Ideology and Complexity

Adapted from Cultural Maturity—A Guidebook for the Future

No leadership task is more critical for the twenty-first century—and more pertinent to every part of our lives—than learning to bring greater complexity, perspective, and nuance to how we make decisions. Doing so requires that we recognize and question ideological assumptions of every kind, from those of a political, religious, or philosophical sort to more everyday beliefs that similarly limit understanding. Cultural Maturity’s threshold at once alerts us to this critical importance of greater complexity of perspective and reveals how it might be possible—indeed predicted.

Because ideology tends to distort reality, its function might not be obvious. Certainly, shared beliefs help us feel connected and that is good. And they bring confidence and clarity (though at the expense of accuracy) to our conclusions. But ideology’s function is ultimately more basic: It protects us from complexity.

Complexity is not a perfect word. The issue is more interesting and significant than just the fact of things being complicated. But given that the new kinds of understanding we want, ultimately, to get our arms around stretch both how we customarily think and our usual language, we can apply complexity as a “good enough” term. We can think of narrow ideologies and knee-jerk solutions as ways we’ve shielded ourselves, personally and collectively, from the demands of complexity.

That ideology keeps complexity at bay is most obvious with the extreme vehemence of “chosen people/evil empire” allegiances. Ascribing all blame to others keeps us safely protected both from our own complexities and those of others—and from any need to deeply question. But more commonplace ideological identifications—such as with the political Right or the political Left—also offer the reassuring simplicity of readily identifiable polar beliefs. And assumptions that can look benign on the surface often similarly protect us from complexity. For example, one person views technology as our savior; another thinks of it as the source of all our difficulties. One person sees nature as something to defeat and exploit for human benefit; another views humanity as the problem and all things “natural” as the ultimate good. Such less obviously ideological beliefs leave us just as short of the sophistication of perspective Cultural Maturity requires. And more everyday absolutes, such as gender roles and culturally specific moral codes, in a similar way reduce a multi-hued complexity of options to a more manageable black and white world (or if it is more our inclination, shades of gray).

Culturally mature perspective doesn’t condemn ideological conclusions out of hand. During our long human history, ignoring larger complexities has often been what we needed to do to survive and thrive. But like it or not, ideology’s protective mechanisms can’t continue to work. If we are to effectively make our way in times ahead, we must at least include more in our considerations.

New complexities, today, come at us from every direction, often threatening to overwhelm us. Globalization makes locales we may not have even heard of—Chechnya, East Timor, South Ossetia—suddenly front-page news. The growing potential for environmental catastrophe makes thinking in ways that better take into account nature’s complex interrelationships increasingly inescapable. Ever more complex new technologies increasingly prove at once startlingly wondrous and just as startlingly beyond us to effectively understand and manage. And diversities readily ignored in times past—ethnicity, religious beliefs, temperament, gender, sexual orientation—suddenly clamor for their place on life’s stage. Everything points toward a future that is even more overwhelming in its demands and kaleidoscopic in its workings.

And while the importance of thinking more complexly comes most obviously into play with such collective concerns, the implications are just as great with the most ordinary of personal choices. Moral questions of all sorts today require that we know ourselves with a depth that was previously unnecessary. Living happily as a man or as a woman means addressing questions of gender and identity with a subtlety that in any previous age was not a concern. We can’t take for granted even the most basic notions about what might make us happy. For example, modern “greed is good” consumerism increasingly fails us. We buy and buy and still feel impoverished. (In times past we would have rightly assumed such belief to at least be good for the economy. But increasingly it fails us even there.)

In the end, we need not just to be more intelligent and take more into account, but also to think about complexity in some quite new ways. The complexities we confront often don’t fit well into old assumptions. At the least these are complexities that involve ourselves along with other factors. They also require not just that we address them intelligently, but wisely, that we draw on new depths of insight within ourselves. We live in a world that requires not just more complex understanding, but new, more complex and mature understanding of just what complexity is about.

Cultural Maturity’s threshold challenges us to leave behind the safe refuge of ideology and think in more complex—in the end, more “complexly complex”—ways. We need to get beyond ideology not just so we can avoid conflict, though there is that. Removing the blinders of ideology is, in the end, about understanding human interrelationships, values, and understanding itself with a now-necessary new sophistication. With mature perspective we see inescapably how solutions that don’t better take into account all that needs to be considered are not sufficient. We see also how our thinking must more effectively address complexity’s often confusing mechanisms if it is to continue to serve us. In today’s world, views that before have protected us by affirming our own beliefs and by keeping us from being overwhelmed by life’s ever-changing and easily bewildering intricacies, become not just dangerous, but crazy. They threaten to be our undoing.