The Dangers of Reductionism
When we engage in reductionistic thinking, we do violence to the complexity inherent in each of us.
Imagine for a moment that our brains registered the totality of sensory information in your environment. It doesn’t take too much effort to conclude that such a structure of mind wouldn’t work. We would be instantly overwhelmed by a deluge of data. A common theory thus holds that the brain contains some process or mechanism that filters out much of the sensory data to which we are exposed, letting in only a small fraction of the most useful information. This is what writer and philosopher Aldous Huxley referred to as the “reducing valve” of consciousness in his 1954 book Doors of Perception. This reducing mechanism is key to our survival. But it can present problems when we are dealing with complex matters. And, as we know, much of life is complex. Increasingly so, in fact.
Our reductionist tendencies show up most starkly in our interpersonal relations. We tend to reduce people to their most visible, offending attributes. A colleague thus becomes the team member who is too conservative. The friend is seen as the one who is always complaining. One spouse is the cynic, while the other is the idealist. People are rendered caricatures of themselves, denied the appreciation that they are complex, nuanced human beings. And the more we reduce each other, the more we become polarized.
Reductionism has been on display this past week as the world sits in judgment of Will Smith and the cast of unwitting characters caught up in the shocking incident at last weekend’s Academy Awards ceremony. Almost instantly, people divided into camps. The majority who condemn Smith and support Chris Rock. And a vocal minority who defend Smith’s act of standing up for his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, and criticize Rock for a cruel and tasteless joke. Jada Pinkett Smith herself has been criticized and defended. As have the LAPD, the Academy, and even members of the audience, most of whom were still in shock when they gave Smith a standing ovation for winning Best Actor minutes after the incident.
As I sat in disbelief at what had just transpired on live television, I too wanted to quickly make sense of a very sad and troubling situation. I noticed the same reductionist tendency arise in me – the instant need to judge and categorize. Somehow, however, I had the presence of mind to slow down and appreciate the complexity of what I had just witnessed. I have continued to do so this week as I try to make sense of a very bewildering event. I share the commonly held view that Smith’s act of hitting Rock was unacceptable. I have been battered before with my hands held behind my back (Rock had his hands behind his back). I was a freshman at UCLA playing pick-up basketball outside my dorm. I was jumped by the five guys on the opposing team. My teammates, who I hadn’t played with or met before, stood by and watched. Like most young men at the time, I simply got up, blood streaking into my eyes, and tried my best to shake it off, pretending that it was no big deal. In retrospect, the experience was deeply traumatizing. I have taken responsibility and done my work to heal it. My guess is that Rock is also experiencing trauma – how could he not be? Many of those who watched the episode may be too.
Smith needs to take responsibility for the painful unintended consequences of his act, and those who have been traumatized will need to take responsibility for their own healing. At the same time, I see in Smith a man who has been committed to his own growth. It is likely that Smith too is still healing from his own childhood trauma, and his actions that evening stem from a deep wound that continues to manifest in an unhealthy need to protect. I believe him when he says that he is committed to a world of love and kindness and that there is no place for violence in such a world. He must be experiencing real pain given the dissonance between his actions that evening and the ideals he works so hard to stand for. The damage he inflicted that evening is real. Yet, he has my compassion and forgiveness.
When we engage in reductionistic thinking, we do violence to the complexity inherent in each of us. Complexity thus lies at the very heart of a world of love. Holding ourselves and each other to higher standards of conduct while doing so with compassion, not condemnation – this is what complexity allows. It is an opening of the mind and heart that is the only way we make sense of the inherently complex world we live in.
A much better basketball player, but also a UCLA student and resident of the same UCLA dorm as me, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, wrote an excellent piece: “Will Smith Did a Bad, Bad Thing.” He writes: “With a single petulant blow, he advocated violence, diminished women, insulted the entertainment industry, and perpetuated stereotypes about the Black community.”
I write and speak a lot about self-compassion and self-love. Author Oliver Burkeman’s post “The Reverse Golden Rule,” is a wonderful spin on this concept.
A quote I revisited this week: “Forgiveness does not mean ignoring what has been done or putting a false label on an evil act. It means, rather, that the evil act no longer remains as a barrier to the relationship. . . . We must realize that the evil deed of the enemy neighbor, the thing that hurts, never quite expresses all that he is. An element of goodness may be found in even our own worst enemy.” Martin Luther King, Jr.