The Lost Art of Nuance

Insight. Volume. Pick one.

Have you ever tried to shout a message? Like at a concert when you’re right next to someone but it’s so loud you have to shout at the top of your lungs. Almost every word requires a full breath. It’s impossible to utilise the subtleties of intonation.

Public discourse seems not far from this dynamic. There’s a deafening daily roar of opinion, information and rage devoid of nuance. The options seem to be retreat or furiously tread water in the current.

It’s a pincer movement. Information arrives quickly and with virtually no context and invites frantic speculation. Secondly, the increasing ease with which we partake in networks of isolation within our online worlds (aided in no small part by algorithms giving us ‘what we want’) enable us to gather an enlightened team of mutual yes men receptive of ‘our truth’.

This dynamic makes it that much more unlikely we’ll be around long enough to hear the full story, and that we’ll rarely come across an opposing view.

If, occasionally, we do find something we disagree with we can leave a comment. But comments sections are all to often the written equivalent of a drive-by shooting. Brief, cruel and gone before even the ricochet can whiz past. Immense fun, although a poor substitute for dialog that will steer us clear of vital nuance.

Another poor substitute is the tendency to proclaim rather question. Social media encourages grandstanding for all those people dying to hear what we have to say. These platforms push us away from lengthy reasoning and away from asking questions. Instead the convention is to display soundbites and not even ‘show your working’.

Sometimes I wish Twitter had a minimum character-count, preferably thousands. It’s clearly a hugely successful platform and one of which I’m a part, but who thought it’d be a good idea to limit how much you can say on Really Important Stuff? What if the whole journalistic and political class got themselves blogs instead? Blogs are like books in that 280 character brevity would look glaringly foolish. It would make it that much harder to get away with glib statements on Really Important Stuff. You’d have to do things like research… and think.

Perhaps, more subtly, it’s the constant use of feelings as a guiding light. How many emotions can you list? Ten? Twenty? Fifty at a push? There won’t be enough to engage fully with every situation. You’ll have to squeeze every person, moment and policy into some simplistic feelings box. Sad. Angry. Sympathy. Hate.

For all the railing against online media and personal flaws, news media all too often falls short of its purported aim to detach from purely emotional response or from the natural tendency to give only one side.

Reporting around police violence in America has, in recent months, suffered from this nuance aversion.

George Floyd’s tragic death was widely reported, with most outlets basing their coverage purely on the video shared of his final moments. They took the straightforward position that George was a pillar of the community and an innocent victim and that Derek Chauvin was reckless and likely a racist. Pertinent to the coverage would be that both autopsies revealed the cause of death as cardiac arrest, not asphyxiation; that Minneapolis police are trained to use a ‘knee-on-neck’ manoeuvre as a non-lethal restraint; and that George had previously robbed a mother and toddler at gun point. This is not to say that his death was justified and not a tragedy, simply that this nuance in the event and the individuals involved were not widely reported. The simple narrative was favoured and we are poorer for it.

The shooting of Jacob Blake (now left paralysed) has followed a similar pattern. All major news outlets have reported the incident as ‘black man shot in back by police whilst getting into car’. Salient details which add vital nuance include the fact that the police were called on him because he took someone’s car keys; Police tried to arrest him due to an outstanding warrant for sexual assault; They first attempted physical restraint then tasering; Jacob was armed with a knife; he had a previous convictions for threatening an officer with a gun and assault; When he was eventually shot, he was running away from officers and reaching into the car whilst they shouted at him not to with guns trained on him and trying to pull him back. Again, this is no judgement on what the final outcome of the investigation should be, but these facts add highly significant nuance which is absent from most of what anyone is likely to hear on the event.

There will always exist a desire to simplify complexity by avoiding nuance and we must fight it with all our strength.

The Weinstein Brothers tell of a summer camp they would attend in their youth. During discussions there were two rules; If someone is saying something which seems patently untrue, assume that person is working towards something counter-intuitive; Conversely, if someone is saying something which appears obvious, assume that person is trying to draw out a hidden nuance. Good rules to live by.

Johnathan Hadt, in his work with the Heterodox Academy, points out that, in the early days of cable TV, Fox News’ inflammatory style lead to a measurable polarisation in the communities where it became available. Concerningly, party affiliation in the US increasingly predicts ones position on all issues.

And herein lies the problem. Nuanced ideas require nuanced people. And there simply aren’t enough of those.

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