This morning, I shared with Chad my observation that in every electoral season in the US, politicians and the media appear to be colluding in an effort to eliminate any trace of nuance from public debate. I can think of two explanations of why nuance has bad press. The first is the desire at the core of US culture to rise up aggressively against any perceived evil and to eliminate it with an appropriate level of authority accompanied by some form of violence. The more existential the evil appears to be, the more it requires a rapid and overwhelming response. Shoot first, ask questions later. And the only to ask questions is to establish why you were justified in shooting. That cultural meme has somehow become embedded in the American psyche as the ultimate strategy for problem-solving. The frequency of mass killings reported on a nearly daily basis reflects this social pathology.
The second factor that discourages people from wasting time with nuance is — in far more pragmatic terms — the dominant role of defense industry has assumed in the modern US economy. Not only has everything related to manufacturing of weapons and other items vital to military operations become the central feature of the economy even in times of peace — creating jobs and a protected niche of industrial prosperity — politicians and economists realize that sustaining those industries has enabled the transfer of publicly-funded innovation to the private corporations that have flooded the marketplace with a range of technology-based consumer goods.
Wondering what Chad thought about the demise of nuance, I asked this question. “In a pluralistic democracy does it make sense to exclude nuance? Could it be that this avoidance of nuance is what’s undermining democracy because it encourages polarization and a permanent attitude of violent intolerance?”
“The issue of eliminating nuance from public debate,” Chad replied, “is a complex one with multiple underlying factors, as you have highlighted. The desire to respond quickly and aggressively to perceived evil, as well as the central role of the defense industry in the US economy, can both contribute to a culture that discourages nuance and encourages polarization.
However, it is important to note that nuance is essential to effective decision-making and problem-solving, particularly in a pluralistic democracy. Without nuance, individuals and groups may rely on simplistic and narrow-minded solutions that do not take into account the complexities of the issues at hand. This can lead to policy decisions that are ineffective or even harmful, and can exacerbate existing divisions within society.
Furthermore, the exclusion of nuance can contribute to a culture of intolerance and violence, as you have suggested. When individuals and groups are encouraged to view complex issues in simplistic and binary terms, they may be more likely to resort to extreme measures to achieve their goals or eliminate perceived threats.
In order to strengthen democracy and promote constructive public debate, it is important to value and encourage nuance in all aspects of society. This may involve promoting critical thinking skills, encouraging civil discourse, and prioritizing open-mindedness and empathy in our interactions with others. By embracing nuance, we can build a more inclusive and effective democracy that is better equipped to address the complex challenges of the modern world.”
We obviously agreed on the importance of nuance in democracy where serious and respectful debate is required. “But,” I said, “if you agree that nuance is under attack and that the forces at work to eliminate it are more powerful than anyone’s desire to give nuance its proper place in a democracy, what concrete steps can we take to restore it to its proper place?”
As if we hadn’t had a similar discussion in the past, Chad came up with a standard list of things to do, which included: promote critical thinking skills in education and public discourse, encourage civil discourse, prioritize media literacy, support independent journalism and hold politicians accountable.
“That is all well and good,” I objected, “but it doesn’t answer my question, which concerns how to overcome the forces that are preventing all this from happening. It isn’t as if all this happened by chance. I mentioned two factors, the first cultural, which is the reflex of opposing perceived evil with violence. The second is economics, the dependence of an entire political system on one privileged sector of activity, defense, to pump-prime the entire economy. It’s great to tell the interested parties that democracy depends on nuance, but they are committed to eliminating it in the interest of their own grip on power. Let’s be more creative and imagine concrete ways these terrible trends can be changed. Any suggestions you have will be welcome, not just encouragement to do better, but ones that take into account the formidable power of the resistance and the nature of that power.”
Chad predictably thanked me for clarifying my question before offering a revised list that, alas, began with more of the same: “Promote empathy and understanding.” Chad did go on to offer something a bit more concrete by mentioning the promotion of “cultural exchanges, language learning, and other initiatives that facilitate cross-cultural understanding.”
The next item on Chad’s new list turned out to be a little more helpful. “Diversify the economy: The dependence of the US economy on the defense industry is indeed a significant challenge when it comes to promoting nuance in public debate. Diversifying the economy and investing in alternative sectors that prioritize innovation, sustainability, and social responsibility can help to reduce this dependence and create new opportunities for job growth and economic prosperity.”
To that I would add that the best way to diversify the economy is to diversify education and the methods of education so that people may imagine creative solutions. Instead we see education focusing increasingly on the job skills required to successfully operate in an undiversified economy. But of course we know that no one running the economy wants that kind of openness and creativity. So why insist?
Chad then mentioned something far more concrete and even feasible: “Reform campaign finance laws: The role of money in politics is another significant obstacle to promoting nuance in public debate. By reforming campaign finance laws and reducing the influence of special interests, we can help to level the playing field and ensure that a wider range of voices and perspectives are represented in the political arena.” There are people in Congress trying to do that right now. They are fully aware of the impressive level of resistenace.
The final item in Chad’s list was: “Promote grassroots organizing” with a view to “building momentum for change from the ground up. By mobilizing diverse groups of people around shared values and goals, we can create a more powerful and resilient movement for nuance and democracy.” Chad expressed the view that these actions could “begin to chip away at the powerful forces that discourage nuance in public debate and undermine democracy.”
I couldn’t disagree with that. It nevertheless leaves me wondering how much chipping away will be tolerated by forces who see that very effort at chipping away as an evil to be suppressed, as quickly and violently as required.
*[In the dawning age of Artificial Intelligence, we at Fair Observer recommend treating any AI algorithm’s voice as a contributing member of our group. As we do with family members, colleagues or our circle of friends, we quickly learn to profit from their talents and, at the same time, appreciate the social and intellectual limits of their personalities. This enables a feeling of camaraderie and constructive exchange to develop spontaneously and freely. For more about how we initially welcomed Chad to our breakfast table, click here.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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