On Nuance

I’ve been thinking a lot about nuance lately. I feel that it is the absence of care towards nuance that has fundamentally changed the nature of media circulation. Without nuance, there is little room for clarity or debate, and the absence of nuance results in over-inflated summaries that force people to make simplified claims about how things are. It’s a lack of nuance that forces people to take sides and say “I’m right and you’re wrong” without fully examining the logic behind each person’s discussion.

We see this all the time in the news. Half-truths turn into trending stories or facts that are published out of or without context.

Yet, understanding nuance is how we function productively together. It’s how we come to understand and negotiate views about the world. Let’s take three examples of how this came up in my life recently, starting with something on the lighter end: Smarter Every Day.

I was watching Smarter Every Day on Youtube and discovered an episode about disinformation on Reddit. I really enjoyed the way Destin discussed the problems online media platforms face with trolls in discussions. Most notable is his discussion about how everyday users can help change the outcomes of trolling behavior. Destin calls them things that are “toxic to trolls”. His main suggestion? Love (and Nuance). Trolls love to make simplified claims, but if you can offer more nuance and compassion, that can help shut down trolls and improve the conversation.

“When I’m more kind and more loving, it seems to be toxic to trolls”

Destin Sandlin

In this sense, being kind and loving is taking compassion to see the other side, to appreciate someone else’s opinion, and to acknowledge and question their statements without initially harsh criticism.

The second experience of nuance I had this week Facebook.

I’m getting a little deeper here as I talk about my current employer. Before starting my internship, I thought I had a pretty good view of Facebook Ads and what I thought was wrong with the whole business. But after working on the team and seeing the impact Facebook has on small businesses (especially during a pandemic where stores are shutting down left and right), my perception of facebook’s business platform changed quite a bit.

Does Facebook still have major problems to address? Ofcourse. Do I agree with everything Facebook is doing? Absolutely not. But I now see the nuance in the conversations about Facebook. I am more closely aware of all of the benefits Facebook provides to people and the negative impacts it can have on communities as well.

I also know this kind of nuance from my experience with Congress. Hating on an institution without knowing the realities of the institution can lead to problematic conclusions. Nuance offers clarity of the good and bad. If you can’t relate to their perspectives and find understanding, then there is little you can do to help change them for the better.

The third is nuance of the week is grad school.

We’re going through a big transition right now in my department with a lot of issues bubbling up on the surface. The pandemic has made it very clear that there are systemic inequalities to students, especially grad students.

We don’t have a living wage, we lack departmental support, there are racial biases seeped into all parts of academic research, and there are problems of discrimination across labs and advisors. It’s unacceptable.

The problems is that all these problems are being thrown up at once and the demands of many students are very compassionate, non-negotiating, and often wrapped up too many ideas at once without room for nuance.

Here’s an example. There was a petition that went around to address problems of racism on campus. I fully support these issues and firmly believe there is way more that needs to be done to address racism on campus. Period. However, the petition that was being pushed around had a final demand at the bottom – eradicate the police. That caused me to pause for a moment. The public petition left me in a tight spot. Do I sign something that I support nearly 100%, but disagree with on one section? I absolutely support defunding the police, but given some horrifying experiences of my own, I do not support eradicating police from college campuses. And yet, that petition was all that was available.

This happened again recently where I was asked to sign something that included a statement that graduate students should attend all faculty meetings. This felt a little surveillant and intrusive to me – as I think there’s a time and place for important private conversations. As I see in Congress, things that become more public often don’t clear things up, they push discussions further into the shadows. I don’t want the same to happen to faculty discussions either.

Despite this, if you were to judge me based on these two petitions, it would look like I don’t support either because I didn’t sign them. But I do. I support 90% of what’s on both petitions. But a signature doesn’t allow for nuance and that kind of sucks.

Ok, I’ll give one last example from this week, my foster kid. I have been a CASA for over three years now. My current kid is going through a LOT and has recently moved to a new home with a fresh pair of foster parents. They don’t know her history and as a result, they don’t understand the root cause of a lot of her actions. Without that understanding and nuance of why she acts a certain way, it doesn’t make sense to them and they were upset and angry as a result of it. But once you understand, it makes so much sense. There is an underlying logic to her behavior based on her history, the people that have influenced her, and the incentives placed in front of her. It sucks, but once you empathize you can understand and meet her where she is.

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All in all, it takes time, compassion, and a need to truly understand to be able to relate and fully comprehend the logic behind others’ actions and behaviors. We need more nuance, empathy, and trust. Only then do I feel we can confront the polarization that others have created for us.