As regular readers of SJ know, I bring up H.L. Mencken a lot around here. His “complex problems” quote is one of my favorites. The law is replete with complex problems, even if you don’t understand why. The less you know, the simpler the problem appears.
One of my roommates in college, a math major, came home from a lecture bursting to tell me what he learned:
A guy buys a barometer from Sears, he explained, and took it home to his house on the ocean. It didn’t work right, so he went back to Sears and complained. The guy at Sears listened intently, asked questions, and nodded his head. He then explained that his field team would fix the problem. When the purchaser returned home, he found his house demolished. Outraged, he called the guy from Sears, who responded calmly, “well, you had a problem and now it’s fixed.”
Higher math. It’s not always satisfying. Which gives rise to a common retort when flaws in the system, usually combined with typically simplistic answers, are subject to discussion.
So, what’s the solution then?
It’s a lame attempt at gotcha, which, in the mind of the dumbass who throws it out, seems utterly brilliant. Because every complex problem has a solution that’s “clear, simple and wrong.”
My definition of a solution is a resolution to a problem that does not create or perpetuate another problem.
Sometimes, there is a solution, although appreciating it requires a depth of knowledge and understanding far beyond the ken of the person trying to win the argument by this idiotic riposte. It doesn’t “touch a nerve,” as they try to characterize their brilliance, but it does get tiresome.
In order to understand the solution, one must first understand the problem to be addressed within the context of all the other bits and pieces involved. That’s a lot to ask. Most either lack the background to understand, or just aren’t smart enough to get it. Sorry, kids, but you aren’t nearly as brilliant as mommy told you.
But then, not every problem has a solution. Many just have choices, each of which creates its own set of problems. This can’t be, you say? Every problem must have a solution, or, or, or I’ll just cry.
Nope. Neither life nor law have a good answer to everything. I appreciate that it makes you sad that there is no fix when you want one so very badly, but sometimes the answer is that there is no answer.
But what of the choices? Surely, that’s the solution, right?
Well, sort of yes and sort of no. You see, the non-solution answer is that one has to weigh the problems each “solution” creates or perpetuates, and decide which is the least bad outcome because there is no good outcome possible. The problem with these fixes is that the least harmful answer for one person may not be the least harmful answer for someone else.
Ultimately, there is not only no solution, but not even agreement on the least harmful option. This offends children and fools, because they view the world through a simple lens where every problem must have a solution. Sadly, no, every problem does not, or at least not a solution that doesn’t require massive change that would be untenable, and likely still not a solution as I’ve defined.
To not have one’s head explode is to expect tolerance for ambiguity. You have to accept the proposition that there are dilemmas out there that defy solution. People don’t like ambiguity. They want clarity. They want answers.
You can’t always get what you want.
That doesn’t mean that expressing the problems inherent in such dilemmas isn’t worthwhile. It’s important to understand why things aren’t good, so that we can determine whether they can be made better, if only by diminishing the problem to the extent possible or by presenting the choice of bad alternatives and picking which problems we prefer, since we’re going to endure problems no matter what.
But solutions? They’re not always in the cards. That’s life. If you refuse to appreciate that this is simply one of the unfortunate vicissitudes of life, then I can’t help you. And merely because anyone can piece together the words, “so what’s your solution then?” doesn’t make the question a good one. It makes the inquirer either a fool or a child.
Don’t blame me. I didn’t make you ask it.