Either You’re For Nuance or Against It

Steve Upstill
16 min readJul 21, 2021

What a miserable word “nuance” is. Unlike words like “philosophy” or “psychopath”, its etymology is obscure, so it seems a little disingenuous. It even sounds sneaky: its hardest phoneme is that sibilant ‘c’, as in “snake” and “sneak”. Could it be French? Yikes! So it’s easy to be leery of any calls for nuance in a heated discussion. Isn’t that the wishy-washy liberal’s call to sit around dissecting detail instead of plunging boldly and forthrightly forward?

Or is it? I want to question that implicit divide between the forthright and the nuanced — because there’s nothing wimpy about restraining impulse long enough to acquire some clarity and get priorities sorted, and then move forward with more assurance once you know what you’re actually about. In fact, once you start looking around from that perspective, you find a history littered with disasters directly tied to failures of nuance.

What it Is

The definition of “nuance” that Google offers is

a subtle difference in or shade of meaning, expression, or sound.

There are two problems with that definition: it talks about subtlety (never a good quality for popular discussion), and it rides on a gradation — from more subtle to less subtle — rather than laying down a clear boundary. So, both vague and subjective. But there’s a more useful definition available, as suggested by some very public failures of nuance.

When the gay rights movement came to advocate legalizing marriage between same-sex partners, the prospect brought religious feelings about “the homosexual lifestyle” together with “the sanctity of marriage” in a gasoline-and-matches kind of way. But after a while, there appeared what seemed like a brilliant solution: civil unions, which would explicitly take religion out of the equation while still providing legal recognition for committed romantic partners regardless of their respective genitalia. But no, the religious right wouldn’t have it, calling it “marriage by another name,” and resisting civil unions with all the vitriol it did gay marriage.

The ultimate result? One of the great own goals of our time: the US has full-on same-sex marriage because the “defendants” of marriage refused to make a simple distinction, between the religious and secular aspects of that institution. This was a dismal failure of nuance.

The opponents of gay marriage could have stopped to think about what really mattered to them about the issue. They might have then decided that the religious aspects could be separated from the pragmatic ones for a secular society. They could have decided to focus on the aspects that really mattered to them (i.e., not seeming to give same-sex couples religious sanction) and focused their efforts on defending that. In other words, the issue could have come to a mutually uncomfortable compromise. Instead, the evangelicals devoted all their energy to pushing in a single direction, committing full-bore to an uninflected “principle”.

There is a choice here that comes up so often as to seem fundamental: are we going to commit all our energies to pushing in a particular direction no matter what, or do we stop to look for useful distinctions? Do we declare a generality and charge forward with that as an unwavering standard, or separate the situation out into various components that can be addressed separately and, ultimately, more effectively?

Think about the issue of legal abortion in the US. The ruling in Roe v. Wade was a triumph of nuance. Rather than rule on the simple question “Is abortion always and everywhere wrong?”, it laid out a distinction between 1) a period (the first trimester) when a fetus is still unconscious and inviable; 2) a period (the last) in which it is both conscious and viable; and 3) a gray area in between. But since then, public discussion has degenerated into increasingly extreme unitary views: on the one hand, that a fertilized egg is a human being, subject to the protection of homicide law from the moment of conception; on the other, that the mother’s interests are all that matter, right up until full term. (Notice the correlation between vanishing nuance and the temperature of the issue.)

Nuance, properly considered, is not about getting lost in detail; it’s about getting past a hard, either/or choice in which combatants line up on either side and shout at each other. Perhaps a better word is distinction, the drawing of boundaries and the search for meaningful difference. That is,

The process of examining a problematic situation for distinct elements and treating those elements distinctly, as opposed to seizing and defending an over-arching principle.

That definition sounds so bland and obvious as to hardly be worth mentioning. What’s difficult or interesting about that? Apparently, what’s difficult is to actually put it into practice, and what’s interesting is the carnival of flubbed opportunities for a nuanced approach that makes up so much of life both public and private.

Guns: I’ve lived a number of years in New Zealand, where anyone can own a gun who needs one, if they pass a police review and adhere to a management protocol. Gun ownership is a widespread, unremarkable feature of life, but gun owners are held to a high standard of responsibility and accountability, both by the government and by gun owners as a group.

In the US, as we know, the issue is a nuance desert, a battle pitching those for whom the “right to bear arms” is all that matters, against those who view guns with suspicion or outright hostility, across the board. Today, it’s hard to believe that the NRA used to be an outspoken advocate for gun policy.[1] The hardening of the issue in the last half-century is the tale of a flight from nuance and a willing blindness to distinctions— the distinction between responsible and irresponsible gun owners, for one — with predictable results.

Consider how easy it is to demolish nuance, and what a challenge it is to get it back. It was easy for the Nixon Administration to sell the War On Drugs: drugs represent Vice, full stop, and the only job of Virtue is to stomp it out. Similarly with Nancy Reagan’s Just Say No campaign. It’s taken half a century to recover a more nuanced perspective, relaxing cannabis laws and looking seriously at psychedelics for treating serious psychological conditions, even when the harms of the former and the potential of the latter were plain to see. Portugal has gone so far as to remove criminal strictures in favor of treatment, with great success, but the US still has a long road to re-establish nuance.

In political dialogue in the age of social media and tribalism, nuance and distinction are the first to go. How often do you hear that either: 1) the police are a pack of militarized racists whose role is to secure racial dominance and suppression; and 2) the police are civic heroes who deserve our full support, to the exclusion of talking about their crimes, much less acting on them? How much oxygen is left in the room after those two camps have their say?

In general, the surge of impulse and collapse of nuance is a red flashing warning sign of a degenerating discussion if not a breakdown in civility. The only mystery is how a shift so dramatic, commonplace and harmful happens in plain sight yet unremarked and basically invisible. How hard is it to fit into your head that the police have a vital, heroic role to play in society, AND that misuse of their power needs to be dealt with forcefully? Really hard, apparently — so much so that the question hardly comes up. Shame on us.

Why is nuance so hard?

Failures of nuance are so painful to ponder in retrospect, why do we keep plunging into them, then waking up later with an intellectual hangover? Why is it so hard to take a nuanced stance in the heat of the moment? And what forces predicate against those who try?

First, we have an instinctive attachment to rules and generalities: much of civilization rests on rules, which do provide generality and consistency, from commandments to constitutional articles and amendments to legislative fiat. Justice is blind (to nuance) — at least in principle. And hard-and-fast rules do serve us well much of the time; life really is easier if we can just pull up a rule when faced with a problematic situation.

The very foundation of our cognition, in fact, is the gleaning of patterns, and pulling up the right pattern in any given situation. Once you’ve got a good set of patterns to call on, it’s efficient to just use them, rather than open them up for inspection all the time.

There’s also a popular perception, not entirely unwarranted, that a call for nuance is just a cover for doing nothing. Indeed, there is a certain kind of soul who is content to noodle endlessly, getting caught up in detail and never reaching a useful endpoint or taking action.

There is also a complementary figure looming large: the manly man of action, the Clint Eastwood/John Wayne archetype who stakes his claim, takes no prisoners, and stops at nothing to win the day. Sober reflection is not on the menu for such as they. Figures who present themselves in those terms, straight-arming nuance in favor of clarity and thrust, have obvious advantages in the battleground of ideas.

When social pressure pertains, how much easier is it to coalesce a group head around a clear-cut message and simple principles? Conversely, what kind of group gets all fired up about dissecting a situation and teasing out its most relevant bits, then marching forth, enlightenment in hand? Nerds, that’s who!

Someone who hit the nail on the head about that point was Adolf Hitler. In an excerpt from Mein Kampf published in the New York Times, he spelled out what nuance is up against:

The task of propaganda lies not in the scientific training of the individual, but rather in directing the masses toward certain facts, events, necessities, etc., … so skillfully that a general conviction is created of the reality of a fact, the necessity of an event…

All propaganda should be popular…its intellectual level must be screwed the lower, the greater the mass of people which one wants to attract….The more modest…its scientific ballast is…the more striking will be its success…It is wrong to give propaganda the many-sidedness of scientific thinking…As soon as one’s own propaganda admits even a glimpse of right on the other side, the ground for doubting one’s own cause is laid.

The people…are motivated less by sober consideration than by feeling and sentiment. This sentiment…does not differentiate very much, but it is either a positive or negative; love or hate, right or wrong, truth or lie; but never half this and half that, or partially, etc.

Hitler understood very well that any move toward nuance will be fighting an uphill battle against propaganda. In light of contemporary “discussion”, he seems almost prophetic.

What does decisiveness look like in a world of nuance?

The “standard” choice is between 1) taking forthright action based on a simplified kind of understanding, and 2) dithering around looking for nuance. But this is a false choice. There’s nothing necessarily wishy-washy about nuance. The willingness to insist on good reasons for acting, and then moving forward smartly, is a special expression of intellectual integrity.

A real commitment to nuance is a commitment to figuring out what really matters, and then fully committing to the distinctions that turn up, pushing hard on the elements that matter and letting go the ones that don’t.

Scott Turow, the author of best-selling legal thrillers like Presumed Innocent, illustrates in Ultimate Punishment how this plays out in capital cases. When, say, a child is beaten and murdered, prosecutors and police face a tornado of public outrage; justice predictably takes a back seat to the need to quell those voices. It may not always come down to doctoring evidence and foreshortening investigations, but there is a rush to justice that is inimical to justice itself — a cost made outrageously clear by the DNA evidence that has exonerated hundreds of people wrongly convicted by just such storms: the urge to do something, anything, nuance (if that’s what you can call sorting out the innocent from the guilty) be damned.

In such a situation, who is more respectable/heroic: the prosecutor whose only goal is to get anyone plausible into the court docket, letting the guilty party go free? Or the one who withstands the political storms until the right person stands indicted? Who has better served justice — and the public safety?

I do respect people of principle who stake out their territory and stand pat against every shift in the wind. There’s good reason to prefer them over the school of liberalism which views all boundaries and distinctions with suspicion if not hostility. But the people I really respect who are just as steely-eyed about pursuing nuance and fully committing to the distinctions that turn up. Those are true intellectual heroes.

Being a Hero of Nuance

It’s a cliché to say “Think for yourself.” I don’t know what that means, really, but an excellent first step toward thinking for yourself is to develop a nuance reflex. Do you take on board the bundle of ideas that’s handed to you by convention and/or those who mean to use you, or do you look further into them to tease out distinctions that otherwise get short shrift? In the immortal words of American Beauty:

Look closer.

Resisting the floodwaters of propaganda — especially from your tribe — to stand up for nuance is heroic. It means standing up for a singular principle, a principle that begs to be dismissed and/or ignored. It doesn’t lend itself to bumperstickers and banners. (Trust me, I’ve tried; the headline of this article was the best I could do.) It will never be a meme.

One way to be a hero of nuance is to recognize heroic nuance when you see it. Sometimes it comes in the form of standing athwart an impulsive rush to judgment, so its very presentation can seem frustrating. Sometimes it arrives sounding just like waffling and indecisiveness, or split-the-difference centrism. But genuinely looking for distinction and nuance is none of those things. The differences aren’t always obvious, but they’re generally there to be found.

Another feature of heroic nuance is appropriate depth of discovery. When you divide an issue into its factors, each of those factors can be further divided, and so on, ad infinitum. An intellectual hero knows when to quit, and also knows that just the first distinction, the simplest analysis, is often enough — and almost always better than no distinction at all.

Third, once an issue has been studied and appropriate distinctions made, the hero has the courage to act on the convictions thus acquired. In short, real heroes have confidence: the confidence to pause to look more closely, and the confidence to move forward on the basis of those findings. Dithering around poking into meaningless detail is the opposite of confidence.

Another good practice is to notice when you as a citizen are being asked to discard nuance in favor of a harder, clearer, simpler message; to ignore distinctions and throw out information you already have. Nowadays, I want to throttle anyone — whether I agree with them or not — who has the temerity to say “Well what’s the difference between…?” Democratic policy and socialism. Homosexuality and pedophilia. Mask mandates and dictatorship. Handguns and AK-47s. Taxes and theft. Tightened voting restrictions and Jim Crow, or even slavery.

As Herr Hitler tells us, propaganda works by simplifying issues; so do persuasive messages and recruitment memes of all kinds. Not just online but out in public dialogue, you can observe the history of an issue in terms of the ebb and flow of nuance. Anyone who expects you to ignore worthwhile distinctions is not your friend.

Nuance is the dead opposite of propaganda: it’s the essence of critical thinking.

Heroes needed: Apply here

There are a few issues of moment just now which are desperate for an infusion of nuance:

In thinking about racism, instead of locating ourselves on a continuum from “everybody is racist” to “nobody is”, wouldn’t it be useful to distinguish between explicit hostility, blindness to privilege, the ways that history plays out in the present, etc.? For that matter, maybe we could give the very word “racism” a rest: it’s a third rail of a word that repels nuance.

On climate change, instead of dividing into the camps of “do nothing” vs. “do whatever it takes, cost be damned”, how about if we looked for revenue-neutral possibilities like cap-and-trade, and for moonshot opportunities to turn the costs of climate mitigation into investments in future infrastructure, technology and employment, focused on restoring domestic jobs?

On policing, how about instead of having to choose between “defund the police” and “what’s the problem?”, how about if we take a sober look at the effects of militarization of the police, the appalling lack of training in de-escalation techniques, and ways to make police more a part of the communities that need them the most?

On health care, with a divide between “socialized medicine is bad” and “healthcare is broken and needs a radical solution”, doesn’t it make sense to provide a public option which ensures care for those who fall through the cracks and tests the viability of a government alternative to private insurance?

The first level of nuance in many situations like this is to notice that we react as though they’re political problems, when they’re actually problems of management.

Extreme Nuance

When I look around at what passes for “dialogue” on the Internet, the most scorching nuance desert in sight isn’t over any issue in particular, it’s in the way that we look at each other — the way each of us looks at the Other, I mean. Whether online or around the living room, the pattern plays out again and again: each person starts grossly simplified view of the other, and the argument becomes less and less nuanced as time goes on; the air becomes full of straw men, ad hominems and non sequiturs. We all know where that ends up, neatly summed up by Godwin’s Law: the longer an online discussion goes on, the probability of a comparison with Nazis and/or Hitler approaches 1.

(Sorry about that.)

What would an alternative look like? In my circles, I hear talk about “steel manning”, the practice of understanding and articulating another’s position at least as well as they do themselves. That idea has all kinds of critical defects, starting with the assumption that everyone has good reasons for their positions (best not to look too closely at that one, especially about oneself), but again, an excellent first step would be to look for some kind of nuance, any kind of nuance in your view of the other, and to maintain a hair-trigger alarm for any move that lowers the ambient level of nuance. Will this statement/claim add more nuance to the discussion, or make it continue to spiral down?

Here’s one idea that’s rich in nuance: resist the urge to take the opposition as an undifferentiated group, en masse. One dubious move is to charge The Opposition with hypocrisy, saying different, contradictory things. In reality, it’s easy for a group as a whole to be inconsistent even when the vast majority of its members are consistent. (See the Addendum if you’re wondering how that works.) Any charges of hypocrisy need to be leveled at the individual, not the group to which they belong.

If you want to find balm for troubled waters, make it your job to identify some aspect of nuance in the position of another, or, better still, in them, the person as an individual.

Consider the Trump supporter. To wind up in thrall to one such as he, something powerful must be at work. Feeling at the mercy of people who “know better” (with or without the air quotes), feeling alienated in their own country, caught up in change that seems to happen to them rather than for them, the sinking sense that their children will be less well-off. Is the anger, the intemperance, the slavish acceptance of every word from his mouth really the whole story? How did a bona fide human being, who may well be loving to their family, active in their community and adores kittens, get to such a state? There must also be useful distinctions among Trump supporters. They can’t all be slavering racists and goons.

And if you want to be a saint of nuance, consider Trump himself. I know how hard it is to find any sympathy for this arch-nemesis of nuance in word and deed. But really, is it that hard to get past his toxic effect on everything he touches, and locate the sad, wounded soul who will never, ever feel the pulse of a genuine friendship, or raise his head to look past his own self interest? Could asking such questions possibly be more productive than a mono-diet of ceaseless, uninflected rage?

I don’t know what it will take to unwind the partisan divide in the US, and I don’t know whether the lack of nuance with which we view each other is more symptom or cause. But doesn’t it seem obvious that nothing will change without more nuance in our dialogue and our politics?

In some ways, our culture has become so much more sophisticated in recent decades: morality, attitudes toward those of non-standard sexuality, recreational drugs, etc. That progress is a shift toward more nuance. Conversely, so many of the challenges still at hand are distinguished by the drying up of nuance as time goes on.

In our time, we spend so much attention righteously (and rightly) focusing on how misinformation and disinformation degrade public discourse, and on the caustic effects of social media and tribalization on the quality of democratic deliberation (if you can call that). What we don’t seem to think so much about is the unknowing unwillingness to draw distinctions that need to be drawn, to look into matters at a level beyond rules and impulse and the simple slogans of propaganda. But we would do well to do so; to notice when someone says “Well what’s the difference between…?”; to notice when someone starts using a principle or ideal as a battering ram; to notice when the nuance with which we view one another starts to dry up. It’s time to start making nuance a thing.

There is a tendency to associate commitment — no matter how blind — with clear-eyed purpose and ruthless drive. But in truth, understanding and committing to nuance is 100% as mature, demanding and heroic as swearing allegiance to a principle, because it is swearing allegiance to a principle, viz, that there are valuable distinctions to be made in the world, and the urge to seize on passion and impulse, while it has its place in forthright action, needs to be managed skeptically. Taking the time and effort to seek those distinctions out isn’t generally the easiest thing, but it’s the respectable thing, and, ultimately, the honorable thing. Let’s get to it.

Addendum: Hypocritical Groups, not Hypocritical Members

It’s entirely possible for a group as a whole to express inconsistent views even when the vast majority of the group’s members are consistent in themselves.

Let’s say that the group of 100 people face competing views: Higher Spending vs. Lower Taxes. If a majority is for Higher Spending AND a majority is for Lower Taxes, you might call the group out for being hypocritical. But consider the case where 49 of the people choose Higher Spending but not both, 49 choose Lower Taxes but not both. Only two opt for both — and that means 51 people are for Higher Spending AND 51 are for Lower Taxes. Just like magic: an inconsistent group where the vast majority of the members are consistent.

The moral of the story is that, once again, we shouldn’t confuse individuals with any group to which they belong. But you already knew that.