A Return to Nuance

Is there any hope of returning to a world of nuance? I meet people who are now so upset with Thomas Jefferson for being a slaveholder that they want his name entirely erased from American culture, and I still meet people who defend Jefferson, deny the Sally Hemings story, and argue that, at the very worst, we should see him as a man of his time. This last weekend I met a man who insisted that the Founding Fathers were Christian men who intended a Christian nation, even if they didn’t state that in the US Constitution. I meet people who would wash the country of any public hint of Christianity. Of course, I meet people for whom Donald Trump can do no wrong—apparently not even on Fifth Avenue—and many more people who have decided that everything he is, says, tweets, does, and stands for is 100% corrupt. In a single week not long ago, I met a man who said Barack Obama was without question the worst president in American history and then two days later who said that Donald Trump will unquestionably occupy that slot.

Somehow, I wound up being a humanities scholar and not a welder or a banker. I’ve had the great privilege, even luxury, of spending my life reading great books. Aside from the sheer pleasure of reading Dickens and St. Augustine, John Donne and Jane Austen, Tolstoy and Twain, Emily Dickinson and Emily Bronte, Homer and Kent Haruf, I have learned in these decades of reading the following principles:

-things are rarely simple, black or white, good or evil, or even straightforward;

-how you respond to whatever is in front of you depends on the lens you wear, and different lenses view things in somewhat different ways;

-being able to see things the way others do, even others you disagree with, is the beginning of civilized discourse;

-righteousness is always problematic, even when it is right;

-evidence actually matters, and we need to learn how to be rigorous and discerning in our search for authentic evidence;

-generally speaking, the more you let yourself try to understand the world, the more humble you will be in the presence of your convictions, assumptions, prejudices, and preconceived notions;

-the best way to understand a public issue or a controversy is to try to understand how the other side thinks about it, to try to see it generously from their point of view;

-if you feel strongly about something, the best thing to ask yourself is: what would it take for me to change my mind about this? Am I open to new evidence, arguments, perspectives? How open minded am I, really?

-the gray areas in life and literature are always wider and more interesting than the black and the white slices at the end of the spectrum;

-the quip attributed to Voltaire, “Madam, I disagree with what you say but I shall defend to the death your right to say it,” has two equally important meanings. First, we need a free marketplace of ideas where nothing is shouted down or censored. Second, we need to encourage and even cherish dissent, to take joy in the fact that we can disagree so powerfully about things that matter. 

-great books, like life, are in some essential respects unresolved. Huck finds it almost impossible to reconcile his conviction that escaped slaves should be returned to their owners with his growing intuitive awareness that there are higher laws of human aspiration than the slave codes of antebellum America. Hamlet feels compelled to seek revenge for his father’s murder, but he knows, too, that in a Christian world final justice belongs to God not man, and he is not even sure the ghost of his father was authentic. Odysseus wants to get home to his wife Penelope more than anything in the world but along the way he beds down with goddesses, because, well, when a goddess wants you, you really have to submit. If any of these three randomly chosen situations were more black and white, Huckleberry Finn, Hamlet, and the Odyssey would long since have ceased to be regarded as world classics of literature. 

-finally, as my mentor Everett C. Albers put it at a key moment in my life, “Judgement is easy, understanding is hard.”

Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote, “The mark of a civilized man is his willingness to re-examine his most cherished beliefs.” You should print that out and display it over your desk. The purpose of education is to equip each of us with a fuller, more contextualized, deeper, more subtle, more nuanced, more problematic, and ultimately less satisfying worldview than the one we carried into Psychology or History or English 101.

In 1919 W.B. Yeats wrote, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” That’s precisely how I feel when I look at most of the national discourse today. Good education teaches us to be careful, thoughtful, open-minded, and hesitant to rush to judgment. Such a worldview does not lend itself to a Tweet or a cable news soundbite. Meanwhile, those with passionate intensity spout off in righteousness and poison the national conversation. As Hamlet puts it, it is not and it cannot come to good.

I wrote this essay after we talked a week or two ago about how “baked in” people’s views are about the current political situation. I had never heard that term before the election of 2016. When Donald Trump said he could probably shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and his supporters would stick with him, I thought he was just uttering bombastic nonsense. But it appears to be true. A few days ago, he said on camera that Duchess Megan Markle was “nasty,” and then a short time later the White House insisted that he had not said anything of the sort, and he too publicly denied that he had spoken those words. Is this where we are? That if the media reports something Trumpites do not want to hear they blame the messenger, speak of fake news, accused the media of conspiring with the Deep State to bring the president down? And if Trump says or does something admirable the left puts it into a logic-shattering pressure cooker until it can somehow be read as disingenuous, corrupt, or self-serving?

We need to have a more nuanced national dialogue about every possible issue. But it cannot occur as long as we decide we are baked in and nothing is going to change my mind about X, or Y, or Z. And it cannot occur until we agree upon a genuine commitment to truth. As usual, Jefferson had it right. In a letter about the mission of his University of Virginia, Jefferson wrote, “This institution will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind. for here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.”

Let’s calm down, lower the temperature, try on some new lenses, and, by the way, reread Huckleberry Finn if you have not done so in a while. It truly is the very best of American literature, even with its unfortunate use of the N-word. 

Oh, and one more piece of advice in a hyperpartisanized world: learn to laugh at yourself. Without that you automatically take yourself way too seriously.