What's Tony Thinking

Complex Thinking Needed


In many areas of life, including some of the most contentious, our society and we who make it up seem increasingly less capable of complex thinking.

But since life is complex, the capacity for complex thinking is required — if real progress is to be made on some of our more vexing issues.

This is demonstrated right now on two issues, one local and the other national.

Locally, the Seattle Times has followed up on the current discussion of homelessness in Seattle, stirred by the KOMO “Seattle Is Dying” program, and offered some helpful complex thinking in an editorial and article (with a Horsey cartoon) in the April 21 edition.

Simplistic thinking about homelessness prefers to see everyone in that basket as either a victim of a lack of affordable housing or as thugs and neer-do-wells gaming the system. Establishment Seattle has tended toward the first explanation, while as increasing number of ordinary Seattle residents are tending toward the latter.

A move to the second explanation has happened in Ballard, where we live, but not without reason. As the Times reports, the crime rates in Ballard in 2017 were 34% higher than in 2014. And there had been a 64% increase in crimes against people — rape, robbery and aggravated assault. Of course, the perpetrators are not all among the homeless, but some are.

Moreover, a quite high number of crimes are committed by a fairly small group of repeat offenders. 100 of these “frequent flyers” account for 3,600 criminal cases, reports the Times. But often there have been no consequences or minimal consequences for their crimes.

The Presiding Judge of Seattle’s Municipal Court, Ed McKenna observed, “It’s no different than raising your kid. If your kid realizes there’s no consequences for their actions, they’re going to repeat the same behavior.”

McKenna adds that Seattle has become a magnet for some of these folks. “All over the country, people are coming here. I see it all the time.” Asked why they’ve come to Seattle, “the No. 1 answer is social services and the No. 2 answer is drug leniency.”

So what has been lumped in a basket labeled “homelessness” is a complex problem with multi-causality: a boom economy and housing costs, untreated mental illness, addiction and non-enforcement.

Another illustration of the need for complex thinking, on the national level, is the Mueller Report.

Now that the Mueller Report is out in its redacted glory, it provides another example of the need for complex thinking as well as incapacity for the same.

President Trump pretty well exemplifies the incapacity for complex thinking. Early on he liked the report which he summed up as “total exoneration.” But now that the details, which turn out to be much more problematic are out, he terms the report as, “total bullshit.”

Complex thinking is required to deal with something like the Mueller Report because it gives plenty of reasons for concern while concluding that there was no clear evidence of criminal collusion between the Trump Campaign and Russian attempts to subvert our electoral democracy.

Again, simple thinking boils it down to either “exoneration” and “get over it,” or “move to impeach yesterday.”

It seems that the Mueller Report is more complex than either one. It requires some careful attention and thought. Something may not be clearly illegal but is still an issue and serious warning.

In his fine book on leadership, A Failure of  Nerve, Edwin Friedman argues that one of the several characteristics of gridlocked system is “either/ or thinking.” Here’s Friedman:

“The third characteristic of gridlocked relationship systems is either/or, black or white, all-or-nothing-ways of thinking that eventually restrict the options of the mind . . . Such intense polarizations also are always symptomatic of underlying emotional processes rather than of the subject matter of the polarizing issue.”

There are some signs that Seattle’s imaginative gridlock on “homelessness” is getting un -stuck. Which is good. But I wouldn’t declare victory anytime soon. There are a lot of folks with a vested interest in simple, polarized, either-or thinking.

And as some of the more considered evaluations of the Mueller Report appear, it seems that its value will be found not in a summary “thumbs up” or “thumbs down,” but in recognizing the challenges Mueller has put before us require a capacity for complex thinking.

Will we prove able to rise to that challenge?




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