Beware the Easy Answer

I was having a conversation with a friend the other day about the state of affairs in America. His assessment was as follows: America never goes too far one way or too far the other. It’s like a sine wave; sometimes one side is up for a little while and the other side is down, then they switch. Despite this yo-yo phenomenon, overall he felt like things were improving.

As comforting as the sentiment was meant to be, I found myself troubled by the succinctness of my friend’s evaluation. He made it sound as though we, the people, can more or less take our hands off the wheel and America will steer itself in the right direction – or that the politicians will, perhaps. To me, that was akin to saying that even without the Civil Rights and Women’s Suffrage movements, that America would pretty much be where it is today.

This friend has many good qualities, but being engaged is not one of them. He is a compassionate person with a great sense of humor, and he is perhaps the least stressed person I know. But one unfortunate and potentially dangerous side effect of being unengaged is that when someone else offers up a simple explanation to a problem you are only dimly aware of, you accept it more or less without question. It sounds good at first blush, so it’s probably true. Right?

It is awfully tempting to latch on to easy answers. They give us certainty, they allow us to avoid the uncomfortable position of not knowing. They absolve us of the responsibility of facing any contradictions by avoiding them altogether: you don’t have to puzzle through a problem if someone removes it from your sight.

Unfortunately, easy answers also sidestep intelligent thought. If one believes that every citizen in a democracy has a responsibility to participate, easy answers don’t represent mission accomplished but rather an abdication of duty.

Let’s look at the assertion that “overall, things are improving.” What mathematical average can one apply to real life to make this determination? On one hand, there is the fact that the wage gap between women and men is shrinking (although still there). That’s certainly an improvement.

On the other hand, it costs more to attend college now than it ever has in America – and one could easily argue that higher education is more of a necessity in today’s globally competitive job market than it was 50 years ago, when it cost significantly less. That is decidedly not an improvement. It’s a decline that threatens the opportunity to achieve for millions of Americans today. Does the narrowing gender wage gap in corporate America help a 17-year-old girl if she can’t even afford to go to college? Can you really average the two out and call it a wash?

More than anything else, my friend’s view of America is a reflection of his life, not the “average” life. He grew up white and middle class. He never had major obstacles to overcome; he didn’t attend a failing school, his parents weren’t working two jobs apiece, his family never had to decide whether to buy groceries or health insurance. These are not hypothetical situations, they are very real problems faced by a great many Americans. But unfortunately, too many of those who have never faced such problems remain unengaged, and susceptible to the lure of the easy answer.

Easy answers aren’t hard to find. They’re the stock and trade of pundits and, unfortunately, too many politicians. They are sound bites, bumper stickers, slogans. The worst part about them is that many of us readily accept them as surrogates for our own thoughts, opinion, and questions.

Human beings are far and away the smartest animals on the planet. Does that intelligence come with intellectual courage? Do we have the intestinal fortitude to face complexity and do the actual work that makes things better in this country, rather than assume they are going to? Or do we retreat to the easy answer and let someone else take the wheel?

Read more at The Opportunity Agenda website.

Tags: Opportunity, jobs, Education, Women, mobility (all tags)

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