When Nuance is Absent, Polarization and Conflict Thrive

Barack Obama signing the Patient Prot...
Barack Obama signing the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act at the White House (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We know what nuance means; we often complain about how it is lacking. Whether we are referring to political debates, the manner in which our mainstream news media cover important stories, or even how many talk about "the great rift" in the atheist community, we generally seem to agree that there is a noticeable lack of nuance. What we mean is that complex and multifaceted issues are being oversimplified, often dichotomized, and that the result is misleading at best and drives polarization and conflict at worst.

Freedictionary.com defines nuance as:

1. A subtle or slight degree of difference, as in meaning, feeling, or tone; a gradation. 2. Expression or appreciation of subtle shades of meaning, feeling, or tone: a rich artistic performance, full of nuance.
So if nuance refers to subtle differences in meaning and the appreciation for such differences, the lack of nuance about which we regularly complain involves the minimization, trivialization, or even denial of such differences. When nuance is absent, we tend to hear a lot about "good" and "evil" or "right" and "wrong." The shades of grey are lost, and we are left with something that many of us associate with religious thinking. Of course, one need not be religious to subscribe to a "you're with us or against us" worldview.

The Government Shutdown

I can't say I like what the House Republicans are doing (i.e., attempting to weaken the Affordable Care Act by making their willingness to fund the government contingent upon the Democrats agreeing to weaken the legislation). I do not agree with them, and I think they are inflicting harm on people who do not deserve it as they try to get their way. And yet, I do not view their efforts as "crazy" or as a form of terrorism. I'm not even sure I'd say that doing what they are doing necessarily makes them extremists. I disagree with them, but I have to admit that they are doing exactly what we'd have to expect someone in their position to do.

Again and again, we have seen President Obama capitulate to Republican demands in the name of bipartisanship. He puts up a fuss initially and makes it sound like he might take a stand on progressive values, but he caves shortly thereafter. We have seen him do this repeatedly. Is it any wonder that the House Republicans expect that he might do it again? Wouldn't it be irrational of them not to assume he would again behave as he has so many times before?

I know it seems unlikely that Obama would do anything to weaken what the U.S. media has decided to call his "signature piece of legislation," but remember how much he already weakened what he once claimed he wanted. We haven't ended up with universal single-payer health care or anything remotely close to it. Remember all the talk about "Medicare for all" and how quickly that evaporated? And even if he does stand firm on health care, the Republicans will likely be able to extort some concessions from him elsewhere. Again, he has given in to their demands so many times that expecting he will do so again seems perfectly reasonable.

Far from being "evil," I see the House Republicans playing the only card they have. Sure, it can be framed as a tantrum, but I think that is misleading. Based on President Obama's long history of repeated capitulation, what they are doing seems to have a reasonable chance of success. They won't succeed in defunding the Affordable Care Act, but they may well succeed in getting something they want out of the President. In fact, their opposition itself may be a form of success.

The Affordable Care Act

I oppose the Affordable Care Act, or what many Americans strangely insist on calling "Obamacare." Does this make me "a traitor to the progressive cause," a Republican, or worse? Yes, in a world without nuance, it probably does. But I oppose the legislation because I do not think it goes nearly far enough and because it involves too many giveaways to the insurance and pharmaceutical companies. I hope it does expand health care coverage and help to reduce the rising costs of health care; however, I am reasonably confident that it will be far less effective in doing so than universal single-payer health care. The best thing that could be said about the Affordable Care Act is that it could be a stepping stone to the single-payer system we all know we need. The problem is, I'm not sure this is true. I fear that this legislation involves a transfer of wealth from the government to the insurance companies and that this might ultimately make a single-payer system less likely. I really hope I'm wrong.

Just because I oppose the legislation does not mean I favor repealing it and returning to the status quo. This is not at all what I want to see. What I want to see is the sort of single-payer system practically every other Western democracy has successfully implemented, a system with better outcomes and cost controls than our present system. And unfortunately, I am not entirely convinced that the Affordable Care Act is indeed a step to achieving that.

Nuance and Freethought

Not only is adopting a nuanced position not rewarded, but one who does so is typically attacked from every direction. Many people appear to prefer simplicity and detest those grey areas. Agreeing with some of what they say is often deemed insufficient, especially if one also agrees with some of what their opponents say. "You are with us or against us."

And yet, I have always considered nuance to be a vital part of freethought and skepticism. As a freethinker, I will never follow an individual or a political party blindly or accept something uncritically just because it is popular with members of a group to which I might belong. As a skeptic, I'll never stop thinking critically. I'll continue to strive to be particularly critical of those ideas to which I have a positive emotional attachment. I am not always successful in doing so, but I feel compelled to try.