In that hollow period between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, impatient for 2021 to end but hesitant to enter 2022, I listened to “The Death of Nuance” in the concerned but indolent way middle-class-BBC4-listeners do. The programme argues we are caught within increasingly sharp political dichotomies, ensnared by technology, biology, unrelenting complexity. It all has the feel of wisdom to nod along with, but it presents the problem in a big and diffuse way that doesn’t demand action–ideal material for mental mastication. Snark aside, it really is a worthwhile listen.
But something in the framing of the programme irritated me, causing me to wrinkle my brow in a way my wife hates when we discuss serious matters.
Days later, while walking the dog I identified the problem as one of metaphor. Programme host Oliver Burkeman repeats a set of common phrases we use in talking about ourselves, about our brains having “wiring” or being “hard-wired” by nature–though the language used betrays a submerged desire for a more intentional designer. He then goes on to identify an innate tendency to make snap decisions, which makes nuance difficult for us–if not wholly impossible.
This claim about contrasting intellectual systems developed over the course of human evolution is perhaps most well known via Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow”. Burkeman goes on to identify three big divides that we’ve developed to cope with the world, but which undermine our capacity for nuance: fight or flight; friend and enemy; and right and wrong. Over the course of the episodes this frame recurs, most centrally in the idea that modern human beings are drifting through a complex world, one constantly threatening to devolve into chaos, armed only with our tragically inadequate brains, wired to reduce complexity, seek easy answers, avoid complication. As stories go, it’s a compelling if familiar narrative. But as a way of understanding ourselves in the world it is less satisfying.
In the first instance, it’s a frustratingly unsubtle framing for a programme about the death of nuance. But let’s not engage in easy point-scoring.
Second, it is an inaccurate metaphor, and even though by definition all metaphors are, this inaccuracy is pernicious. Brains are not “wired” or “designed” to produce complex social phenomenon like distinguishing between friend and enemy, or right and wrong. The actual physiology of our brains grants us particular capacities, such as memory, which in turn means our capacities can be further shaped and adapted by outside forces in the social and material environment, and by our own intentional actions (I’ll presume for now we don’t want to go down the line of arguing free will is an illusion). So, rather than saying, we’re “hard-wired” to make snap judgments that reduce nuance, we should say we have a capacity for quick decision making that is socially habituated–and, importantly, we have a capacity for withholding judgment, reflecting, and appreciating nuance.
As I mentioned, this critique of the “we’re-not-good-at-nuance-frame” came while I was walking my dog. As I thought about how we think and talk about our own brains, I watched my dog–her name is Beatrice. We were following our normal route through the park, passing by some trees and bushes, when she noticed a squirrel, standing on its hind legs, chirping. Different dogs react differently to this sort of thing. Beatrice stopped, waited, watched. I didn’t give her a command, though I have trained her not to give chase after a couple of youthful attempts to chase cars, which was successful on that count. But then again, she’ll still chase any cat she sees but has never chased a squirrel or rabbit. So, she makes a snap judgment to “chase cat” but is somehow capable of calmly contemplating a noisy rodent less than two feet from her. Presuming that our “wiring” is not somehow more “hard” than a canine of very average intelligence (but exceptional adorableness), then something is wrong with such metaphorical claims at a basic factual level. But this isn’t why it’s an especially pernicious metaphor.
It’s pernicious because it perpetuates that oldest form of human self-hatred, telling us we are fundamentally inadequate in some deep and serious way. It’s a transposition of the idea that we are too irrational to be good, too undisciplined to be virtuous–that on some basic and unavoidable level we are made of too much of the bad stuff of life. And, therefore, we are destined to always fall short, if not of the expectations of God, or the demands of Reason, then of whatever is required of us to make our way in the world successfully.
And, as habits of self-hatred almost always do, this diverts attention from the myriad ways powerful individuals and organisations do so much to capitalise upon, and encourage, the worst in us. Acting as if prejudice and stereotype is our default and dominant human state excuses political parties happily built on polarisation, ignores the monetisation of enmity by digital robber barons, and our own elation as we choose to wade into cultural skirmishes with ideological rivals.
The final aspect of this framing that I can’t abide, is the choice to ignore our capacity for nuance, the huge achievement of the human species to develop profound, though tragically fallible, powers of judgment. This not only expresses distrust and disappoint with our humanness, it also encourages us to see ourselves not as struggling with complexity, to be nuanced, but as incapable, in need of replacement by superior technological intelligence–possibly even deserving some future calamitous extinction, though this sentiment is not expressed in the podcast, I’m drawing connections to wider discourses. The whole idea demands too much of us and does too little to encourage and inculcate our best capacities.