Difficult ≠ Impossible

I’m going to come out of my cave and write about something that pisses me off. (OK, so I could start any blog post this way, but whatever.)

Here’s something that I consider one of the most glaring cultural problems in America today–it’s the idea that just because something is difficult, it is impossible and not worth trying. Our culture has become a deeply pessimistic one, and the message that it sends these days is “Oh, forget it, we could never change that anyway.”

Don’t believe me? Well, you should, because I’m right. There’s a reason that the issues that land on the political agenda are fairly simple–go to war, or not go to war. Allow gay marriage, or not allow gay marriage. Raise the debt ceiling, or don’t raise it.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying these issues aren’t fraught with difficulties of their own. But they are very simple–yes or no. Right or wrong. Do, or don’t.

The issues that don’t really get talked about much are the complex ones. How to fix our education system. How to achieve equality between women and men, and between whites and people of color. How to create a more just and sustainable food system. How to end our addiction to oil. How to end the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. How to encourage democracy to take root in other parts of the world without shoving it down people’s throats.

To be sure, our government does things to try and ameliorate these issues somewhat, but they’re always band-aid solutions to broken-bone problems. For instance, George W. Bush tried to “fix” our schools with No Child Left Behind. President Obama issued empty threats to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to stop settlement building, with no regard for the religious and political complexities that the settlement issue dredges up. Then there’s that little Iraq thing. As for our screwed-up food system, racial justice, and ditching the oil habit, I don’t think anything’s being done at all.

Try coming up to an older person (by which I mean, someone old enough to have their own kids) and talking to them about these issues. About education, about food, about the racism still embedded deep within our society. Ten bucks says they tell you something like, “Yeah, it’d be great if that could get fixed, but face it–it’s never gonna happen.”

Why? Why the hell not?

Well, because it’s hard.

People think that these things are never gonna get fixed because it’s so hard to fix them. And by hard, I mean like when you’re trying to do a math problem and you don’t even know where to start. You’re completely stuck. Nothing you’ve ever learned is going to help you here.

The stuff that gets in the news, like gay marriage, the debt ceiling, and all of that sort of stuff, is different from these issues because, despite our disagreement on them, we know what to do. We either vote yes, or no. But you can’t vote “yes” or “no” on education reform or on ending racism, because you have to figure out what the hell to actually do about it.

Note what a clusterfuck occurs when our government actually tries to take on a complex and nuanced issue–for instance, healthcare reform. It nearly stops functioning. Our culture is terrified of complexity.

Usually when young people like me talk about fixing some of these complicated problems, older people call us “idealists.” (And that’s at best–sometimes they use less charitable labels.) To me, all that’s saying is that we’re willing to think about and talk about things that are hard, and “realistic” people are not.

Well, realism is dooming this country. Realists are people who don’t think we can stop global warming, who don’t think we can have just and efficient healthcare, education, and food systems, who don’t think we can ever achieve equality between sexes, races, socioeconomic classes, or sexual orientations.

And guess what? If you tell yourself you can’t do something, it’s not going to get done.

And anyway, isn’t that a terribly demoralizing thing to say? I think we’re selling ourselves short when we say that we can’t solve complex problems like these. After all, the human race invented democracy, finance and agriculture, created the Mona Lisa, painted the Sistine Chapel, put a man on the moon, eradicated polio, and set up the Internet. Do our accomplishments really end there?

Just because something is difficult does not mean it’s impossible. Things that are impossible, at least with our current knowledge and technology, are traveling through time, sprouting wings and flying, curing cancer, and turning lead into gold. But things that are merely difficult? Well, that’s just about everything else.

Difficult ≠ Impossible

9 thoughts on “Difficult ≠ Impossible

  1. 1

    Hear, hear!
    I’ve had way too many instances of someone insisting I was naive for wanting to make things better. The thing is, progress isn’t a straight linear march through history, and I know I, and other people, need to do something to make it better. Things won’t magically improve or vanish without our efforts.

  2. Tim

    Computer Science knows something called ‘Divide and Conquer Paradigm’. It basically says that problems that are too complex to solve in one go need to be broken down into several subproblems. If these subproblems can’t be solved again, they need to be broken down again.

    In the end, you break down one huge problem into as many sub-sub-sub… problems until solving those is a piece of cake !


    1. 2.1

      I love interdisciplinarity! 🙂

      But yeah, information science has a lot to say about efficiency and gradual progress. Just look at software development–if a programmer looks at the alpha version of a program and goes, “omg, there’s a million bugs and they’ll never get fixed so I might as well quit,” we wouldn’t have any damn software. You fix the bugs one at a time.

    1. 3.1

      I just read your global debt post and I definitely agree. Government solvency is another thing people seem to think it’s worth trying to achieve…

  3. Tim

    Politics is about exploiting the stupidity of groups of people.

    Issues like abortion are good “political issues” because there’s a yes, a no, and the middle ground can be safely glossed over (when’s the last time you heard someone from the pro-choice side discuss WHEN life begins?)

    To see why this is, take reliance on oil as an example. Politician A says Oil is bad! We should focus on wind! Politician B: Oil is bad! We should focus on hydro! Politician C: Oil is bad! We should focus on nuclear!

    But we don’t actually have three parties, we have two, and they’re more concerned with being elected than many of the issues they make decisions on. So you have the “pro-wind” party and the “anti-wind party”. Where before the vote would’ve been split three ways, 33%, 33%, and 33%, it’s now split very differently. The pro-wind party thinks wind is “the solution” out of many, but the other party doesn’t even need to put forward a solution, they just need to say “that wont work” and all of a sudden they have the support of the people who think hydro or nuclear are the “right” solution and wind is the “wrong” solution and they win the vote 66% to 33%.

    The numbers are never going to be nice and neat like that, but the principle stands and is evidenced by politicians’ constant refusal to actually discuss issues and put forward solutions to problems. Most people vote *against* something. They vote against Big Business or they vote against Big Government or they vote against the baby killers or they vote against the bible thumpers who want to take away their control over their own bodies. When you ask people what they voted *for* it’s been my experience that too many people give you a blank stare, so when politicians put forward something they’re actually *for* (instead of a thinly masked “I’m for everything that opposes what my opponent supports”) they’re just shooting their campaigns in the foot.


    The constant trend towards authoritarian rule supported by wide media and business connections is another reason. I know I’m not going to start a political blog anytime soon if for no reason other than that if we continue in the direction we’re going in it’s very likely that I would be open to persecution, if not outright prosecution, long before the American people are ready to make any real change (by which I don’t mean, oh, lets elect new people, I’m sure these politicians will be better).

  4. 5

    The issue of war is not a simple yes or no question. It’s fraught with moral gray and complex circumstances. The rest of the world isn’t like the safe american neighbourhood you grew up in, and there is a reason for that.

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