Complexity, Ambiguity & the Unexpected
In the preface to What Caused the Civil War? Reflections on the South and Southern History, Edward L. Ayer’s describes three themes about understanding the South that show up again and again. They are useful in trying to better understand the South but I think they are applicable beyond his particular topic. They are good guides to how we think about and approach just about anything.
1) It is more complicated than most people think. Lazy simplifications prevent us from seeing the fascinating complexity of things.
2) The past, present and the future intertwine and influence in unexpected ways throughout history.
3) We are influenced by clichés and habits of speech and thought that prevent us from seeing many things. We need to experiment with different perspectives to find news ways to think and see.
We should be approaching every problem or investigation with these thoughts in mind. They will help us from being undermined by mental shortcuts and habits of mind that prevent us from achieving a better understanding and insight.
“We can understand complexity, how it is that powerful events grow from intricate social processes. We can understand ambiguity, how it is that straightforward dichotomies so seldom explain social reality. We can understand the unexpected, how it is that cause and consequence so seldom seem to follow straight lines.”
Edward L. Ayers What Caused the Civil War? Reflections on the South and Southern History (p. 11)