The Obvious Subtlety

Conversation and nuance

In my last post on conversations, I hit the delete button a lot when it came to the section on nuance. My dilemma was that no matter what examples I brought up, they required more discussion than a single paragraph would warrant. So I opted to keep it rather vague and then, for those interested, do a bit of a deep dive into what nuance is and take us through a practice exercise on how to bring nuance into our conversations.

While this idea is important in dealing with controversial ideas, it is also a vitally important skill even in our day-to-day interactions with others. Or, if you are engaged in any sort of public speaking, it is a useful skill in helping make your points more palatable for people of differing perspectives.

I am getting ahead of myself here. Let us take a few steps back and define what nuance is and then we can go deeper into why it is so important.

Before we can really talk about how important nuance is, we need to start by defining what it is. According to the dictionary, nuance is defined as

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

Think of colors. You have black and white. They are very different from each other. You see them side by side and you know without even thinking which is which. Nuance would be if we looked at different shades of gray.

Take a moment and look at the three shades in between the lightest and the darkest. They are different from each other, but the differences are very slight. Some of you may even be having a very hard time seeing the difference. For some of you, you might be seeing light gray on the left, dark gray on the right, and medium gray in the middle. Others of you are able to clearly distinguish the slight variance among the middle three.

That slight variance is what we are talking about when we speak of nuance. When it comes to speaking, nuance is acknowledging the subtle variations in an idea that, in some way, undo the perspective that there are only two ways of seeing something.

Medium gray is the nuance. You may not see all the nuances, but you know, when looking at the picture above, that sandwiched between light gray and dark gray is a medium shade of gray that is a combination of the two extremes.

In conversation, nuance is the middle ground, or combination, of two, or more, seemingly opposing positions.

Let us take an issue from the recent news cycle as a prime example of what nuance looks like in practice.

In the past month, the news has been replete with stories about Kyle Rittenhouse, gun laws, and self-defense laws. Even though there was an attempt within the courtroom to separate 2nd Amendment positions from the specific events of that day, those conversations were being had on both the right and the left in connection with the trial.

Because we all know the trial was about the intersection between 2nd Amendment rights and self-defense. But, within the courtroom, by taking the gun issue out of the equation, the focus could be placed squarely on whether or not Rittenhouse acted in self-defense.

If you find yourself falling on a particular side of the argument at this point, allow me to pull you back with me to look at the nuance here. As a broader culture, we absolutely have to look at the big picture of what self-defense means in connection with our gun laws and the 2nd Amendment. And as some commentators have pointed out, we also need to have discussions on the issue of race as it pertains to our gun laws and sentencing practices.

All of these broader issues are the nuance in the discussion. The thing to keep in mind is that these issues are not diametrically opposed to the court’s decision to focus on whether or not Rittenhouse acted in self-defense. His trial is one small piece in a much larger cultural discussion that we are just beginning to have.

Another example of nuance in this particular instance is seen with the verdict itself. A prime example is this meme posted by one of my conservative Facebook friends.

It was posted along with gloating commentary about how they were right and the left was wrong because they are dumb. As someone who leans left, my initial reading of the meme and accompanying commentary was to feel insulted. Which, of course, was the point. But as someone who is also introspective, I am willing to consider that I do not have all the answers and am capable of getting things wrong sometimes. That jury did know more than me and spent a long time deliberating before they came to the conclusion that they did.

But this exact same meme can be spun to point at the more conservative perspective as well.

If you are happy about the Rittenhouse verdict, I offer this: a jury of 12 spent over 25 hours deliberating every aspect of a case that they were far more informed on than you and what your TV told you to think.

Because, while those who saw it as self-defense from the start were on the winning side when it comes to the court decision, it proved not to be so easily decided as they had been told. It took this jury three and a half days of deliberation to come to this conclusion. They watched and rewatched evidence and a juror even asked to if she could take the juror rules home to read over them some more. This was clearly not an easy decision for them to make.

To step outside of the Rittenhouse verdict and look at the bigger picture, I guarantee if you look at every single meme that aims to insult the other side you can easily find the nuance in the argument. Or, to put it another way, I challenge you to do this every time one of these confrontational pictures comes across your feed. Instead of immediately responding with some kind of emotion-filled tirade, take a moment and reflect on how that post can 1) inform you about where your own views may be flawed and 2) how the other side is also involved in this discussion.

But here is the hard part about nuance in these sorts of things: the temptation is to take someone’s own arguments and weaponize them. All this does is eliminate the nuance and create another false dichotomy. The goal is to stimulate dialog and personal growth. If responding is not going to do either of these things, then it is best to just keep your mouth shut and move on to the next thing.

This applies in all contexts. As we gather with our friends and loved ones this weekend, keep this in mind. There is no reason to weaponize our words against each other. Two people can have opposing views and also be right to a certain extent. Let us focus this holiday season on coming together and working through our differences rather than perpetuating the division that seems to have been gaining momentum over the past few years.

We need each other. Possibly now more than ever.