The lost art of nuance

I love to watch Tim Allen’s Last Man Standing.  In a light-hearted way without getting nasty, it juxtaposes both conservative and liberal viewpoints.  Tim Allen’s conservatism is so blatant, it comes to the point of ridiculousness.  Ryan’s liberal viewpoints are equally blown out of proportion, and Mike (Tim Allen) takes every opportunity to poke fun.  And yet there are poignant moments when both Mike and Ryan are able to see eye to eye.
In one particular episode, Mike’s very conservative daughter, Eve, has an upcoming debate in which she must argue from a liberal perspective.  Ryan offers to hold a practice debate to give her a chance to argue from a liberal point of view.  Eve definitely isn’t well prepared (“I’ve been researching liberal positions.  I googled how to talk out of your ass, that was no good.).  The debate that ensues is quite the debacle:
Ryan: “America is at a crossroads.  Do we follow in the steps of Ronald Reagan, the greatest man with the greatest hair who ever lived?  Or do we follow the lead of my weak-kneed socialist opponent who longs for the day when Isis rules the world and America is in chains?”
Eve: “What? That’s crazy.  No one would actually say that.”
Ryan: “Conservatives say that stuff all the time.  We’re lunatics.”
The next question follows a similar strand:
Ryan: “Democrats have created a nation of takers who live like kings and who have never done a lick of work in their lives.  My opponent may disagree with this, but the best thing we can do for the poor, elderly, and disabled is to let them rot.  Thank you.”
Eve: “Of course I disagree with that, everybody disagrees with that.  This whole thing is stupid, you are just an angry malnourished vegan, and you are just jealous that I can eat cheeseburgers!”
Eve storms out, and Ryan quips to his wife: “Man, it is real easy being a conservative.”
I had hoped that the episode would have had some kind of poignant resolution.  Perhaps Ryan would be a little less self-righteous, and Eve would learn to respect her liberal opponents.  Eve did come back and apologize to Ryan for getting so angry, and she is willing to hear a few liberal arguments.  But on the day of the debate, she reports “In my opening statement, I reminded everyone of the time in the third grade, Derek had to use his emergency pants.”
As usual, the episode beautifully captures the problems inherent with our political discussion today.  Most discussion is done in ad hominem fashion, throwing mud at the opponent rather than building up a cogent and well thought out argument.   Character stabs replace logic, because who wants to read a five-paragraph essay?
What I want to see more of is nuance.  Nuance is the “it’s complicated” of facts.  It means recognizing that your opponents are human, that they have legitimate concerns, and for the most part, they want to do good.  It means recognizing that your own point of view has holes in it and its own biases.
Nuance means being able to take the “I’m right, and you’re wrong” simplistic view, and break it down into a more complicated “This is the problem, there is no easy solution.  I think this way works best, and here’s why.”  The modern discussion is instead dominated by caricature, ignoring the complexity of people and instead exaggerating their flaws to make a point.  We all laugh, because it’s funny.  But while we’re laughing, we become more grained in our own assumptions, and increasingly find the opposing side as crazy and absurd.  This is polarization in action.
This past week in Berkeley, Ben Shapiro was met by a crowd of angry protesters chanting “Speech is violence.”  But if you listen to Ben Shapiro’s talk, it was very well-done, very reasonable, and very kind to the other side.  His speech in Berkeley gave me hope that we will be able to engage in debate without demonizing the other side.  In the question and answer session, he discussed how it s the responsibility of informed citizens to get a balanced view of current events:
So, that means its up to us to look at a variety of news sources.  don’t just listen to my podcast, listen to… don’t just read daily wife, go check out huffington post.  Make sure you read a variety of news sources.  If you want to really know what the facts are, read two opposing websites and think of them as lines that intersect at one point, and that point is the factual point.
Are we willing to put that kind of effort in?  It isn’t just a little extra reading; it’s making room to accept and engage with differing viewpoints rather than dismissing them.
As usual, I usually find that G. K. Chesterton has already covered the ground I want to cover.  He talked about it in a little piece he wrote called A Defense of Humility:
Probably this can best be tested by a study of those who frankly disregard humility and assert the supreme duty of perfecting and expressing one’s self.  These people tend, by a perfectly natural process, to bring their own great human gifts of culture, intellect, or moral power to a great perfection, successively shutting out everything that they feel to be lower than themselves.  Now, shutting out things is all very well, but it has one simple corollary– that from everything that we shut out we are ourselves shut out.  When we shut our door on the wind, it would be equally true to say that the wind shuts its door on us.  Whatever virtues a triumphant egoism really leads to, no one can reasonably pretend that it leads to knowledge.  Turning a beggar from the door may be right enough, but pretending to know all the stories the beggar might have narrated is pure nonsense; and this is practically the claim of the egoism which thinks that self-assertion can obtain knowledge…
Do we really want to shut ourselves off from our fellow man? Is society’s problems going to be solved in self-righteousness, in condemning the bad ideas of others, while never looking beyond our own?
A beetle may or may not be inferior to a man– the matter awaits demonstration; but if he were inferior by ten thousand fathoms, the fact remains that there is probably a beetle view of things of which a man is entirely ignorant.  If he wishes to conceive that point of view, he will scarcely reach it by persistently revelling in the fact that he is not a beetle…
The most brilliant exponent of the egoistic school, Nietszche, with deadly and honourable logic, admitted that the philosophy of self-satisfaction led to looking down upon the weak, the cowardly, and the ignorant.  Looking down on things may be a delightful experience, only there is nothing, from a mountain to a cabbage, that is really seen when it is seen from a balloon.  The philosopher of the ego sees everything, no doubt, from a high and rarified heaven; only he sees everything foreshortened or deformed.
When we are too busy looking down on other people, we fail to see them for who we are, and we warp our version of reality.  We need to see past our modern-day Samaritans, and see the good in them if we want to build a better society.
Photo credited to ABC

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