Nuance Has Died; Long Live Nuance

Is nuance dying because we’re afraid to countenance our own sadness? 

I took my younger son to a Star Wars-themed birthday party recently. He dressed up as a storm trooper because we already had the costume from five years ago when his older brother went to an identically-themed party. I was standing with a few of the other parents, watching the kids pummel each other with lightsabers, when the birthday boy’s mom commented, “Kids love it when the heroes and villains are obvious, don’t they?”

Kids aren’t the only ones prone to abandoning nuance. I find myself going to social media more for recipes and comedy routines than actual interaction these days, steeped as the scene is in all the us/them drama of our current cultural moment. Oh sure, I dive headfirst into it sometimes, when I’m especially incensed by a “hot take” or just feel like I’m in a fighting mood because someone cut me off in traffic and I need a place to vent my anger. The internet is great for that — targeted outrage — and I hate-follow more people than is mentally healthy (who else is going to send my sister those screenshots, paired with an eye-roll emoji?) I am a cynic, and a human, with an inner child, and all of these demographics set me up, along with my WiFi-sponsored echo-chamber, for a one-dimensional view of the world and its inhabitants. For the flattening of nuance into something less complicated and more manageable. In my best moments, I’m studiously attending to a new twist on banana bread or crying my way through videos of Roger Federer’s retirement; on my worst, I’m sneering at the ignorance of my online enemies. 

I know I’m not alone, and that social media’s amplification of our deep-seated animosities has been and is being and will be studied by academics in perpetuity, and that us/them mentality is hardly confined to the web. But I’ve found my entry point into understanding (and, hopefully, shunning) this toxicity has lately taken the form of pondering nuance — and its absence — in the world today. A world where grown-ass men and women (including yours truly) may as well be donning storm trooper or rebel gear and fighting each other with lightsabers — at least then we’d be getting in some cardio. 

Here’s a thing: recently I’ve gotten very into the story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident, listening to several podcasts and even reading a book on the subject. The mystery of what happened to those Russian hikers is debated to this day, with proponents of myriad theories asserting their opinions with varying levels of vehemence. One of the complications that has stymied a quick resolution to the mystery is that the hikers were expert-level in their preparation and execution of their journey; they did everything right. Which is so annoying to those who want to write off their demise to any fault of the hikers themselves; one podcast host pointed out that when something awful happens to other people, we look for ways to blame them in an effort to assure ourselves that we’d never meet the same fate (not that I’m planning on hiking in February in Siberia anytime soon, but the principle translates across situations). Disdain keeps us separate — and safe.

In her latest book, Bittersweet, Susan Cain writes about the research of Dacher Keltner, a psychology professor at UC Berkeley with whom director Pete Docter consulted for the movie Inside Out, specifically on the importance of the character Sadness. Cain writes, “Keltner had explained that sadness triggers compassion. It brings people together.” Which, of course, makes me wonder how many people, in their flattening of nuance, are just avoiding their own sadness or repressed grief. Cain goes on:

If we could honor sadness a little more, maybe we could see it — rather than enforced smiles and righteous outrage — as the bridge we need to connect with each other. We could remember that no matter how distasteful we might find someone else’s opinions, no matter how radiant, or fierce, someone may appear, they have suffered, or will.

Is nuance dying because we’re afraid to countenance our own sadness? 

More Cain: “Attitudes of superiority prevent us from reacting to others’ sadness — and even to our own.” Keltner’s research found a physiological basis for this: “Your vagus nerve won’t fire when you see a child who’s starving if you think you’re better than other people,” he says. (The vagus nerve is particularly active in people who collaborate well, have strong friendships, and are more likely to intervene when they witness an injustice.)

We have, unwittingly and physiologically, trained ourselves to be less compassionate. Life is easier when our world is smaller and the people in it, one-dimensional and predictable and, often, faceless. When the hard work of relationship and compassion is eschewed in favor of a simple line between us and them.

Christmas is coming. It always is, of course, but I start actively expecting it around this time every year. In her book of the same name, Fleming Rutledge describes advent as a “divine raid on our defenses.” And we need this raid, because boy have we built up some defenses. In our all-too-human quests for self-protection — protection from sadness, yes, and also loss of dignity or uncovering of our insufficiencies –we have built defenses that deoxygenate nuance.

“It requires courage to look into the heart of darkness,” writes Rutledge, “especially when we are afraid we might see ourselves there.” Because for all the darkness we heap onto our “enemies” — darkness that renders them undefined and imperceptible — we can’t shake our own blind spots.

However: “Advent begins in the dark,” says Rutledge, which is good news for any of us who’ve spent time in poorly-lit corners of comment sections, or life. Advent — grace — is an all-out assault from something outside ourselves, a stronger-than-lightsaber-pummeling of our lack of compassion for others and ourselves. A brutal and merciful attack on our inability, or unwillingness, to assume more of others than what we can see in the dark we’ve relegated them to (and they, us). This grace recognizes all the more that we fail to recognize ourselves and sparks within us a curiosity born of hope, because we know that dark and death are just placeholders for, and precursors to, light and life … and nuance.

subscribe to the Mockingbird newsletter


3 responses to “Nuance Has Died; Long Live Nuance”

  1. E Nash says:

    Beautifully said, Stephanie! What a lot of good things to think about.

    I’m reading David Zahl’s book “Low Anthropology” and your thoughts on this absence of nuance dovetail nicely with his… especially in one of my favorite takeaways from the book: if we have a low anthropology, there is no “them,” there is only “us.”

  2. CJ says:

    So good, as always Stephanie. Recently I’ve been thinking about sadness too, as opposed to depression. Sadness, the emotion, related to actual facts of mine and others’ lives, not just the blanket of “brain chemistry.” (As important as that is.) But I think there’s a real resistance to owning up to sadness, and your link to nuance makes complete sense to me. Thanks for writing.

  3. DLE says:

    Nuance implies expertise, study, and breadth of knowledge. The reason nuance has been lost is because everyone is an armchair QB about everything, and their necessary depth of knowledge is more like a rain puddle on a hot August day.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *