There's way too many Americans unduly confident right now.
They're sure they're right about Covid policies, the just-ended war in Afghanistan, racial justice, abortion, and a host of other issues that mostly get reduced to short sound bites, pithy Twitter tweets, brief Facebook posts, and other manifestations of our desire to appear absolutely certain about subjects that demand a word currently out of fashion.
Which means, a subtle distinction, an awareness of delicate shadings (as of meaning, feelings. or value). How did we get to such a dearth of nuance among a large proportion of our citizenry?
It's tempting to blame it on Trump. He was a master of anti-nuance.
The crowds who adored his blunt, cocky, in-your-face style of speaking didn't want a political meal marked by difficult-to-describe subtle flavors. They wanted red meat cooked to a crisp over blazing hot coals, doused with BBQ sauce that hit the taste buds like a giant pickup truck rolling over liberal sacred cows.
But that's too simplistic.
The United States seems to bounce back and forth between presidents with greater or lesser nuance. George H.W. Bush was less nuanced than Bill Clinton who was more nuanced than George W. Bush who was less nuanced than Barack Obama who was (way) more nuanced than Donald Trump who was (way) less nuanced than Joe Biden.
Those "way's" reflect the fact that Trump represented a recent peak of simplistic crudity, yet his becoming president was more a result of Americans relishing a brash overconfident macho style than a cause of the 2016-20 decline in national nuance.
There's always been an anti-intellectual bent among many Americans. Or perhaps better put, an anti-reasonableness bent. We tend to distrust politicians who are open to changing their minds. The sentiment, "I was for it before I was against it," followed John Kerry around in his 2004 presidential campaign like a flip-flop death knell.
Nuance, though, also can be a matter of style.
Usually it is those on the far left or far right who cling most tenaciously to ideological positions. However, there's not much difference between Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren when it comes to policies. But I view Warren as more nuanced because she has a gentler, more thoughtful speaking style than Sanders.
(Unfortunately, this could be one reason why we've never had a female president, since women tend to rate higher on the Nuance Scale. Our taste in national leaders tends to run toward those who express themselves with the most outspoken certainty, though Obama's deliberate speaking style certainly didn't hurt him.)
I readily confess that when Trump was president, I relished hard-hitting attacks on the Idiot in Chief. I felt like firing crudities at Trump was justified when he couldn't open his mouth without insulting someone. Or an entire country.
Now, though, I'm realizing how much we all have lost -- liberals and conservatives alike -- by engaging in rhetoric that fails to reflect the complex nuances of most issues. Moderation isn't just a valuable political perspective. It also points to the fact that often, if not usually, the nuanced truth lies in-between simplistic extremes.
One of the reasons I'm hooked on the Gabriel Allon character in Daniel Silva's thriller/espionage series is that Allon is a deeply nuanced Israeli assassin. Who in addition to being a highly skilled killer is one of the world's top restorers of damaged paintings.
In every book, Silva has "good guys" and "bad guys." But they aren't caricatures.
Allon has doubts. He makes mistakes. He tries to understand the motivations of the Muslims who want to do Jews and Israel harm. Often Silva presents Palestinians in a totally sympathetic manner, even though his main character is fiercely devoted to his work in the Israeli intelligence agency.
I also read more typical books in this genre. They can be more entertaining, yet not as satisfying, because Daniel Silva presents the reader with hugely more nuance.
This is akin to how I'm able to enjoy reading both People magazine and The New Yorker.
One entertains. The other feeds my hunger for nuance. The September 13, 2021 issue of The New Yorker beautifully reflected this. Three lengthy stories, all in the same issue, each presenting a complex issue in a wonderfully intelligent fashion.
"The Sex Wars: Feminism and its fault lines" is a seven-page discussion of how the single word feminism contains many shades of meaning I wasn't previously aware of. For example, the story told me about the debate in feminist circles over transgender people, with some feminists arguing that transgender females aren't truly women, while others vehemently disagree.
And I hadn't realized that "butch lesbians" are looked down upon by certain feminists because they embrace a masculinity that pays homage to the patriarchy. Naturally other feminists consider that however women want to look and behave is up to them.
"The Other Afghan Women" is a marvelous twelve page look at how the American occupation of Afghanistan affected women in rural and urban areas much differently. While women in Kabul were enjoying modern liberal freedoms, women in the conservative countryside faced the chaos of war: drone strikes, bombardments, endless fighting.
Those rural women welcomed the return to order that came with the Taliban victory and the American withdrawal. It isn't that they don't want more rights; they just see that those rights need to come from within Islam, not from the barrel of an American gun.
"Force of Nature" asks in eleven pages, Can Kathryn Paige Harden convince the left that genes matter -- and the right that they're not everything? Harden is a brilliant psychology professor who earned tenure at age thirty-two. She specializes in behavior genetics, "which investigates the influence of genes on character traits (neuroticism, agreeableness) and life outcomes (educational attainment, income, criminality)."
Harden, a progressive, gets a lot of grief from academics who view any research into the effect of genes on one's success in life as racist, disgusting, even Gestapo-like. Yet she perseveres, because she knows that learning the truth is more important than clinging to an outmoded "nature vs. nurture" dichotomy.
As with most things, studying behavioral reality requires a "both...and" mentality rather than a simplistic "either...or" outlook. In short, nuance.
Have we brought this on ourselves?
How we interpret what we hear, read, or see is filtered through mental algorithms.
The problem with being a human is that humans are judgmental. It is our nature to make judgments. Only through the rigor of scholarship and education do we acquire the skills to accurately mesh the output of someone else to the input in our heads.
Our receptors are corrupted. We no longer diligently seek the analog of knowledge. We boost the treble and saturate the reds to make it conform to what our heads want.
Those with knowledge about COVID seek to use their knowledge in order to lessen the burden on the public, doctors, and mortuaries. We read about whether or not to have a booster shot. Those with the knowledge are trying to look into a glass ball and predict an outcome: they are trying to forecast an analog future when all they have are mental algorithms that postulate alternatives.
Journalism reports, and in reporting we are opening ourselves to an infection. What gets reported is a compressed JPEG of the analog - and this compression is often influenced by ideology.
Unless we live in the world of The Matrix, there is a “there” “out there.”
“Knowledge” is what we discover “out there.”
We communicate that knowledge verbally, in writing, through sounds, or visually. We employ mental algorithms.
The communication of knowledge is treacherous. The treachery lies in the mental algorithms we use. We use these algorithms consciously or unconsciously.
Scholarship has a function. Education and learning have but one purpose. They are not to acquire knowledge. Scholarship is educational workmanship, the purpose of which is to develop the tools to accurately describe and interpret the “there” “out there.”
Mental algorithms do two things. They compress what is out there into a format that can be conveyed to others. When you listen to a CD or take a picture with a digital camera, the sound or the picture you see is compressed. Most digital photographs - no matter how stunning - show only about 10% of the raw data captured; digital music does much the same. So, too, does how we communicate our knowledge.
Our mental algorithms consciously or unconsciously frame and interpret that “there.” Scholarship seeks to convey an analog description of the “there.”
When scholarship interprets the knowledge it has gained the value of that interpretation turns heavily on the wisdom of the interpreter.
As with a digital photograph or digital compression of music, that knowledge is expanded and interpreted by the receiver, in this case our brain.
When my camera’s memory card doesn’t reproduce what the camera captured then it is somehow corrupted. I can reformat the memory card. I can’t reformat the memory card that says ivermectin prevents COVID; I can’t reformat the memory card that insists Trump won. If the card can’t be reformatted it goes into the dustbin and I purchase another card - I wish I could do the same for what passes as sentient fellow creatures.
Posted by: veeper | September 18, 2021 at 05:24 AM
Great post and great comment by Veeper.
Posted by: Laule | September 18, 2021 at 09:44 AM