The loss of nuance

Dictatorship is the death of nuance

Someone’s WhatsApp status

I’m currently going reading the book “Feeling Great” by Dr. David Burns, and in many way it is one of the most important books that I’ve read. Dr Burns is the founder of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which is the pre-eminent technique used to process PTSD, past trauma, anxiety, etc without medication. The most important technique introduced in the book is the introduction of nuance in your thoughts. How does that go?

For instance, I had a not-so-great college experience. There are certain memories associated with it that make me cringe and go spiraling despite having been in two other institutions since. I fear encountering certain people in my future again, and go into morbid details of how those interactions will be terrible and how I will feel terrible at the end of it. The book’s approach is this: the thoughts that come to me are all justified. Those indeed were bad memories, and it might indeed be terrible to meet those people again. In fact, it is good that I am scared of such things happening, because I want to protect myself from negative experiences. Hence, my anxiety is good. However, I’ve set my “anxiety dial” at 98/100, when it should be much lower. For instance, I only had a handful of bad memories with people I spent years and years with. Hence, most memories were neutral or positive. Secondly, it is unlikely that I will meet those people again, and it is again unlikely that they will be terrible even when we meet after so many years. Hence, I should instead turn the dial down to 5/100 or something. This helps me feel better, and more in control about my situation.

Let me dissect this a little bit. My brain wanted to dump facts into two buckets. Something is either possible, or it is not. Is is possible that I meet bullies from my past again and that they give me a terrible time? Yes. It is factually possible. Then, I would start spiraling. My brain refuses to deal with the more nuanced notion that although this is possible, it is unlikely. That is what the “anxiety dial” thing does. It gives me a measure of how likely something is, which my brain is not intuitively capable of processing. It is the introduction of nuance that is the first step in dealing with trauma. However, it is not just processing our past memories that needs nuance. Nuance is needed in how we process the world around us.


I was prompted to write this article after reading Postpolitics by Leighton Woodhouse. He talks about how the news media has essentially discarded nuance to create a shock culture of news consumption. Someone thinks that hate speech should not be persecuted? They are either a champion for free speech, or a bigot who wants the world to burn. They can only be either of those two things. This creates sharply divided opinions between the consumers of CNN on the left and Fox News on the right, and leads to further mudslinging and political polarization.

What would the introduction of nuance in this situation be like? We can introduce a bunch of dials like before. There can be a “bigot dial”, which goes from “people of all races can come into America and I will share all that I have with them” at 0/100, to “America should be reserved for White, Christian Europeans, as they clearly are the superior race” at 100/100. The person above might be at 60/100, say. We can also have a “free speech” dial, which goes from “No one should be allowed to say anything that goes against my beliefs” at 0/100, and “Everyone can say whatever they want, even if it is of a personal nature against me and my family and can cause harm to me” at 100/100. Let’s say that the person above is at 55/100, and wants freedom of political speech without fear of persecution from “the Commies”. The dial scores of 60/100 and 55/100 provide a much more nuanced view of the person, and in fact are scores that both the Right and the Left might agree on! Hence, perhaps political polarization may be alleviated greatly by the introduction of nuance.

Thinking about the “greats”

Reading Gandhi’s “My Experiments with Truth” was one of the most formative experiences of my life. I suddenly became vegan (and struggled to maintain it), tried to donate money, and resolved to become a less terrible person in general. However, I constantly had to deal with other people saying “Gandhi sucked because he probably had sexual relations with the young women in his coterie”. The truth was more complicated. He probably did ask them to lie naked with him to see if he was tempted to have sexual relations with them (he said that he did not, and felt protective towards them instead), but it is unclear if they actually had intercourse. Regardless of what actually transpired, it was morally wrong of Gandhi to do so because he was in a position of power in regard to these women, and asking them to do so, even if they consented to it, is wrong. Hence, let’s call Gandhi a lustful bastard and end the discussion. Right?

This feels wrong on the inside. Although Gandhi did do the above, and it was bad, he also did so many amazing things. He introduced nonviolent methods in India which were copied the world over to amazing effect. He fought against the religious persecution of Muslims in India, the denigration of lower castes, the cruelty of the meat industry, etc. For several years, he used to go and clean the toilets in the houses of the lower castes, if only to deny the superiority that his own higher caste gave him over others. This is pretty frickin amazing. He truly was one of the greats. Hence, instead of clubbing him into the “god” or “evil person” categories, we can instead use a “goodness” dial, and give him a 92/100 or something, acknowledging that although he did make mistakes, he also did an amazing amount of good. One may also argue that he also tried to subvert the legacies of Ambedkar and Bhagat Singh, and give him an even lower score of 70/100 or something. However, it is undeniable that the discussion around Gandhi needs more nuance.

The same goes for people like Einstein, Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, etc. Einstein was great, but look, he was wrong about Quantum Mechanics. Moreover he also had multiple affairs. Fine. But he did invent General Relativity!! That is really frickin awesome. It is a scientific discovery so unrivaled that only Newton can begin to have the same position in Science as him. And Newton spent most of his time studying alchemy. Hence, Einstein would probably get a 90/100 on the “human” dial. The same goes for Jobs being hard on his employees, Elon Musk shitposting on Twitter and making fantastical promises that he can’t deliver on, etc. Elon is single handedly changing the world with his cars, rockets and underground tunnels. He’s not just your friendly neighborhood dogecoin scammer. He probably gets a 95/100 on the “impact” dial.

The human brain is capable of much. However, it is not capable of nuance. That has to be a skill that we train ourselves in, so that we may navigate the world more easily, and have a more objective picture of reality.

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Graduate student

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