Nuance, RIP

Along with polar bears in the Arctic, I share the misfortune of watching the ground shrink beneath my feet. The difference, of course, is that mine is the dwindling territory of a political animal—specifically, one who doesn’t believe in simple answers.

Politics has been, and always will be, a messy business. We see this in the acrimony between the Obama Administration and a Republican Congress, the loud debates over healthcare policy, or, to put it charitably, the eyesore that was the 2016 presidential election. Some of this head butting is to be expected. But to most of us, I imagine it seems like things are getting worse.

However, while basic civility and any volume level other than ‘maximum’ seem to have been abandoned in the rise of deeply partisan politics, we have suffered the even more devastating loss of one of the most important elements of political debate: nuance.

As F. Scott Fitzgerald reminds us, holding two opposed ideas in tension while retaining the ability to function is a critical skill, and this couldn’t be more true when it comes to forging political compromise. This is because, as much as we’d like for it not to be the case, the world is not black and white. And while painting in broad brushstrokes may make for better-selling headlines and flashier campaign ads, it certainly does not make for better governance.

However true this may be, though, we still vilify advocates of gun control as tyrants. We reduce conversations about sexual ethics to slogans. We accuse protestors of treason. We call supporters of strict immigration laws monsters.

In other words, we do what is easy. After all, the benefit of intellectual sloth is that it doesn’t require the difficult and time-consuming work of hearing out those who disagree with you—or entertaining the idea that your ideas may be wrong.

As a frequent occupant of the middle ground, this is a particularly distressing phenomenon. A future in which the only acceptable position is on the farthest end of a spectrum is both dangerous and isolating. It is a diversity of perspectives that enriches American politics, and to present every issue in a one-sided fashion is a disservice to the tapestry of our numerous experiences and opinions.  

For some, this may sound like an excuse for not picking a side or an escape hatch to avoid moral or political commitment. To which I say, by no means! Believing the world isn’t black and white is not to deny that some shades of gray are darker than others. My faith, relationships, and education inform a set of core values from which I believe all politics should flow—which is to say that my ideas concerning policy are open for debate but that my beliefs about how I treat others are less so.

The question, then, is: What does nuance actually look like?

Nuance is taking seriously the possibility that we can burn a flag and be patriots. That we can reject a divisive identity politics and demand vigorous engagement with the stains on our national history. That we can advocate for healthcare coverage and believe the federal government shouldn’t be the one providing it. That we can reduce mandatory minimum sentencing in our justice system and still believe we live in a lawful society.

In short, political nuance requires us to engage with the places of our own discomfort precisely because it dislodges the certainty of our own political beliefs. It entails considering that others’ opinions—on healthcare, immigration, criminal justice, you name it—may be informed by life experiences vastly different than our own. It refuses simple answers, and it forces us to think deeply about political issues rather than regurgitate sound bites. And in the end, isn’t that exactly what we want from those who disagree with us?

In a world of echo chambers and cable news, nuance may seem foreign or even dangerous. But to do away with it entirely will be the death of us.

Here’s to hoping that nuance—and the polar bears—sticks around.

-Nathan Thompson

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