The Chasm of Dissonance: Explaining the “dis-connects” that seem to haunt our world (Including the ones named Trump and Clinton)

2016 seems to be the year of the disconnect. Donald Trump suggests that the Second Amendment folks should “deal with Hillary” and he says he didn’t. Hillary Clinton insists that she told the truth or maybe she didn’t. Hillary short-circuited. The Donald was misquoted or so he says. The entire 2016 presidential campaign has been characterized by an inability of the politicians to get their listeners all on the same page. They say one thing, we hear another. They think one thing, we read another. “Although the Second Amendment people — maybe there is, I don’t know.”

The media only seem to compound the problem. The political pundits who dominate the evening airwaves are convinced that every utterance is a well thought out transmission of a symbol. These symbols have coded meanings which supporters and enemies interpret differently. Donald Trump, the master of the “off-the-cuff,” is reconceived as a hyper-anally-retentive genius who has studied in depth the symbolic nature of his phrasing and deploys words like a surgeon uses a scalpel. Hillary Clinton, the master of the details, is reconceived as a “potentially ill” senior citizen because she — gasp — actually pauses to think about what to say next.

The ability of Donald Trump to rise to the top of the presidential race has caused much mystification and dismay among the professional political pundit class. While a seemingly large segment of Americans appears to provide The Donald a formidable base, the pundit class can only shake their head and worry. The Donald is a phenomenon which Americans seldom see. Most presidential candidates present themselves to the public as some form of archetypal president. Not so with The Donald. He presents himself as the voice of the people. His campaign appearances are anything but presidential. His public articulations range from the seemingly obvious to the blindingly insulting. That seemingly large segment of Americans loves it. The Donald does not match the archetype for president. But more importantly The Donald does not match the archetype of politician. Archetypes matter. But archetypes are exclusionary. They do not draw people in — they define a territory and exclude others. The Donald has given prominence to an unexplored territory on the political landscape — the Chasm of Dissonance.

Dissonance is the feeling of disconnect between two conflicting signals being received simultaneously. Dissonance makes us uncomfortable. Traditionally politicians have avoided dissonance. Politicians either say what they mean or attempt to diplomatically give voice to expressions which they must channel in other directions. The Donald says what the crowd is feeling without regard to consequence. There is no need for The Donald to channel for his future actions are not dependent on his prior articulations. Donald is speaking to his insiders. The Donald’s insiders add their predetermined meanings to the Donald’s words — so do the outsiders, and the media, and other observers. BUT, what they add is NOT the same. And therein arises the many disconnects.

The Chasm of Dissonance gets its name from the dissonance caused when we are presented with an archetypal story which we cannot buy into. The teller of the story (and his believers whomever they may be) possesses some background information or experiences which allow the archetypal story being told to be believed. But the other listeners, the nonbelievers, who were asked to buy into the story do not share that same background information or experiences. Instead of believing the archetypal story they reject it. The story as told has no resonance for the nonbelievers. The absence of the shared background information evokes dissonance instead of confidence.

The goal of the archetypal story is to define a category in such a way that minimizing variance from the archetype is the measure of membership. All other stories told are measured against the archetype. Variance is frowned upon. The resulting homogeneity looks to outsiders like loyalty. But, is a loyalty based on exclusion?

What The Donald has discovered is that outside of archetypal stories lie abstractions and metaphors. Indeed, The Donald’s opponents and the professional pundit class both frequently accuse The Donald of reciting mindless aphorisms and empty slogans. Both the opponents and the pundits are looking for The Donald to tell the same kind of archetypal story as the other candidates. Wisely The Donald refuses. We live in an age where apparent simplicity can trump nuance. The other candidates tell stories filled with nuance. They present a detailed picture of how they want the public to perceive they would be as the president. And, The Donald pulls his trump card every time. Simple abstractions invite the listener to find personal resonance. Detailed archetypes do no such thing.

The graphs below illustrate the story.

What Communication Theory Teaches and What Professional Politicians and the Pundit Class Believes

Graph 1

If you believe in this graph, then adding specificity to your stories and proclaimed identity helps. By telling detailed and specific anecdotes the politician, the pundit, and the media are not attempting to trigger resonance between the reader/listener and the story, but instead they are trying to better define what membership in some category means — a category defined by its archetypal stories. This graph would suggest that the key to holding onto voters, supporters, etc. is to have them self-identify with the pre-defined category. The most obvious example of this is Hillary. To the political/pundit class identification with category matters. Voters vote by category.

But the presidential campaign calls Graph 1 into question. The science points out that the Graph makes an all-important assumption: namely that the listeners to the story being told share a set of common beliefs and background experiences. If — AND ONLY IF — that assumption is true does Graph 1 hold. But, most of the time, those who listen to stories come to that story with very different background beliefs and experiences. Graph 1 fails to recognize the effect that the listener’s own “truth” has on how a story is heard and processed. When a listener hears a story, the story is not perceived in isolation with a “fixed” meaning, instead the story is filtered through whatever subset of the listener’s prior beliefs and experience is summoned up by the present context. And, if there is anyone who is a master at engineering the “present context,” it is The Donald.

What the Science of Context Teaches

Graph 2

When stories are filtered through the listener’s context then what is important is resonance. How does the story relate to something personal to the listener? Can that something resonate? Memes, metaphors, and abstractions hold great power because in their lack of specificity they invite resonance. Each listener can find something personal to them in the abstraction being told. Where archetypes are used as a test for exclusion — where variance from the archetype is a “bad thing”, abstractions are used as a means of inclusion — find some resonance and join us.

The politicians and pundits are telling archetypal stories in the belief that Graph 1 holds true. The Donald is reciting memes and abstractions in the belief that Graph 2 holds true. References to specifics work with insiders. References to vague-isms work with everyone else. It seems The Donald is right. Abstractions TRUMP archetypes — every time. BUT what The Donald has missed is the element of TIME. The longer and more repeatedly we get exposed to the vague-isms and supposed abstractions, the more likely we are to fill in the gaps in meaning from our own heads. And, what we fill in is beyond the speaker’s control.

The disconnects are a direct result of this “filling-in” process. When the candidate uses specifics (ala Clinton) there is little for the listener to fill in. When the candidate uses Trumpisms, there is much for the listener to fill in. The fill-ins mean that what you think Trump said is likely to differ from what I think Trump said. Worse, the fill-ins mean that you cannot understand why I think Trump said something different from what you heard.

The problem of our disconnects has an explanation: we are trapped in what is called the Chasm of Dissonance. But just what is this Chasm? Where does it come from? And, most importantly, is there an escape?

The Origins of the Problem — Our addiction to Simplicity.

Let’s start with our unspoken but deeply held belief — more simplicity is better! This is shown below:

 
Graph 3

We see this supposed truth everywhere. It is the heart of the Staples advertising campaign and the Nike slogan.

If it is simple, it is easy. You can then just do it. So, if the goal is to be easily able to do more things, then, by definition, more simplicity is better.

Simplicity is the great equalizer. Make it simple and more people can both do it and understand it. In theory, simplicity has been the driving force of our post-Internet technology age:

Google has the functionality of a really complicated Swiss Army knife, but the home page is our way of approaching it closed. It’s simple, it’s elegant, you can slip it in your pocket, but it’s got the great doodad when you need it. A lot of our competitors are like a Swiss Army knife open — and that can be intimidating and occasionally harmful. (Marissa Meyer, CEO of Yahoo, quoted while at Google)

All too often we have seen innovation driven by technology for technology’s sake…whereas simplicity should be at the heart of the consumer experience. Our research results and consumer insights suggest the public is, in fact, tired. Tired of not being able to record a program on TV…tired of spending hours reading an instruction manual…tired of complexity for its own sake…. (Philips Electronics CEO Rudy Provoost describing Philips’ Sense and Simplicity project)

Apple and Bose pioneered the keep it simple so that it works variant of Philips’ Sense and Simplicity.

Contrast the multitude of buttons and adjustments possible on a typical home music component system with the Bose Wave system. All controls are on the credit-card sized remote. Very few adjustments are actually possible, because the system makes most of them automatically. Just take it out of the box and plug it in. (Susan Abbot)

That’s been one of my mantras — focus and simplicity. Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.(Steve Jobs of Apple)

Simplicity is somehow essentially describing the purpose and place of an object and product. … I think there is a profound and enduring beauty in simplicity; in clarity, in efficiency. True simplicity is derived from so much more than just the absence of clutter and ornamentation. It’s about bringing order to complexity…. So much of what we try to do is get to a point where the solution seems inevitable: you know, you think “of course it’s that way, why would it be any other way?” It looks so obvious, but that sense of inevitability in the solution is really hard to achieve…. (Jonny Ives of Apple)

When speaking about what Ives describes as a “sense of inevitability” many of us would use the word “coherent.” When we perceive the world as coherent, as holding together and making sense, we have the ability to assume our situation and to get on with things. When our perception of coherence is shattered; the world no longer seems to hold together. Things do not make sense. We continually have to ask questions and we worry about our inability to find answers in which we can believe. We react to our loss of assurance with a loss of self-confidence; we pull back to whatever coherence we can find. And our first instinct is to simplify. Simplification is our shortcut to coherence to causing things to make sense.

BUT

 

“We are ruined by our own biases. When making decisions, we see what we want, ignore probabilities, and minimize risks that uproot our hopes” (Kahneman, 2011). Our minds dislike ambiguity and doubt. Instead, we have an ingrained desire to construct coherent narratives which leads us to seek confirming evidence, while disregarding information that refutes our prior view — a problem known as confirmation bias. What results is a confidence in our understanding which is greater than the circumstances warrant, and a further confidence in the simplifications we have chosen on which we then base our actions.

We like simplicity simply because it is simple. It is easy to just do it IF the “it” is simple. And while indeed much of life can be dealt with as if it were simple — much of life cannot. Thus, the problem.

What is wrong with simplicity?

When simplicity isn’t obvious — when it doesn’t just present itself to us — we create it. Sometimes, if not most of the time, the simplicity we deal with is actually our own construction — a product of our own heads. What we do is create our own reality. We see the world. We process the world. But, the way we process it is to tell a story — a story which makes sense of what it is we think we see, of what it is we think we need to deal with. And, most of the time, we tell a simple story. We say the world is X, or Y, or Z.

Occam’s razor informs us that simpler stories are better. Yet those stories must often be complex to capture the richness of the human and natural environments. When critical decisions, such as those affecting human safety, depend on the story being told, the story must be sufficient for the task. (misquoted from Clarke, 2003)

To express that the world is ‘x’, we filter the reality that we see. How? First, we limit our field of attention. We narrow the context of what it is we are dealing with. Then, we limit the factors to be considered. We assert a set of boundaries and constraints. Then, we predict likely outcomes given the boundaries and constraints that we just imposed. In effect, at this point, we have constructed in our heads — multiple realities. Then, finally we pick amongst those multiple realities. By choosing from amongst our predictions, we have taken the complex, complicated reality that we first encountered and turned it into a simple construct. That construct becomes the story we tell — the narrative that we use to explain the situation to others and to ourselves.

 

But, simple constructs can be dangerous to success. A dramatic example:

Why might it be necessary to seek the limits of simplicity? I illustrate why using a practical example of immense environmental significance in the United States, that of the Yucca Mountain high level radioactive waste disposal site in Nevada. The problem requiring is that of finding a permanent, safe and environmentally suitable storage location for the thousands of tons of highly radioactive waste from decades of civilian and military work in nuclear energy. The specifications of this site are that it should remain “safe” for at least 10,000 years. Failure in this case could be at least nationally catastrophic, and safety depends on the waste remaining dry. The recommendation to bury the waste deep underground dates back to 1957. The selection of the Yucca Mountain site came after a very lengthy process of elimination, debate over safe storage and studies by the regulatory agencies and the National Academy of Science. Scientists at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in the Earth and Environmental Sciences division took on the task of using computer simulation to approach the problem of long term stability at the site. With the earliest, more simple, models the travel times of radionuclides to the measurement point was about 350,000 years. Adding Dual Permeability, allowing rock fracture, generated a new and far more complex model that showed travel times to only tens to hundreds of years, thereby failing the acceptance criterion. Although more complex, these models are more credible.(Clarke, 2003)

While people are trained to act on simplicity, that simplicity can often be incompatible with the nuanced complexity of the world in which we operate. If we had acted on the simple models Clarke describes above, we could have set ourselves up for a nuclear disaster.

Both complexity and simplicity offer paths to success — but those paths are very different. Complexity and nuance, just like ambiguity, threaten our simple notion of coherence. Only if one has well-earned confidence in one’s descriptors does it make sense to use them to analyze a situation. If one wants to model a situation one needs to be sure of the definitions, identities, and terms of use of which one is making use. And if one wishes to assert that a representation holds true for a given situation, one must attempt to match the context of the representation to the situation actually at hand. Variable which are capable of making a difference to our outcomes and processes need to be considered. If they get “filtered out” then the representation is not going to cover all possibilities — and failure is a distinct option. We all need to be grateful that careful scientists suggested that the modelling of nuclear waste at Yucca mountain was too simple and failed to accurately represent variables which would make a difference. No such care is normal in everyday life. Labels are all too quickly assumed to be accurate depictions of reality.

That assumption may hold for those arenas where we are “insiders” and the labels are shorthand for our belief system. Indeed, if we restrict our interactions and communications to fellow believers and insiders, then the nice upward sloping arrow we saw in the opening graph applies. But, most of the time we do not live within a confined bubble of believers and insiders. Our shorthand assumptions describe a belief system which the others may not hold. If in our interactions and communications, we continue to use the simplifications which seem to be so powerful amongst the insiders, dissonance, ambiguity, and antagonism can be the result. The insiders will be on the path shown below in green, while everyone will be on the path shown in black.

 
Graph 4

Why does this happen?

The choice of simple models like a label (with a defined meaning to an insider and an ambiguous meaning to everyone else) can mask much of what might be important regarding both coping with the current context and the changes which may be required to cope with the next and future contexts. The result is that simplifications are useful only up to a point and then their utility takes a precarious turn downwards. When the demands for meaning require more content and or context than the existing simple representation offers, it becomes difficult for the others with whom one must deal to process that simple representation in the same manner as its speaker. The simple representation loses what can be called “appropriateness” and its ability to be effective diminishes. If one attempts too much simplification, the resulting representation can be trapped in a Chasm of Dissonance as indicated by the red arrow below. In summary, when compressions are appropriate to a situation (when nuance, subtlety, and context matter) the aggressive use of a simple representation often leads to disagreements and dissonance amongst your audience. That dissonance, in turn, creates a hostile environment for effectiveness.

 
Graph 5

Simplicity and simplification can be highly effective BUT only up to a point and then the very act of simplifying becomes counter-productive. Jonny Ives of Apple argues for more and more seemingly unaware of a limit: “Our goal is to try to bring a calm and simplicity to what are incredibly complex problems so that you’re not aware really of the solution. And, in his argument, he reveals the hidden problem — his desire for the user to be “not really aware.” Too much simplicity has the virtue and the vice of hiding that which may be important.

Einstein got the tension right:

If you can’t explain it simply, you do not understand it well enough … (The upward slope of the left-hand part of the curve) … Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler (the dramatic fall once we get past a certain point) … Out of clutter, find simplicity … (the right-hand part of the curve)

But few of us are Einstein. In the next section we will examine why this curve is the way it is. If you understand the how and the why, you are more likely to take this lesson to heart and not ignore it.

Hidden Information

Simplification is an active process. It involves choices. Many of these choices we make almost without thought. Note: Just because we are capable of choosing without thinking does not make the outputs of such choices somehow better. Indeed, the lack of conscious thought attached may make many of the choices worse. And, if bad choices are a major part of our simplification process, what does that suggest about its results? Remember the Yucca Mountain example? Simple models suggested that the waste would be stable for 350,000 years. More complicated models suggested that the stability could be counted on for only 10 to 200 years. What about the Challenger disaster? The simplification said, “What harm could come from a cold O Ring?” The answer was a horrible explosion and the preventable loss of seven lives.

Simplification tends to involve four choices which get repeated over and over again:

1) Decide that some distinctions about the item, situation, or thing in need of simplifying are important and that others are less important or not important.

2) Discard information that fails to convey meaning when viewed through the filter of the chosen “important distinctions.”

3) Look for representations or other signals (which can be words, pictures, anecdotes, movements, etc.) which can stand for the results of each important distinction.

4) Substitute the chosen representations wherever possible.

The most obvious simplifications are the act of naming someone or something and the act of accepting the name as being an appropriate label for the person or thing.

To an airline trying to allocate seats on an airplane, the distinctions which matter are 1) being able to keep track of which passenger is on the plane; 2) keeping the peace on the plane amongst those passengers; 3) and encouraging repeat business. All three of these distinctions are helped by the airline knowing the passengers’ names, genders, “special situations” (allergies, pets, medical conditions) and frequent flier status. They are not helped by having the staff refer to “the lady in the white dress” or “the overweight man with the nagging wife.” But, once the passengers are on the plane now a different set of distinctions takes over: keep the peace, minimize stress, squelch problems as they occur. The white dress and overweight man descriptions work fine. The crew does not need to know your name unless they need to address you by it or to write you up in some bureaucratic report (and even then the label passenger in 21C might be fine).

To a school teacher names may be all important. To a traffic cop directing traffic in the middle of a busy intersection, the names of the drivers passing by are almost completely irrelevant, but awareness of the speed and size of each passing car could be life-saving. The people admitting you to a voting station care about your name. The people counting votes do not (at least they are not supposed to in America).

We make these choices without thought most of the time. But the choices themselves are part of a feedback loop. What we choose affects what we see. What we see helps to determine which distinctions we think are important and which are not. Some of the Challenger engineers “saw” the importance of temperature and the behavior of O-Rings. The engineers’ bosses only saw the O-Rings as a minor part which had previously demonstrated fault tolerance. The bosses vision determined what distinctions were relayed up the chain of command. Before we fault the decision makers too much we must remember that they used the information they had at hand. The fault lies in the process by which choices were made to discard what proved to be the critical information. We each have similar faults every day.

Our ability and willingness to choose is what allows us to function. When one encounters a signal, the signal evokes a meaning based on what’s going on in the receiver’s head and is not based on what the transmitter of the signal intended. We refer to these signals as “cues.” We process the cues and derive meaning. But, it is a mistake to assume that we all process cues the same way or that when encountering a given cue, we derive the same meaning. Computers may do that. People do not. Instead, we live in a world with too much information and too many competing demands on both our attention and on our ability to cognitively process what we take in.

It is the theory that describes what we can observe. … To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle requires creative imagination and marks real advances in science. (Albert Einstein)

Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious and adding the meaningful. (John Maeda)

You have to deeply understand the essence of a product in order to be able to get rid of the parts that are not essential. (Jonny Ives)

When Van Gogh was a young man in his early twenties, he was in London studying to be a clergyman. He had no thought of being an artist at all. He sat in his cheap little room writing a letter to his younger brother in Holland, whom he loved very much. He looked out his window at a watery twilight, a thin lamp post, a star, and he said in his letter something like this: “It is so beautiful I must show you how it looks.” And then on his cheap ruled note paper, he made the most beautiful, tender, little drawing of it. The moment I read Van Gogh’s letter I knew what art was, and the creative impulse. It is a feeling of love and enthusiasm for something, and in a direct, simple, passionate and true way, you try to show this beauty in things to others, by drawing it. And Van Gogh’s little drawing on the cheap note paper was a work of art because he loved the sky and the frail lamppost against it so seriously that he made the drawing with the most exquisite conscientiousness and care. (Brenda Ueland)

Truth is ever to be found in the simplicity, and not in the multiplicity and confusion of things. (Isaac Newton)

Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people. … Design is a funny word. Some people think design means how it looks. But of course, if you dig deeper, it’s really how it works. To design something really well, you have to get it. You have to really grok what it’s all about. It takes a passionate commitment to really thoroughly understand something, chew it up, not just quickly swallow it. Most people don’t take the time to do that. … Look at the design of a lot of consumer products — they’re really complicated surfaces. We tried to make something much more holistic and simple. When you first start off trying to solve a problem, the first solutions you come up with are very complex, and most people stop there. But if you keep going, and live with the problem and peel more layers of the onion off, you can often times arrive at some very elegant and simple solutions. Most people just don’t put in the time or energy to get there. (Steve Jobs)

Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify. … I do believe in simplicity. It is astonishing as well as sad, how many trivial affairs even the wisest thinks he must attend to in a day; how singular an affair he thinks he must omit. When the mathematician would solve a difficult problem, he first frees the equation of all encumbrances, and reduces it to its simplest terms. So simplify the problem of life, distinguish the necessary and the real. Probe the earth to see where your main roots run. (Henry David Thoreau)

What’s really important is to simplify. The work of most photographers would be improved immensely if they could do one thing: get rid of the extraneous. If you strive for simplicity, you are more likely to reach the viewer. (William Albert Allard)

The truth is often not very complicated. What gets complex is evading the truth.(Thomas Sowell)

Simplification fails when it results in having, as Sowell puts it, “evaded the truth.” Simplification succeeds when it allows us to be like Van Gogh and see the truth more clearly removed from irrelevant details and excess clutter. But finding that simple truth is hard work, and all too often, as Jobs told us, we are too lazy, pre-occupied, or busy to actually put the work in. So we simplify falsely summarizing something that is other than “the truth.” And in doing so, we do what Maeda tells us: we change the meaning.

By discarding information, we can end up hiding from view or consideration the very items of information we need. When the information we need, information that is relevant to the distinctions we seek to make, is not available to us our ability to make those distinctions and to act on them suffers. It is then that simplification fails.

Decide that some distinctions about the item, situation, or thing in need of simplifying are important and that others are less important or not important.

The first choice to be made in the act of simplifying is to prioritize distinctions. This choice (or set of choices) determines nearly everything else. The 2016 presidential election provides a clear set of examples. Donald Trump is appealing to those who have made “change” the single most important distinction in the election. Bernie Sanders made a similar appeal, as did Barack Obama in 2008. By contrast, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and most of the failed Republican candidates, appealed to those who made “the agenda” (whichever agenda or agenda item it was) the important distinction.

These two central distinctions have very different characteristics. Change is vague — it is a vehicle for the hopes, dreams, frustrations, and anger of the listener. Remember the Obama quote from 2008: “I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views.” By contrast, “the agenda” is usually fairly specific. It comes with a list of stated positions and the candidates attempt to appeal to the listeners’ beliefs that they are better suited/positioned to enable the listener’s goals with regard to the agenda to be carried out. Outside observers attempting to understand this distinction with regard to any particular listener can miss a critical further distinction: the listener may only care that the agenda gets discussed and fully aired in public and NOT that the agenda item actually passes into law.

We tend to ignore (or perhaps take for granted) the continuous attempts by the media to make this distinction for us. The point of a headline is not only to summarize the contents of an article or story but also (or in some media outlets, instead) to guide the reader/listener into what is supposedly important. Politicians do this by the emphasis they give to things in speeches or appearances (or, in the case of The Donald, by tweets). Managers do this to their bosses and employees by the brief summary memo. We all do it by the soundbite and the subject line of messages. What may have its roots in the idea of a concise summary needs to be also viewed for what it is: an attempt to guide the listener/reader into prioritizing a particular set of distinctions.

Clark (2003) suggested a set of rules for this distinction making:

A whole new suite of meanings of “honesty in distinction making” has emerged. The primary distinction maker has ethical obligations to listeners, readers, and users. Thus data need to be the best available, accurate, timely and of the correct precision and resolution; algorithms need to be rigorous, relevant, not-oversimplified and proven by peer review; assumptions need to be relevant, logical and documented; and output needs to be thorough, sufficient to detect errors and suitable for use, and to include performance measures and success criteria. The distinction maker has the ultimate obligation to ensure that the distinctions drawn are used appropriately, not only in the scientific sense of being accurate and correct, but in the sense that their outputs, reductions and simplifications will influence critical decisions, many involving human safety, most involving efficiency or satisfaction with human life. For these results, the distinction maker is equally to blame as the politician who acts upon them. In conclusion, simplicity is not always desirable.

Honesty in distinction-making is thus a new concept. You will not find it being expounded upon by the media, or by politicians. Entire industries — such as marketing, entertainment, public relations, public opinion, lobbying — are built around finding ways to avoid, diminish, or dismiss this notion of honesty. These industries like the media and politicians draw their own prioritized distinction: that they rather than you should be the one who determines both distinctions and priorities.

All too often we take the lazy way out and allow these others to do this work for us. Historically, this was the role of religion. It provided a framework which established the highest priority distinctions. Our religious leaders could then call upon us to follow those distinctions as they saw and labeled them. The whole point of the weekly sermon was to guide the congregation. To the extent that we each individually agreed that the religious framework was the highest priority distinction, the lower-level choices (such as whether or not to keep kosher or eat halal) did not matter much. We identified ourselves as religious.

However, when we pay attention to those situations where the lower-level choices seem incoherent, we are laying the groundwork for dissonance. There will be specific situations which feel “wrong” yet for the sake of the rules we go along. (But, bacon tastes so good — are you sure its forbidden?) Eventually the mismatch, and its dissonance, will take a toll. The demands of the higher-level, “prioritized” distinctions will seem too great relative to the coherence that that level is supposed to provide. We go along because it is easy and minimizes stress. When the stress recurs and the “easy” seems limited, dissonance matters, and the choice of distinctions matters even more.

The US Republican Party has been a living example of this dissonance in action. The present day split between the Trump “populists” (for whom change matters above all else) and the “conservatives” (for whom the agenda matters) is echoed by the split between the “pragmatic conservatives” (for whom enacted portions of the agenda matter) and the “Tea Party conservatives” (for whom the discussion of the agenda is a near moral imperative not its eventual passage into law). But the present day crisis has long-term roots. Once upon a time there were “Rockefeller Republicans” who were fiscally conservative but socially liberal. There were “Blue-dog Democrats” who fit the same description to their own label. But labels as simplifications are limiting as noted by one-time Republican Senator Jim Jeffords:

For the past several weeks, I have been struggling with a very difficult decision….I have been talking with my family and a few close advisers about whether or not I should remain a Republican. I do not approach this question lightly. I have spent a lifetime in the Republican Party and served 12 years in what I believe is the longest continuous held Republican seat in history. I ran for re-election as a Republican just this past fall, and had no thoughts whatsoever, then, about changing parties… I became a Republican not because I was born into the party, but because of the kind of fundamental principles that these and many Republicans stood for: moderation; tolerance; fiscal responsibility. Their party — our party — was the party of Lincoln. … To be sure, we had our differences in the Vermont Republican Party, but even our more conservative leaders were in many ways progressive. … Increasingly, I find myself in disagreement with my party. I understand that many people are more conservative than I am and they form the Republican Party. Given the changing nature of the national party, it has become a struggle for our leaders to deal with me and for me to deal with them…. In the past, without the presidency, the various wings of the Republican Party in Congress have had some freedom to argue and influence and ultimately to shape the party’s agenda. … Looking ahead, I can see more and more instances where I’ll disagree with the president on very fundamental issues — the issues of choice, the direction of the judiciary, tax and spending decisions, missile defense, energy and the environment, and a host of other issues, large and small. … In order to best represent my state of Vermont, my own conscience and principles I have stood for my whole life, I will leave the Republican Party and become an Independent. … Having made my decision, the weight that has been lifted from my shoulders now hangs heavy on my heart, but I was not elected to this office to be something that I am not. … I have changed my party label, but I have not changed my beliefs. Indeed, my decision is about affirming the principles that have shaped my career.

 

Gregory Bateson (Margaret Mead’s husband) defined information as “a distinction which makes a difference.” This echoes Maeda’s point about “subtracting the obvious and adding the meaningful.” There are Republicans who find it difficult to add “meaningful” to Trump. There are Bernie supporters who find it difficult to add “meaningful” to Hillary. And there are many media pundits who find it difficult to find the meaningful in their incorrect analysis of both the Trump and Bernie phenomena.

Often we label our distinctions. More often we allow others to label and define them for us. Sometimes, as with Jim Jeffords, those distinctions and labels fail us.

The label for this is dissonance.

Discard information that fails to convey meaning when viewed through the filter of the chosen “important distinctions”

Our basic technique for simplification is to discard information. The stories we tell are filled with irrelevant details, redundancies, and items which we can use cues to trigger without having to get into details. The strength of our urge to discard information seems to increase as our cognitive processing burdens increase. Remember Miller’s magic number seven plus or minus two. Most of us can effectively deal with five items of information at once and some of us can deal with as many as nine. Above seven, the greater the number of simultaneous demands on our attention and our mental processing power, in general the worse our performance. But the key word in this paragraph is attention. We drive cars and manage to deal with a seemingly infinite amount of information flows — the road, its condition, the other cars, the weather, numerous noises, perhaps passengers, music, the telephone, and, of course, the potential for surprises from alongside the road itself. The quantity of what we deal with successfully is large, if not huge, but the key to that success is that our minds have mastered the trick of only paying conscious attention to approximately 5–9 things at once. We subconsciously monitor the rest for variance — values, observations, or changes which differ from what we expect (or what it is that our subconscious mind predicts).

Because we can only safely pay attention to 5–9 things simultaneously, it becomes imperative to shift our attention away from anything else. We do this seemingly without thought. But, as the section above made clear, we do this in light of the distinctions which we choose to prioritize. They become the sorting mechanism. And, we use that sorting mechanism to discard things.

The first items which we discard are those which seem to be irrelevant to those priority distinctions. You are familiar with this from literature. There is the novel. Then there is the Cliff Notes version — an abridged copy which claims to have “reduced” the novel to its “essentials” and in the process made it shorter and simpler. Then there is the Classics Illustrated version — a further abridgement which is designed to get a younger and less sophisticated audience on board. with the central ideas, characters, and plot lines of the story. When I was young, there still existed Reader’s Digest which provided abridged versions not only of novels but also of serious works of non-fiction be they books or important news stories. When my parents were young, there was the news reel shown weekly at the cinema — another very abridged version of important stories where again the emphasis was on central ideas, characters, and plot lines.

Business people have their own versions of this kind of discarding of information. Many a successful manager subscribes to a business book summary service — which takes a leading business book (usually the kind sold at airport book stores) and reduces it to roughly 6 to 10 pages. These services advertise themselves as providing “essential knowledge in under ten minutes.” One such service says it “summarizes business books, making our subscribers the best-read, most expert players on the business scene today. Our mission is to provide executives worldwide with the best.” Their definition of “the best” is based on discarding the irrelevant bits and providing the business manager with just what they need to know — “Every summary includes a rating, top take-aways, a full summary, significant quotes, an author biography and other key points — all of which can be absorbed in less than ten minutes.”

It is important to distinguish the results of this kind of discarding and pruning from the soundbite or the academic abstract. The soundbite and abstract are intended to get you to desire to read more. The business summary and the abridged book are intended to have you be satisfied with reading less. The richness of a novel and the details of a logical argument are but discard fodder for the simplifier in search of the essential. And readers of such simplifications make do with being satisfied.

Business and academia have two other tools which force the discarding of the “non-essential:” PowerPoint and the one-page memo. The ubiquitous slide deck has conditioned many of us to the rough and forced simplification of bullet points and bad illustrations. The summary memo has conditioned too many decision makers into the idea that they need not read details. The key skill in preparing both PowerPoint presentations and one-page memos is not knowing what to select but knowing what can be discarded.

After we discard the irrelevant or the seemingly irrelevant, we still can do further pruning. Most of the stories that we tell and the messages which we write (using traditional platforms) contain large quantities of redundancy. Indeed, a key component of successful communication is often finding a level of redundancy which gives the listeners sufficient comfort that that have indeed construed a coherent story from the inputs they have received.

A look at the 2016 political campaign suggests the pervasiveness of the discarding approach. Trump tends to speak for twenty minutes to almost an hour yet the media likes to reduce his speeches to a few well-chosen insults, oft repeated anecdotes, and one-liners. By contrast, when the media covers Sanders or Clinton there is far more text devoted to details about policy or programs which may have been in the current talk. When many of the failed Republican candidates spoke about policy or programs, they too got coverage. Now, some readers may object and suggest that Trump actually provided few details about what he was going to do or propose. That is true up to a point. The Trump style is to recognize that the media discards most of what he says in favor of their favorite tropes about him, so he feeds them what they desire. Policy points have been dished out a few lines at a time. This is more revelatory about the media’s own process of simplification and discarding than it is of Trump’s programs. Again the media has made their prioritized distinctions about the candidates and then has adopted a simplification process to match.

As these elements get discarded we are climbing up the left hand slope of the simplicity-effectiveness curve. Each discard is working to increase effectiveness by removing the redundant, the irrelevant, and the less than essential. The message being conveyed is getting simpler. This is shown in the two left hand areas below:

Graph 6

Look for representations or other signals (which can be words, pictures, anecdotes, movements) which can stand for the results of each important distinction. Substitute the chosen representations wherever possible.

Discards such as described above are not the only simplification method we employ. Once we have gotten rid of the redundant, irrelevant, and less than essential, we can still look for further ways to simplify our message. It is at this stage that we can get ourselves and our simplification methods into trouble.

The critical operation in this next stage of simplification is to “off-load” meaning from the directly observable and communicable pieces of information with which we deal into some other form. There are two possibilities here. The first and easiest to recognize is the representation in the form of a sign, label, model, or symbol. To the extent that meaning can be communicated via a representation that takes up fewer words, less mind space, or less attention than the long-form explication of the story for which the representation stands, there is then either more “room” for still more meaning or more “efficiency” in that the meaning can be communicated with less energy.

Graph 7

We use names to refer to people rather than describing them by their life story. The very concept of a brand is that of a representation used to communicate the qualities and life story of a company and its products or services. It is awkward and anything but efficient to refer to the accountant as the guy that my brother-in-law used and so did three of the neighbors in order to get the taxes done and we all used him because he seemed fast and was quite good at it. By contrast, H&R Block promises to get me a larger refund. Larger than what is not said, but if I remember larger and Block then the branding exercise worked.

Trump and Sanders want to be branded as “change.” Hillary Clinton wants to be branded as “presidential,” “experienced,” and “pragmatic.” The other two want to see Clinton branded as “more of the same.” The election will turn in part on which form of the branding exercise sticks.

Branding and labeling like this work because they appeal to well-formed associations which most of us already have in our heads. We recognize red-white-and-blue as US colors and the maple leaf as Canadian. Sometimes the branding goes too far and we see the items as the brand itself — think of Kleenex (tissues), Band-Aids (bandages), Scotch Tape (adhesive tape) and Post-It Notes. As marketing managers have learned to their peril, personal branding can be both effective when the personality is popular and deadly when there is a fall from grace. Hertz prospered for years off of its OJ Simpson association and then could not run away fast enough. Penn State still struggles with what to do with the Joe Paterno legacy, and Subway may never recover from Jared Fogle’s struggles with underage sex and child pornography. While Tylenol was able to recover from a poisoning episode, it remains to be seen if Chipotle can make a similar rescue. I am old enough to recall that miracle diet candy with the most unfortunate name: Ayds.

The final step in simplification is the conversion of information into what is called “exformation.”

Exformation is meaning which is “off-loaded” into the environment or the context in a manner which is capable of then being called back when needed. The term was first used by the Danish science writer Tor Nerretranders (1991): “Exformation is everything we do not actually say but have in our heads when or before we say anything at all. Information is the measurable, demonstrable utterance we actually come out with.” He claimed that the awareness of exformation as the context, the history, and the process behind the creation of information and knowledge needs as much attention as the information or knowledge itself. For our purposes we can describe information as the communicable pieces of meaning with which we deal and exformation as the cues to pieces of meaning which are themselves scattered about in the context in which we find ourselves. Taken together, the information and the exformation give us access to the meaning we need to deal with so as to be able to act. This can be captured by a formula:

Actionable Meaning = Attended to Information + Cued Exformation

The ability to “off-load” meaning from information to exformation (just like the ability to off-load meaning from story to simpler representation) is an important driver of efficiency. If the meaning can be cued from items found in the context of the situation, then it does not need to be carried internally by the person and does not need to be expressed explicitly as part of the story-telling. Think of how much easier driving has become once we got GPS devices either in our cars or on our phones which could just give us directions. No more fiddling with maps or written-on pieces of paper with badly formulated instructions. No more stopping at service stations to enquire as to which turn ahead was what. Similar efficiencies happen with toll transponders on cars with both automatic fill-ups and warning lights as we go through the toll booth.

But both representations and cued exformation depend on previous knowledge. The visitor from Mars may have trouble recognizing the significance of either red-white-and-blue or the maple leaf. New Englanders have trouble understanding what it is that gets Southerners excited about the Confederate Flag. Most people my age have no idea what these emoji things are that young people are not only exchanging but seemingly recognizing as a form of communication.

 
 

Hillary sees Trump as a misogynist. Trump sees Hillary as an enabler for Bill’s bad behavior and a hypocrite who decries sexual abuse except when it is done by her husband. Their respective supporters buy into these representations to varying extents but at least they recognize their meaning. Again, pity our visitor from Mars who needs to look up the word misogynist and finds the idea that the cheated upon wife is an enabler to be confusing at best.

Cued exformation comes in two varieties and in their difference lies the origins of the Chasm of Dissonance. Some exformation is situationally cued and shared amongst most observers. One of the goals of schooling in almost every country is to implant in the minds of the young a common shared set of knowledge, interpretations, customs, and culture to be drawn upon throughout that person’s life. To the extent that we can off-load meaning to these shared cues, we can both increase simplicity and efficiency. But, not all interpretations are shared equally. And to the extent that we have off-loaded meaning onto a non-shared cue, trouble awaits.

Graph 8

Richard Rorty (1991) told us: “Knowledge is not a matter of getting reality right … but rather a matter of acquiring habits of action for coping with reality.” If we need a way of reducing the world enough that we can cope with it and act in it, then the use of exformation cues helps people to have an actionable view of the world. But those cues are not stable. They will shift with the situation and with the user. The greater the amount of meaning we off-load into a set of cues, the more dependent we are on the idea that the listener (or the other actors on whom we may be depending for an action to happen) will derive the same of at least similar meaning from that cue. In addition, the more dependent we are that the listener will actually be paying attention to the cue and prioritizing the cue enough to engage in ascribing it meaning. If the listener fails to pay attention to the cue, or assigns it a low priority, or interprets the cue in a manner other than the speaker intended — some OTHER meaning will be received. The clash between these meanings is dissonance.

Finding an Escape

Distortion is the difference between the meaning that the sender intends and the meaning that the receiver understands. The opportunities for distortion are many. The sender usually expresses the intended meaning in words or symbols choosing which words or symbols from an almost infinite selection. But, the actual message will make use of only a small set of such words or symbols. Where a tweet is restricted to 140 characters, that could mean less than 25 words. By contrast a novelist might choose to express the same meaning in 25 pages. Obviously the tweet is simpler. But, is it more effective? If the sender and receiver are both insiders who use a similar dictionary to look up and decode meaning, then probably yes. But the more distinct the sender and receiver are from each other, the greater the likelihood that the short message will be interpreted differently by each party. Add to that the likelihood that the message is being received by multiple recipients. The opportunities for distortion and dissonance are great.

The use of jargon and shorthand compounds the problem. Labels, cues and categories eliminate the individual variations of specific items. The substitution of the label for the thing itself thus simplifies the world. Labels and cues form a very valuable role in limiting the world. Instead of actively discussing the multiple approaches which may all be interpretations, enactments, or embodiments of a model, people often act as if there is but one or perhaps two interpretations. These “privileged” interpretations are given status as names, labels, or symbols and the labels are then used as guides for action.

In our endeavor to understand reality we are somewhat like a man trying to understand the mechanism of a closed watch. He will never be able to compare his picture with the real mechanism and he cannot even imagine the possibility of the meaning of such a comparison (Einstein and lnfeld, 1938).

In creating the simplifications, we prefer to deal with, we are making choices. And, those choices need to be explicitly recognized. We choose to recognize and deal with the multiplicities of meaning which ambiguity evokes or we choose to deny those same elements. We choose to incorporate a degree of ambiguity when we deliberately give room for the observer/actor/participant to include some of their own meaning in a given situation. The choice of how to declare and assign meaning is one each of us makes nearly all the time. In making these choices we are, in effect, designing the reality with which we cope. We tend to be oblivious of the process we use in making those choices.

By adopting a particular perspective, and therefore making assumptions consistent with that perspective, we limit what we can ‘see’. “We often fail to allow for the possibility that evidence that should be critical to our judgment is missing. What we see is all there is” (Kahneman, 2011). The perspective acts as a lens that only allows particular features to come into focus — all other features are lost or assumed not to be relevant. Furthermore, in communicating with others, by making use of a particular viewpoint, we limit our and their ability to ‘see’ what is relevant. As Kuhn (1962) put it: “You don’t see something until you have the right metaphor to let you perceive it.” Or as suggested by Srivastva and Barrett (1988), naming implies anticipations, expectations, and evaluations toward the named. By making assumptions (and in so doing restricting ourselves to a particular or one method of interpretation) we predetermine what might be learnt, which will limit the options that appear to be open to us as people.

In everyday life words and phrases often emerge from concrete situations in which participants jointly work out ways of describing what is going on. New terms, symbols or images are situated; they acquire meaning through collective use in real situations. (Gooding and Addis, 2008)

It is rare that we all agree on one set of labels and adopt the same model. Often two or more stories emerge to describe a situation. The key to bridging these stories is the idea of respect. Respect has two syllables — “re” (again) and “spect” (to see). Respect is thus approaching others from a foundation of belief that you will be encountering them again and again and again. Each encounter is part of a series and not merely some kind of “one-off” transaction. To approach others with respect is thus to re-affirm their inherent worth — each is another person with their own ideas, values, history and beliefs, not merely some “vehicle” through which some end is to be achieved. Instead, an appreciation for both the fact that the other has their own ideas, values, history and beliefs, and that those ideas, values, history and beliefs are likely to differ from yours becomes the key to the mutual respect which repeated encounters demands. With respect, we learn to co-interpret and jointly share circumstances. Stories we have heard and explanations that we have received make circumstances recognizable and sensible. Politicians, or healthcare professionals, or teachers — or any of us, really — may like to assume that what their audiences hear is what they think they are communicating, but their labels often can be experienced every-which-way. Many like to treat their labels as if context and situation did not exist, and the labels were mono-interpretable. Thus, the nub of the problem: to choose a label is to limit one’s possibility space or degrees of freedom, choices and boundaries; and it imposes a set of constraints. If the limitation works — leads to the desired results — in the present environment, then “all is well” for the moment. But by imposing limitations, one risks compromising one’s potential.

The risks we face in relying too heavily on simplicity are not limited to the idea that our explanations are wrong and so too may be the actions/decisions based upon them but also include the possibility that in our reliance upon a fragile simple model lacking in degrees of freedom we will be unable to perceive or attend to those possibilities which lie very near our present state. This risk speaks directly to our ability to cope with change, prosper with emergence, and to innovate.

So what to do?

Look at the Graph again:

 
Graph 9

The Chasm of Dissonance is what happens at point B. What needs to happen is a move from B to either A or C. The move to C is a move to fill in details by having a complete narrative. The dissonance which comes from having the listener fill in details can (in theory) be overcome by details from the Speaker. BUT, time and repeated exposure remain a problem. The longer a situation lingers in the Chasm the more determined that the listeners will be that their “understanding” is correct. Our addiction to Simplicity will always mean that we prefer the less complex and the less nuanced. Moves to C need to thus be “embodied.” There needs to be a physical (or virtual) “thing” which represents position C in all its complexity — call it an embodied narrative. Think of the anti-Goldwater Daisy ad, or of the Apple 1984 ad. It is possible that Trump’s attack on the Khans has created such an embodied narrative.

The alternative is to move from B to A. This is a move to GREATER ambiguity. It only works if one can distract the listeners from point B AND keep the discussion going at the abstract level. How? By asking for input from the listeners/the audience. By changing the focus from the speaker to the listener. By introducing some orthogonal ideas and using them to create a “new space.” BUT, the move to A needs to be followed shortly thereafter by a move to an embodied narrative.

Trump is in trouble. He has given the Clinton campaign the material it needs for several embodied narratives — Trump University, the Khans, the “Second Amendment” attack on Hillary. He has failed to make use of the gift FBI Director James Comey gave him — great video for an embodied narrative about Hillary being “careless with National Security.”

Both campaigns need to be aware that in the age of disconnects one must either deliver messages that avoid the Chasm — meaning that speaking in symbols or in language which can be seen as symbolic must be minimized — or deliver embodied narratives. In a strange way one can find this lesson in Trump’s history in real estate. Houses are not sold, they are bought. Buyers will make that purchase only when they can see themselves as living and functioning in the house and like what they see. They need to be able to create for themselves an embodied narrative — or have a good realtor do it for them.

 

This election will be determined by those embodied narratives. Before we are caught up in the Chasm, abstractions and orthogonals work well, but the more we get exposed to the Chasm of Dissonance the more we can only be rescued by easy to understand stories that are relatively complete.

Though mostly overlooked all four of the US’s leading newspapers have carried stories directly on point with this text. In their own way, the NY Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and USA Today managed to echo my warnings about the dangers of simplification through categorization. Each paper warned that the rejection of nuance and contextually relevant detail could cause lasting damage.

The NY Times editorialized about the dangers of labels — focusing on the word “felon.” Entitled “Labels Like ‘Felon’ Are an Unfair Life Sentence” the story notably quoted Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who “sent a letter to the governor of each state, asking them to allow citizens … a state-issued ID, because in order to truly rejoin society, every individual needs to be the one to tell society who they are.” The administration has also recognized that the vocabulary of incarceration — the permanently stigmatizing way we speak about people who have served time — presents a significant barrier to reintegration. Federal officials have set out to change that lexicon, so that people who have committed crimes have a better chance of being seen not as faceless abstractions, but as human beings worthy of a being back in society. The article closed by noting the effects of the singular label on those so tagged: “The worst part of repeatedly hearing your negative definition of me,” quoting Eddie Ellis, “is that I begin to believe it myself, ‘for as a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.’”

The Washington Post carried two contrasting articles highlighting the tension between the power of the left hand side of the Chasm curve and the fight between the green and blue lines on the right. In one article the Post’s Allison Jane Smith wrote

Donald Trump speaks like a sixth-grader. All politicians should. … More than 40 percent of Americans have only basic literacy skills. Candidates need to be able to talk to them … New York magazine posted a video with the smirking caption: “Donald J. Trump has the grammar of an 11-year-old. That’s not opinion. That’s research-proven.” But when Trump uses simple words, he’s only doing what every politician should. … The simple way Trump speaks does not make his supporters think he is speaking down to them. The opposite, in fact, appears to be true. “He’s … talking to us not like we’re stupid,”… Most of the words in a speech don’t register in the brains of listeners, who are more likely to remember the general tone of a speech and how it made them feel.

Yet, in the same issue, the Post’s David Fahrenthold wrote that “Clinton’s wonky policies of fine-grained complexity contrast with rivals… Hillary Clinton’s official campaign platform is now twice as long as ‘Hamlet’: seventy-three thousand six hundred forty-five words of policy ideas. This approach says a lot about Clinton’s worldview. To her, complexity is realism. Clinton says she simply can’t make the simple, grand promises of her rivals. Instead, she skips ahead to what policy looks like the way it’s actually been done: complicated, ugly and in small steps.” The contrast the Post is setting up for its readers is the following: Trump is simple, Clinton is nuanced. Trump uses vagueness, Clinton uses specifics — lots of them.

It takes the Wall Street Journal and USA Today to speak frankly about the dangers inherent in that contrast. The Journal writes about Trump’s desire to “purify” the party around his vision of himself and the accompanying threats he is making to Republicans who are unwilling to accept the Trump label of what it means to be a Republican. It urges instead that Trump “needs to give thoughtful speeches with specific ideas for reviving economic growth and keeping the country safe.” In simple language, the Journal is saying we have no understanding of what you Mr. Trump stand for — so how can we just “sign on” to your vagueness? Meanwhile USA Today highlights the lack of substance found in Trump’s claims to understand Russia: “I know Russia well. I had a major event in Russia two or three years ago, Miss Universe contest, which was a big, big, incredible event. An incredible success.” Foreign policy based on running a beauty pageant. Much like government expertise from firing celebrity apprentices.

The real warnings can be found in a disturbing trend on college campuses: to take the Trump idealization of vague labels and just like The Donald to turn them into tests for membership in “approved” categories. Fraternity houses at Northwestern University came under fire for observing Sexual Assault Awareness Month this past April by hanging sexual assault awareness banners from their balconies. “Fraternity men must hold friends accountable or else their banners are just cruel reminders that attempts to change sexual culture in fraternities are purely symbolic,” wrote the Daily Northwestern. It seems that only those who are “appropriate” should have the right to speak of difficult topics. Conservative and controversial speakers get “uninvited” from campus appearances because as Williams College President Adam Falk stated while “the exchange of ideas is an absolutely fundamental value in our college, there are limits. [Having a controversial or conservative speaker on campus] is not an act that fosters difficult discussions. It’s an act that makes truly important discussion impossible.” So it seems that at America’s leading colleges it is only permissible to speak about “approved” opinions if you are also one of the “approved” insiders. Just like the vision Trump has for the Republican Party. And to be fair, just like the vision the Tea Party Republicans had before him.

Using simplification as a tool for “loyalty testing” and exclusion is part of the new politics of both the left and the right. Because it is based on vague representations — devoid of details — it comes under the control of whomever can get the media to repeat their last promulgation. The vague representation gets used as a filter and the processes described herein repeat over and over again. Those who are “insiders” take a comfortable ride up the green line. Everyone else finds themselves at the bottom of the Chasm of Dissonance, feeling screwed over by vague simplifications that sounded good until they didn’t.

Just as sales messages based on fear and jealousy were succeeded by narratives of “becoming complete” and “living as you,” the politics of dissonance will be succeeded by the politics of embodied narratives. How long we remain trapped in the Chasm of Dissonance depends on how long it takes the media or the politicians themselves to realize that the only solution for vague aphorisms is embodied narratives.

It seems that literary studies and its ilk have something serious to teach politicians and pundits … but, then again, we do have a TV creation as the Republican nominee for President. That too is dissonance.

 

Portions of this post were drawn from “Don’t Be Addicted: The Oft-Overlooked Dangers of Simplification” She Ji: The Journal of Design, Economics, and Innovation, Volume 2, Issue 1, Spring 2016, Pages 29–45 

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