No easy answers

Column by Taylor Grace Suiter, Senior from Brentwood, Tennessee

In his 1917 essay “The Divine Afflatus,” German-American cultural critic H.L. Mencken writes, “For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat and wrong.”

Mencken’s quote began a chapter of a reading I was assigned earlier in the semester, and I’ve been wrestling with it since.

I found that it succinctly sums up the most important lesson I’ve learned in college – that there are no easy answers, especially when the questions are as intricate and complicated as the people posing them.

I’ve been told throughout my life that I think too much, but I don’t think (hardy har) that such a problem exists.

If humanities teaches us anything, it’s that mankind is distinct in its ability to contemplate and examine its own existence. When we try answering subtle, sophisticated questions with simple and straightforward answers, we largely bypass thinking – favoring instead the simple and wrong solutions that Mencken refers to.

Neat answers are easy, and they’re dangerous. The most dangerous of these answers comes in the form of the “Us vs. Them” mentality.

I say that world civilizations was the most important class I took in college because it made mankind’s pattern of arbitrarily dividing, fighting, conquering each other and repeating impossible for me to ignore. It seems like that’s basically all mankind as a whole has done.

While humans today live longer and have greater access to technology than ever before, people still can’t seem to figure out how to coexist. We’ve made it a norm to carry around tiny computers in our pockets, and yet wars are still being fought on the grounds of “we’re right and they’re wrong.”

The problem with this is the creation of an “us” and a “them” to begin with.

When man starts to see differences before similarities, the temptation to deem oneself “good” and another “evil” becomes a slippery slope. It’s much more alarming to consider that every person on the face of the earth has the capacity to commit both good and evil.

I remember during my ethics course my professor told the class that what scares him most is that when he lays down at night he can’t say for certain that he’ll always do what’s “right.”

It’s the unknown, unmade choices before him that are so terrifying. 

Similarly, I remember hearing that people aren’t afraid of the height when they scale a mountain, but that they may jump.

These are scary realizations, indeed.

It’s much cleaner, simpler, neater, to paint ourselves and our group as the good guys and to blame all that’s wrong in the world on those who don’t look like, act like or sound like us.

It’s easy to portray people we don’t identify with as evil – to cast the “bad” part of the human equation out of ourselves and onto other groups. The “Us vs. Them” narrative is one most are comfortable with because it dehumanizes the people on the other side of the preposition.

I fear that as the presidential election draws nearer, simplified answers – walls and bans and wars – will become more and more tempting to buy into. I fear that man’s defining characteristic, thought, will be cast aside and that finger pointing will be exercised instead.

Human problems demand human solutions – and there are no easy answers.