Imagine you have a cough.

You pick up the phone, call your doctor, and schedule an appointment to have him take a look. What does he do? Not surprisingly, he’ll likely recommend cough medicine. Why? Because from the nature of the symptom (i.e. a light cough), your doctor infers that the root cause (i.e. whatever is causing your cough) is far from life-threatening, and your body will likely take care of it in time. So, simply alleviating the discomfort of the symptom with a little dose of DayQuil is an adequate treatment for the time being.

However, imagine that, in addition to a cough, you also have limb paralysis, liver failure, debilitating migraines, and general cognitive disfunction. Do you still think your doctor will only recommend cough medicine? Of course not. Why? Because the number and severity of your symptoms will undoubtedly lead him to believe that something more fundamentally problematic is wrong with you, and only alleviating the discomfort caused by a single symptom will not adequately address the root cause. So, instead, he begins searching for that cause.

However, your doctor isn’t just looking for any ole thing. No, he’s looking for something special. Something known as a universal diagnosis.

Essentially, in attempting to uncover the cause of your symptoms, your doctor is looking for a single disease or condition that causes all of the symptoms you’re presenting. Why? Because what are the chances of you suddenly coming down with four different diseases simultaneously, each of which is causing one of your symptoms? You’d have to be terribly unlucky. By finding the singular cause of all of your discomfort, your doctor can hone in on the exact solution that will fix your health problems, and from there, your treatment can begin.

You can see why – in terms of healthcare – uncovering a universal diagnosis is beneficial. But does following the same process work in other areas in which we find ourselves trying to make sense of highly complex situations? How about in the case of the recent Orlando shooting?

Radical jihadism, homophobia, transphobia, lax firearm regulation, toxic masculinity, conservatives, liberals, (I can go on)… You name it, someone has posted on Facebook in the last week about why it is the cause of the tragic mass shooting that recently transpired in Orlando. And certainly there seems to validity to many of these. However, many is not what we’re looking for when attempting to isolate the sole (or even main) cause. A universal diagnosis requires us to boil down all of the outputs in order to determine a single input. And herein lies the problem: When it comes to human behavior, it just isn’t this simple.

Sure, the shooter (I won’t pay him the courtesy of acknowledging him by name) seems to have had ideals that overlap with those of many Islamic extremist groups. But from all accounts, he wasn’t an active member of these groups, and their claiming to have had any role in organizing what transpired appears to be nothing more than self-promoting, ‘credit’-stealing revisionist history.

Yes, this was undoubtedly a hate crime against the LGBT community. Yet we’ve now learned that what transpired may have also been fueled in some large way by self-hate, by a large degree of internal conflict over the shooter’s own personal (i.e. sexual) identity.

And absolutely, America’s gun laws need to be revisited and revised. However, increasing the difficulty of acquiring a firearm does not eliminate the inherent motivations that lead one to use it.

Discovering a universal diagnosis is appealing because it’s clean. It solves the problem. It wraps all of that complexity we struggle to understand into a nice, neat little package. The issue is, human behavior – especially of the irrational kind – simply doesn’t work this way. Worse, in attempting to isolate and identify a singular objective cause, we tend to paint our own subjective rationale on top of the situation by projecting our owns fears and agendas, motivated by the one thing we happen to care most about. Think about it: Are you surprised that many feminists blame the situation on toxic masculinity? Are you shocked that red state conservatives blame Islam? Are you stunned that liberals blame the NRA? Of course not. And you shouldn’t.

That’s because these are not diagnoses. They are witch hunts.

When we attempt to boil down the motivations behind complex and often irrational human behavior into some single, clean, and easily understood morsel of cause and effect, we often come up with many different conclusions. Worse, we tend to alienate those who don’t come to the same conclusion as ourselves. And that alienation results in the exact opposite situation than what we should all be striving for: Conflict instead of cooperation. Animosity instead of compassion. Polarity instead of unity.

Yet as I sit here, I can’t help but ponder if all of this discord and disagreement is just one large symptom, the universal diagnosis of which has become depressingly obvious over the last few months:  This is what it now means to be American.


Illustration courtesy of Chris Piascik.

Keith F.

Chief Experience Officer & award-winning speaker. Host, CreativeMornings Boston. Creator of and Formerly: Creative Director at HubSpot (IPO) & Producer at MTV. Follow me on Twitter: @theKeithF

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