metaphor operates also on a political level. Socialist or left-wing ideology argues for the masses, the collective, and the need to generate a united sense of progress.

Right-wing or more libertarian politics advances a fundamental belief in the freedom of each individual and has little faith in a broader community. “There is no such thing as society,” Mrs Thatcher famously said. 

Politics right and left wing beliefs


The extreme positions – Communism on the left, and Fascism on the right – are perhaps closer to each other than their ideologies might make you think.

The horseshoe theory has them leaning towards each other and both bending towards despotism. To quote the economist J.K. Galbraith, “Under capitalism, man exploits man. Under communism, it’s just the opposite”​.

Personally, I am sceptical of all systems. When someone tells me they have a system that will fix something, I immediately start to doubt their claims. As Lord Byron once remarked, “When a man talks of system, his case is hopeless...”​ This is a view endorsed by the novelist Julian Barnes: “Happily all theories fall foul of life”.​

​When it comes to politics, my sense is that ideology makes a complex world seem simple. If the world and our lives within it were simple, I think we would know by now.

So, anyone offering a simple ideological solution to complex political or economic problems tends to arouse my suspicion, no matter how personally charismatic they are.

At the same time, anyone who says, “I am not political” is also being naïve. Everything is charged with ideology. To say you are not political is a way of saying that you are happy with the status quo. This is a political position. It is called conservatism.

Anyone who wants to change things politically will inevitably take a more overt political position, usually defined as radicalism.

Radicals tend to be younger, and conservatives older. It is little surprise that those who express radical views in their youth often become more conservative as they advance in years.

In the Western World, a system of democracy has been promoted since the time of the Ancient Greeks.

Lightbulb burning with ideas

Most people recognize the flaws in democracy, but as Winston Churchill wittily observed, “Democracy is the worst form of government – except for all the others.” And maybe democracy is the best of the worst when it comes to political systems.

The inherent problem with politics in a democracy is that governing needs critical thinking. ​Critical thinking requires humility, scepticism, open-mindedness and an instinct for complexity. ​

Politics, on the other hand, requires confidence, partisanship, slogans, and a rhetorical ability to persuade others rather than any rigorous adherence to the truth.

In other words, those best equipped to govern are rarely those best equipped to succeed politically, which is always a shame and sometimes tragic. It is the reason why the life of a politician is often meteoric but short.

From an educational point of view, the aim is to explain and communicate complex things in a simple way, without being simplistic.

In fact, the skill of a good teacher is to introduce levels of complexity, and to challenge existing ideas that a student might hold. In other words, the key aim is to make students think.

By regularly presenting them with arguments that are nuanced, we help students understand that things might be more complex than they first appear. This requires a healthy intellectual scepticism.​

Our task, therefore, is not to simplify but to impart the nuance, giving students the skills to recognise subtle differences and different shades of meaning.

Let’s look at an example using two paragraphs from the Italian writer, chemist, and Auschwitz survivor, Primo Levi.

Primo Levi Thinkin Politics

We begin with this:

“Distilling is beautiful. First, because it is a slow, philosophic and silent occupation. Then, because it involves a metamorphosis from liquid to vapour, and from this once again to liquid; but in this double journey, up and down, purity is attained, a fascinating condition, which starts with chemistry and goes very far. And finally, when you set about distilling, you acquire the consciousness of repeating a ritual consecrated by the centuries, almost a religious act.”

And then this:

“For life to be lived, impurities are needed. Dissension, diversity, the grain of salt and mustard are needed: Fascism does not want them, forbids them, and that’s why you’re not a Fascist; it wants everybody to be the same, and you are not.”

The first paragraph reveals the joy of a professional chemist in the process of distillation and manufacturing purity. The second reveals the horror of the Auschwitz survivor arguing for the human values of inclusion and diversity.

The statements seem to contradict each other, politically at least, but this is the pleasure of subtlety and nuance, the recognition that life is messy and complex and cannot be reduced to a formula or slogan.

I will end with three final thoughts in the form of three short quotations:

Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.”​ Mahatma Gandhi​

​“Ideas are interesting, but people are vastly more so.”  ​Sarah Bakewell​

​“There’s only one rule that I know of. Be kind.”​ Kurt Vonnegut

From these words, I understand the need to participate and engage in the democratic process; to pay attention to the individual human being rather than merely the ideas to which they subscribe, while from the last I take as a wise piece of advice, to ask, when presented with a choice of candidates in an election, “Which is the most kind?” 

Chris Greenhalgh
Principal & CEO


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