As a society, I don’t think we handle nuance well—and I suspect we are proud of that fact. After all, we consider plain-speaking to be a virtue. It fits our self-image of being blunt, hardy “rugged individualists.” (ejecting the British, taming the West, defeating both Germany and Japan then developing the most successful economy the world has ever known.
Hell, we’ve nothing to learn from anybody!
We also have a disconcerting habit of categorizing people and ideas with amazing speed—and then judging them within the context of that category (or ‘box’). Perhaps we do this as a way of coping with the sheer size of our population—and it certainly saves us having to think—but it is redolent of closed minds, ignorance, intellectual laziness, the media, and politicians (but to borrow from Mark Twain—I’m repeating myself).
Here, the words ‘socialist’ and ‘socialism’ occur to me. They are pejorative terms in this country even though both words cover a multitude of different behaviors and values—and neither are adequately understood in the U.S.
In fact, we are impressively and enduringly ignorant about such matters. You would have to wonder why because both socialists and socialism have been around for well over a century, and endless variations of socialism have been experimented with—and more than a few found to work. In fact, many socialist concepts have been tried in the U.S.—though we tend to weasel out and call them something else.
The trouble is that nuance is essential to effective discourse because not only does language lack total precision—inevitable given they derive from humans—but words and ideas are interpreted differently by different people. As a consequence, if there is to be a meeting of the minds—an imperfect state no matter the intimacy unless you are a Vulcan—not only do you need nuance, but you require an appreciation of it. There is no point in being subtle, if the other party has a one-track mind—and a suspicious one at that.
On top of the innate fragility of the human interface—sometimes known as our “maddeningly refusal to understand each other (or bloody-mindedness)”—there is also the fact that most issues are not black and white. Shading is innate to the human condition. I was going to write ‘complexity,’ but if complexity is normal, and thus predictable, it probably isn’t complex.
Das ist klar?
This all reminds me of the Schleswig-Holstein affair in the 19th century. Commenting on it, British statesman Lord Palmerston famously remarked: “Only three people have ever understood the Schleswig-Holstein business—the Prince Consort, who is dead—a German professor, who has gone mad—and I, who have forgotten all about it.”
Nuance should be a manifestation of intelligence. Either way, it works best with a sense of humor. Charm does not go amiss. Short on charm?—Americans tend to be suspicious of charm—we’ll settle for good manners.
In truth, we seem to have evolved a binary culture in which one is deemed to be either for, or against, just about everything. You’re either for Capital or Labor, Conservative or Liberal, Pro-Life or Pro-Choice—and so it goes. Ideological and idiotic.
I’m pondering all this as a prelude to a clarification—but I think I’ll get to that tomorrow.