From UK to US: One Over-Simplicity to Another

Tuesday, August 6, 2019
Edinburgh, Scotland

From UK to US: One Over-Simplicity to Another

Continuing my recent ranting on the problem of over-simplification, two immediate examples scream out as I prepare to return to the US from the UK.

Regarding the US, Donald Trump’s comments regarding the horrific shootings in the last week clearly exemplify the problem with over-simplifying complex problems. He cited violent video games and mental health disorders as contributors. Oddly for Trump, his assessment is correct. But it is dramatically incomplete. Unsurprisingly, he left out the ease of purchasing guns, including assault rifles intended for military use, in the US.

The over-simplification is certainly deliberate—an effort to attract votes from NRA members.

Emphasizing the degree of Trump’s oversight regarding gun violence in the US proves difficult. It’s like having salt without pepper, sheets without blankets, or sky without land. If it wasn’t so abhorrent, it might be hilarious.

Here in the UK, Boris Johnson proudly promises (or threatens?) to pull Great Britain out of the EU without a deal.

No one knows exactly the consequence of such a move.

Like Trump’s, Johnson’s move is deliberate. He intentionally appeals to the tiny majority of British citizens who voted for Brexit in the first place. Many such voters had no idea what leaving the EU even meant. Theresa May’s government became stuck in the legitimate complexities; Johnson, overtly seeing an opportunity for getting elected Prime Minister, sold these poor folks on his idea of getting out, no matter what, by Halloween.

Most economists think Brexit will create something close to national suicide. To take just one example, sheep farmers—an active occupation in Scotland—would have to pay a 43 percent tariff on exports into the EU. It would put many of them out of business. How it will effect currencies, border crossings, immigrant-workers, or other individuals, businesses, or services is impossible to predict—but definitely awful.

Further, because of the weaponizing of the border between Northern Ireland (part of the UK) and the Republic of Ireland (it’s own country) that would occur, the creation of another round of violent “troubles” becomes likely. Irish people who walk to work across the border, have family on either side, or import/export goods, would be required to cross a “hard border.”

Life is, in truth, amazingly complex.

Of late, I have been emphasizing how the basic defense mechanism of dissociation—basically the same as denial or as compartmentalization—is at the center of many problems, in individuals, groups, or nations.

These two immediately relevant themes—the epidemic of gun violence in the US and the suicidal slide towards Brexit here in the UK—offer prime examples of the dark side of dissociation.

Because we humans are easily overwhelmed by complexity, the appeal to simplicity is almost irresistible. The future of these two examples could stray into complexity, which would be helpful, or into still more simplicity, which could be disastrous.

In the case of the UK, it looks like Brexit will occur. I predict it will be as dangerous as predicted. Either the citizens will then mature and slowly figure out how to re-enter a world already gone global, or they might retrench into further us versus them thinking and witness their entire country become irrelevant. Much of London’s famous financial center has already moved to Dublin or other European capitals. The UK may soon look more like Uganda or Honduras than a world power.

Regarding the US, the problem of gun accessibility has been a long-established and empirically-validated one. Ignoring it as part of the problem can be likened to treating lung cancer like it’s a cold. One only wonders how many more random deaths, or racist-motivated ones, will be required to tip the scales.

If we regress towards more simplicity, then ridiculous solutions, like Trump’s suggestion that teachers carry weapons, will be implemented. Such interventions will only worsen the problem though ignoring its complexity.

Or, if we carefully consider the many complicated angles, and look at it from perspectives ranging from mental illness to background checks to considering whether assault weapons should ever be available to civilians, a solution can and will be found.

Again, life is almost unimaginably complex.

And, we’re constantly tempted to simplify it.

Every single television commercial promises simple solutions to complex problems. Your unhappiness can be addressed through a car, your skin problems through a cream, or your sex life through a drug. The fact is that happiness, skin, and sex are just as complicated as the rest of life.

Meanwhile, at least we citizens of both countries will get an education, an opportunity to learn, while sitting front and center to the stage of over-simplification.

Let’s just hope the lessons are not too deadly.

In the case of Brexit just as much as the problem of gun violence in the US, human lives are literally at stake.

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Alan Karbelnig, PhD, ABPP

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