The strongest defense against a bewildering world is a love of complexity and ambiguity.
Elif Shafak, Turkey’s most popular female novelist, has provided a brilliant critique of our modern times. In her TED Talk from September 2017, she expresses concerns about economic uncertainty, the impact this uncertainty has on our emotional bewilderment, and knock-on effect this has on the appeal of demagogues.
“Ours is the age of anxiety, anger, distrust, resentment, and I think lots of fear. But here’s the thing: Even though there’s plenty of research about economic factors, there’s relatively few studies about emotional factors. …I think it’s a pity that mainstream political theory pays very little attention to emotions. Oftentimes, analysts and experts are so busy with data and metrics that they seem to forget those things in life that are difficult to measure, and perhaps impossible to cluster under statistical models.”
Speaking as a workforce analyst, these are my sentiments exactly. People like me often try to figure out what is happening inside the workplace while thinking of employees as livestock or machines. But then the people talk, and their souls come through. Their context and their lives prevail over objective definitions of effectiveness. Workplace culture overpowers the declarations of those with authority.
Emotional Complexity Amidst Demographic Over-Simplification
Nowhere do I see this more than when I split a dataset into demographic categories. The categories are usually either-or scenarios, such as age bracket, binary sex, or length of service. And just as we find the definitive behaviors and opinions of a certain category of people, with a little more digging we find that there is a deeper human story that defies categories. I see men taking parental leaves, older workers expressing career ambitions, and high-school dropouts with unmet educational needs. Putting people into categories only helps find a demographic that best gives voice to the human story. But that human story will usually speak for everyone.
Shafak, who understands human stories, notes that demagogues “…strongly, strongly dislike plurality. They cannot deal with multiplicity. Adorno used to say, ‘Intolerance of ambiguity is the sign of an authoritarian personality.’ …that same intolerance of ambiguity, what if it’s the mark of our times, of the age we are living in? Because everywhere I look, I see nuances slipping withering away. …So slowly and systematically we are being denied the right to be complex.”
To Shafak, it is the bewilderment imposed upon us by change that makes us susceptible to the simple ideas offered by demagogues. “…In the face of high-speed change many people wish to slow down, and when there is too much unfamiliarity people long for the familiar, and when things get too confusing, many people crave simplicity. This is a very dangerous crossroads, because it is exactly where the demagogue enters into the picture.”
Emotional Intelligence, Embracing Complexity, and Building Resilience to Organizational Change
Shafak suggests that “…we need to pay more attention to emotional and cognitive gaps worldwide.” Those who struggle with complexity and ambiguity need our help. We’re not at liberty to define non-complex people as the “other,” as people whose opinions we can reject in yet another polarizing simplification.
I felt this concern when I followed the James Damore incident at Google. A programmer on the autism spectrum was fired for writing an anti-diversity manifesto, and his memo showed that he struggled with sensitivity training in a culture of diversity. He attempted to attribute the onus of emotional intelligence to a liberal bias and the imposition of allegedly feminine social concerns. The true lesson was not so much that bigotry sucks; it is that simplified emotions make us prey to extreme opinions. I think we need to devote more time and energy to empathizing with the perplexed.
Shafak is insistent that we must cherish complexity. We must value ambiguity. We must allow ourselves to carry multiple identities and become the cosmopolitan people who can adapt to the world. For me, I felt reassured that a deep curiosity for new information and enthusiasm for diverse views is the ultimate resistance against bad ideas.
With complexity we can have a meaningful society, meaningful work, and a resilient sense of self that allows us to move forward. Only then can we get back to work and do our jobs well.