The Absence of Nuance

A donut is just a pastry. Nuance reveals that it's holy.

Strong opinions, weakly held

Nuance is becoming a rare sight on social media. People have strong beliefs, and cutting words with which to defend them. Those insecure with their ideals seem to fight the hardest to defend them. Scared that they may be wrong, they hide from diverse opinions and anything that may sway their mind. No sin is too small, they deal in absolutes; there is no grey area. You're with us or you're against us. No apology is enough to prevent being cancelled.

I believe the earth is flat. What was your first thought after reading that sentence? Challenging your beliefs is uncomfortable. The first reaction is always indignation. I don't really believe in a pancake earth theory, but it is easy to cast the argument of those who do aside, saying “Obviously, Earth is not flat! Didn't you listen in school?” If we take a deeper look and reflect on why someone would think this, it can reinforce our beliefs, but it can also cast light onto shortcomings of our reasoning and opinions we hold. Instead of jumping straight to anger and deriding someone for spreading fake news or conspiracy theories, examine the details. Rebut the false notions with evidence. Find hidden kernels of truth, as uncomfortable as it may feel. These fringe ideas are the very things that the principle of free speech protects, as popular ideas need no protection. Innovation dies in a selfsame sphere of thought.

Ideological proxies

Don't take refuge in the false security of consensus. – Christopher Hitchens

A core tenet of the principle of free speech is the marketplace of ideas. A lively discussion. A give-and-take. Ideas are proposed, refuted, refined, and abandoned in light of new evidence and better thoughts. Abhorrent, baseless claims are quickly shot down by clear reasoning and irrefutable fact.

I still believe this largely to be true, but room for nuance in online discussions is seemingly decreasing. Instead, people communicate with short, pithy comments meant to signal to others which side they're on. It is a lazy form of communication; so void of reason that it can be reduced to 280 or fewer characters. It is easy to join the mob and shout in favor of burning the witch, much harder to ask the mob how they know that she is a witch.

One of the qualities of the human species that stands it apart from other animals is the extent to which we socialize. Humans are inherently social from the moment we are born. A human child depends on its caregivers much longer than any other animal. As part of this dependence is an evolutionary driver for forming tribes and larger social structures. A need to belong is instinctual.

If you want to find happiness, surround yourself with like-minded people. If you have trouble making friends, simply change your ideology. Adherence to normative behavior usually occurs accidentally and gradually. Having your beliefs constantly challenged is a hint that you may be wrong. However, it can also lead people to surround themselves with only similarly wrong-minded people. The real cruelty is it is impossible to determine from within.

If you don't have strong beliefs, find an institution and use them as a proxy. There are many of them, and you likely already belong to one or several. Ideological proxies can include:

How do you know you're in an ideological proxy organization? Common patterns include: rituals where you “reaffirm your belief” by chanting words, symbols are considered sacred, outsiders are treated with suspicion or outright hate, and to bring up ideas counter to the prevailing thought would be anathema.

Critical thinking is hard. It is easy to say “I'm a democrat” or “I'm protestant” when confronted with questions on your beliefs. It is useful as a starting point for a deeper conversation, but more and more we're not seeing that deeper conversation online. People stop at group-think, the ideas they're supposed to believe in. This leads to people saying “Black Lives Matter” not because they believe in it, but because they have to chant the words of their group. People fear that if they do not say the correct words, they will be labeled racist.

A lack of context

If all you're doing is casting stones, you're probably not going to get very far – Barack Obama

Too often people read only the headlines of articles, ignoring any context. The art of designing a headline to attract attention is refined more each day. With decreased iteration times, A/B testing, and recommendation algorithms, it is easier than ever to design the optimum clickbait. Indeed, we are so inundated with new information that the marketplace for attention spans is in a race to the bottom. With most users viewing content on their mobile device, increasingly their only terminal to the network, there is no incentive to write long articles for an audience of short screens. Content creators instead hone their trade in titillating titles for users to scroll endlessly through.

Of course, the headline is meant to be catchy and exciting, but most users don't actually read the article after the headline catches their eye, sometimes just scrolling through the comments. When you read only the comments you miss the context and get a distorted view of the content. In the worst case subjecting yourself to malicious propaganda.

Context is everything when it comes to meaning. Trying to interpret words without context is like drinking a virgin long island. It's sweet, but you're not going to have a good time. Near the boundaries of context lie the extreme positions. Short slogans that define movements, a motto for a team, a battle cry. Just enough meaning to incite action, but not enough to provide nuance. Rallying behind the rebel yell of a marching protest is a great way get change, but implementation requires a closer look at the issues.

An easy trap to fall into online is responding to the catch phrase instead of the actual position. And the easiest rebuttal to a catch phrase is your own. The thread continues down a spiral of diminishing meaning into more homogenized responses ending in an atomic structure of emogis and retweets, gotchas and ad hominem. Like an overly compressed jpeg, all the detail is lost. Nobody is happy, no minds have been changed. Participants recede back into the comfort of their respective tribe, distilling more extreme views aimed at fomenting rage in the opposition.

Using technology to increase diversity of ideas

So, what can be done to help provide nuanced content? How can one escape an ideological proxy organization and increase critical, independent thought? The answer is obvious, of course: adhere to my ideology.

While the internet makes it easy to find like-minded people, it is similarly easy to find people you disagree with. Exposing yourself to ideas that you find unattractive is just as important as your freedom to express your own ideas. Find these ideas and think about why someone would think such a thing.

Some explicit ways you can use technology to hear new ideas:

Sometimes, it is the technology that is hiding nuance. Think carefully of the sites you are using today. Do they increase your exposure to a diversity of ideas? Do they shelter you from adverse opinions? If the latter, consider changing subscriptions, abandoning the platform, or recognize that it is to increase your feeling of belonging and use caution when using it for input to your own opinions.

Keep thinking

Challenge your beliefs often. Think of something you believe but would not feel comfortable saying out loud. Why do you believe that? We have the benefit of viewing those before us through the lens of history. A context that was built from the actions of those living it. Hindsight being what it is, what views do we hold today that will be viewed as heretical or unfashionable in the future? What modern ideas will survive when the pendulum of social doctrine swings back?

As the first generation of internet citizens, it is necessary for a free thinking future that we be good stewards.