Those two words enter into virtually every conversation during our Israel Engagement study tours, often to the frustration – and eventually to the bemusement – of our program participants. We refuse to simplify the layers of history, geography, religion, narrative and identity that inform every element of understanding Israelis and Palestinians. We ask participants to see these layers and to acknowledge that before we can offer solutions we need to understand the complexity.
I’ll admit that lately, I too have been frustrated. I’ve been trying to decide who I will vote for in our Presidential primary – just over a month away – and, while diligently watching as many of the debates as I can, I’ve candidly been disappointed at every turn (although admittedly also highly entertained by the often bizarre interactions).
So a recent column in the Wall Street Journal with the headline “The Search for Simple Answers to Complex Problems” caught my eye. Gerald Seib speaks to my frustration in articulating a “stark reality” of this election cycle, namely that “we are in a time of complicated questions in search of simple answers.”
To cite two examples of issues from recent debates – one from each party: How to regulate big banks in ways that work for middle class consumers? “Break them up.” How to deal with ISIS in a multi-lateral Middle East? “Carpet bomb” them.
In Seib’s analysis, this simplistic political discourse reflects a collapse of the center. He sees a propensity of the candidates in both parties to run toward their party’s “true believers” in the primaries – to the detriment of the more centrist candidates in each party, whose answers to the same questions he quotes with admiration. This may work as politics – at least right now – but it’s not very fulfilling.
It is also an articulation of a more pervasive problem in these challenging times— our failure to effect a meaningful political discourse amongst those who hold diverse beliefs. We’ve all gotten too comfortable with the echo chamber of the like-minded. We are too quick to defriend on Facebook those who post challenging views; and to select media that reaffirms, rather than challenges, our held opinions. And given the nuanced and thoughtful contributions that are urgently needed in this complex world, our sound-bite culture – 60-second answers and 30-second rebuttals, 140 character tweets, 7 second gifs – is woefully inadequate to the task.
Sure, “most voters,” Seib writes, “likely know, down deep, that the world actually isn’t simple. But they also know that attempts in Washington to find compromises in the center have mostly come up empty in recent years. The challenge for candidates in 2016 is to show they have sophisticated answers to complex problems—but also know how to implement them in a polarized world.” But there’s more to it than just this.
At a recent meeting of our Council’s Israel committee, one participant made an incisive observation: At JCRC we’re not trying to diminish people’s frustrations, challenges, their love or loyalty to Israel. We’re not trying to question our participants’ values as they apply them to the world around us. Rather, “when we say that it’s complicated, we’re inviting people to have a conversation.” We’re asking people to take the time to learn together, to reason, to listen, and to understand challenging and often opposing perspectives.
When I post an article on Facebook or Twitter (where I hope you follow me), I’m asking for a conversation. I’m looking to learn from you, and I’m inviting you to learn from and with me. I’m asking to think together to create an understanding that is deeper and more nuanced than what we started with.
And that’s also what I’m looking for in a President of the Unites States. In the coming weeks I want to know not just who can simply pursue action in a polarized world (though I may have to settle for that). I want to know who can listen, who can invite a conversation, who can say, with curiosity and a desire to understand others: “Come, let us have a conversation together.”
These complicated times need such a leader. And I invite you to have a conversation with me about who that may be, and to grapple honestly and thoughtfully with all of the issues that our nation faces.
It is complicated. Let’s have the conversation.