When did nuanced public discourse die? Maybe ubiquitous social media has made it easy to see people’s previously-hidden bias against complexity and subtlety. Or maybe around-the-clock news cycles and increasingly-targeted media have suffocated nuance. Whatever the cause of death, it seems we increasingly stake out fixed positions, unwilling to address any nuance or consider any new information. But there are things we can do to bring nuance back into our public discourse.
Nuance is necessary: the biggest challenges we face – from poverty to terrorism, climate change to globalization, education to healthcare – they are complex systems with numerous factors affecting them. Imagine them as interconnected strings: each string we pull is connected to many other strings and the reactions are usually unclear.
I read so many posts from smart, educated friends who make absolutist statements: Muslims are like this; Immigrants are like this; Feminists are like this; Conservatives are like this; Welfare recipients are like this; Gun owners are like this… As if we could take any group of millions (or billions!) of people and find some easy common denominator that explains everything about them.
I read so many posts from smart, educated friends who post pictures and memes that reduce complex issues into sound-bytes, punchlines, and ultimatums… As if we could solve any complex problem by simply building a wall, banning guns, electing a woman as president, signing an electronic petition, bombing the Middle East, or copying and pasting a Facebook status.
May I make a modest proposal? Borrowing from the critical thinking and systemic thinking skills I teach to leaders, I would suggest that before we post anything on social media (or voice any opinions about the events of the world), we do three things:
- First, recognize what assumptions we make. Are we over-generalizing? Are we verifying the truth behind the statement from multiple, independent sources? Usually a quick search on the internet is enough to challenge our assumptions and learn more about the subject.
- Second, embrace other perspectives. Most issues have many perspectives, not just two. What are those other perspectives? Especially, who are the people affected by this issue and are their perspectives being told? Often, those most affected do not have the power to tell their own story and share their perspectives.
- Third, be open to new information. My grandmother had a clipping from a newspaper posted on her refrigerator door: “Only a dead man and a fool never change their minds.” When presented with new facts, new information, are we willing to update our opinions and retract or revise what we have already shared? I see so many people who when they learn that information they posted is incorrect, do not remove the post from their social media.
Do these seem like too many steps, too much of an effort to take before posting something? Maybe so. A friend commented recently that we have become people who just re-post other’s content rather than creating anything original of our own. It is easier to just hit the “share” button when your righteous indignation swells around any particular issue.
But wouldn’t we be a better-informed public if we took the time to think about issues and write our own positions on them, wrestling with the complexities and engaging others in nuanced conversations?