I often call this period in America the confusion era, a reference to the paradigm shifting post-WWII period of the allied occupation of Japan documented by art historian Mark Sandler. During this time, Japan, once distinguished from the rest of Asia by its extraordinary isolation, opened to the world and underwent dramatic, sudden, and disorienting change.
Today the global economy is growing more complex even as it is expanding. Massive population shifts are occurring as wars, environmental catastrophes, deprivation, unfair trade policies, and international debt drive millions to migrate, especially from the resource exploited Southern hemisphere toward the so-called “highly developed” nations of the North. Technological innovations I could not have dreamed of as a young adult have become commonplace and are driving changes in how we do business, while also transforming the way we consume news, communicate, create communities, and understand our relationship to the world on both sides of the digital divide. Additional pressures such as the South Asian and Sub-Saharan African baby booms and climate change are contributing further to the instability accompanying the dizzying pace of change.
In the U.S., our economy is also shifting. The majority of new jobs are temporary and/or part-time. Meanwhile CEO pay in the U.S. has gone from 24 times that of the average worker in 1965 to 262 times average worker pay in 2005. The gap between the rich and the poor is greater now than it has been since the Great Depression, propelling us to the brink of oligarchy. The social mobility of Americans, the basis of one of the most important themes of American life, has dropped dramatically. If you’re born poor, you are more likely to remain poor.
In 2012, according to a Pew Research Center survey, Protestants were less than 50% of Americans, a historical first. Pew also reported, that those without religious affiliation are rising rapidly, going from 15% to just under 20% in five years. And growth among the non-affiliated is accelerating, evidenced by one-third of those under 30 who reported no religious affiliation.
Global changes are also reflected in the changing racial demography of the U.S. If Census predictions hold true and racial categories remain static, the U.S. will be a majority-“minority” nation by 2042, in no small part as a result of immigration.
In confusing times, it’s tempting to reach for simple explanations and one-size fits all solutions. We see people succumbing to this temptation all the time, both on the right and on the left — a religion is the source of global terrorism. Build a fence to keep immigrants out. Lock up every drug user to end drug abuse. The Civil Rights lobby has taken over Washington. Or, backward Republicans are the source of American racism.
We reach for easy answers because they give us comfort in the midst of uncertainty.
But explanations and solutions that flatten out our experiences to serve our various political agendas are far from satisfying. In fact, they’re damaging. They obliterate the diversity of our experiences in a world in which diverse experiences are often a reflection of diverse identities. So when our explanations and solutions leave people out, they feel disrespected. And in tough times disrespect can turn people who ought to share common cause into warring interest groups.
These fights divide communities that have already been fractured by the many forces of oppression bearing down on them. Those fractures diminish our ability to see our way to unifying solutions. And as the forces affecting us grow more complex, the cracks grow wider and more numerous.
To address these divisions, we may do well to embrace complexity rather than deny it. Instead of struggling to craft top-down explanations and solutions, we ought to accept that complex times require multiple explanations and solutions, and the best source of these usually reside within the experiences of those most vulnerable to the negative consequences that accompany even the most hopeful change.