(Also available as audiobook.)
The world is complex. Yet most of our popular stories and ideologies tend not to reflect this complexity. Which is to say that our stories and ideologies, and by extension we, tend to have insufficiently nuanced perspectives on the world.
Indeed, falling into a simple narrative through which we can easily categorize and make sense of the world — e.g. “it’s all God’s will”; “it’s all class struggle”; “it’s all the muslims’ fault”; “it’s all a matter of interwoven forms of oppression” — is a natural and extremely powerful human temptation. And something social constructivists get very right is that this narrative, the lens through which we see the world, influences our experience of the world to an extent that is difficult to appreciate.
So much more important, then, that we suspend our urge to embrace simplistic narratives to (mis)understand the world through. In order to navigate wisely in the world, we need to have views that reflect its true complexity; not views that merely satisfy our need for simplicity (and social signaling; more on this below). For although simplicity can be efficient, and to some extent is necessary, it can also, when too much too relevant detail is left out, be terribly costly. And relative to the needs of our time, I think most of us naturally err on the side of being expensively unnuanced, painting a picture of the world with far too few colors.
Thus, the straightforward remedy I shall propose and argue for here is that we need to control for this. We need to make a conscious effort to gain more nuanced perspectives. This is necessary as a general matter, I believe, if we are to be balanced and well-considered individuals who steer clear of self-imposed delusions and instead act wisely toward the betterment of the world. Yet it is also necessary for our time in particular. More specifically, it is essential in addressing the crisis that human conversation seems to be facing in the Western world at this point in time. A crisis that largely seems the result of an insufficient amount of nuance in our perspectives.
Some Remarks on Human Nature
There are certain facts about the human condition that we need to put on the table and contend with. These are facts about our limits and fallibility which should give us all pause about what we think we know — both about the world in general as well as ourselves in particular.
For one, we have a whole host of well-documented cognitive biases. There are far too many for me to list them all here, yet some of the most important ones are: confirmation bias (the tendency of our minds to search for, interpret, and recall information that confirms our pre-existing beliefs); wishful thinking (our tendency to believe what we wish were true); and overconfidence bias (our tendency to have excessive confidence in our own beliefs; in one study, people who reported to be 100 percent certain about their answer to a question were correct less than 85 percent of the time). And while we can probably all recognize these pitfalls in other people, it is much more difficult to realize and admit that they afflict ourselves as well. In fact, our reluctance to realize this is itself a well-documented bias, known as the bias blindspot.
Beyond realizing that we have fallible minds, we also need to realize the underlying context that has given rise to much of this fallibility, and which continues to fuel it, namely: our social context — both the social context of our evolutionary history as well as of our present condition. We humans are deeply social creatures, and it shows at every level of our design, including the level of our belief formation. And we need to be acutely aware of this if we are to form reasonable beliefs with minimal amounts of self-deception.
Yet not only are we social creatures, we are also, by nature, deeply tribal creatures. As psychologist Henri Tajfel showed, one need only assign one group of randomly selected humans the letter “A” and another randomly selected group the letter “B” in order for a surprisingly strong in-group favoritism to emerge. This method for studying human behavior is known as the minimal group paradigm, and it shows something about us that history should already have taught us a long time ago: that human tribalism is like gasoline just waiting for a little spark to be ignited.
This social and tribal nature of ours has implications for how we act and what we believe. It is, for instance, largely what explains the phenomenon of groupthink, which is when our natural tendency toward (in-)group conformity leads to a lack of dissenting viewpoints among individuals in a given group, which then, in turn, leads to poor decisions by these individuals.
Indeed, our beliefs about the world are far more socially influenced than we realize. Not just in the obvious way that we get our views from others around us — often without much external validation or testing — but also in that we often believe things in order to signal to others that we possess certain desirable traits, or that we are loyal to them. This latter way of thinking about our beliefs is quite at odds with how we prefer to think about ourselves, yet the evidence for this unflattering view is difficult to deny at this point.
As authors Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler argue in their recent book The Elephant in the Brain, we humans are strategically self-deceived about our own motives, including when it comes to what motivates our beliefs. Beliefs, they argue, serve more functions than just the function of keeping track of what is true of the world. For while beliefs surely do have this practical function, they also often serve a very different, very social function, which is to show others what kind of person we are and what kind of groups we identify with. This makes beliefs much like clothes, which have the practical function of keeping us warm while, for most of us, also serving the function of signaling our taste and group affiliations. And one of Hanson’s and Simler’s essential points is that we are not aware of the fact that we do this, and that there is an evolutionary reason for this: if we realized (clearly) that we believe certain things for social reasons, and if we realized that we display our beliefs with overconfidence, we would be much less convincing to those we are trying to convince and impress.
Practical Implications of Our Nature
This brief survey of the natural pitfalls and fallibilities of our minds is far from exhaustive, of course. But it shall suffice for our purposes. The bottom line is that we are creatures who naturally want our pre-existing beliefs confirmed, and who tend to display too high levels of confidence about these beliefs. We do this in a social context, and many of the beliefs we hold serve non-epistemic functions within this context, which include the tribal function of showing others how loyal we are to certain groups, as well as how worthy we are as friends and mates. In other words, we have a natural pull to impress our peers, not just with our behavior but also with our beliefs. And, for socially strategic reasons, we are quite blind to the fact that we do this.
So what, then, is the upshot of all of this? It is clear, I submit, that these facts about ourselves do have significant implications for how we should comport ourselves. In short, they imply that we have a lot to control for if we aspire to have reasonable beliefs — and our own lazy mind, with all its blindspots and craving for simple comfort, is not our friend in this endeavor. The fact that we are naturally biased and tendentious implies that we should doubt our own beliefs and motives. And it implies that we need to actively seek out the counter-perspectives and nuance that our confirmation bias, this vile bane of reason, so persistently struggles to keep us from accessing.
Needless to say, these are not the norms that govern our discourse at this point in time. Sadly, what plays out right now is mostly the unedited script of tribal, confirmation biasing human nature, unfazed by the prefrontal interventions that seem just about the only hope for our rewriting this script into something better.
The Virtues of the Good Conversationist
Let us elaborate a bit on the implications of our fallibility, and the precepts we should follow if we want to control for these unflattering tendencies and pitfalls of human nature. Recall the study cited above: people who reported to be 100 percent certain about their answer to a question were correct less than 85 percent of the time. The fact that we can be so wrong — more than 15 percent of the time when we claim perfect certainty(!) — implies, among other things, that when someone tells us we are wrong, we seem to have a prima facie reason to listen and try our best to understand what they are saying, as they may just be right. Of course, the tendency toward overconfidence will all but surely be shared by this other person as well, who could also be wrong. And our task then lies in finding out which it is. This is the importance of conversation. It is nothing less than the best tool we have, collectively, against being misguided. And that is why we have to become good conversationists.
What does it take to become that? At the very least, it requires an awareness of our biases, and a deliberate effort to counteract them.
Countering Confirmation Bias
To counteract our confirmation bias, we need to loosen our attachment to pre-existing beliefs, and to seek out viewpoints and arguments that may contradict them. The imperative of doing this derives from nothing less than the basic epistemic necessity of taking all relevant data into consideration rather than a small cherry-picked selection. For the truth is that we all cherry-pick data a little bit here and there in favor of our own position, and so by hearing from people with opposing views, and by examining their cherry-picked data and their particular emphasis and interpretation, we will, in the aggregate, tend to get a more balanced picture of the issue at hand.
And, importantly, we should strive to engage with these other views in a charitable way: by assuming good faith on behalf of the proponents of any position; by trying to understand their view as well as possible; and by then engaging with the strongest possible version of that position (i.e. the steel man rather than the straw man version of it). Indeed, it is difficult to overstate just how much the state of human conversation would improve if we all just followed this simple precept: be charitable.
Countering Wishful Thinking
Our propensity for wishful thinking should make us skeptical of beliefs that are convenient and which match up with what we want to be true. If we want there to be a God, and we believe there is one, then this should make us at least a little skeptical of this convenient belief. By extension, our attraction toward the wishful also implies that we should pay more attention to information and arguments that suggest conclusions which are inconvenient or otherwise contrary to what we wish were true. Do we believe the adoption of a vegan lifestyle would be highly inconvenient for us personally? Then we should probably expect to be more than a little biased against any argument in its favor, and indeed, if we suspect the argument has merit, be inclined to ignore it altogether rather than giving it a fair hearing.
Countering Overconfidence Bias
When it comes to correcting for our overconfidence bias, the key virtue to embrace is intellectual humility (or at least so it seems to me). That is, to admit and speak as though we have a limited and fallible perspective on things. In this respect, it also helps to be aware of the social factors that might be driving our overconfidence much of the time. As noted above, we often express certainty in order to signal to third parties, as well as to instill strong doubts in those we engage with. And we do this without being aware of it. This social function of confidence should lead us to update away from bravado and toward being more measured. Again: to be intellectually humble.
Countering In-Group Conformity
Another way in which social forces make us less than reasonable is by compelling us to conform to our peers. As hinted above, our beliefs are subject to in-group favoritism, which highlights the importance of being (especially) skeptical of the beliefs we share with groups that we affiliate closely with, and to practice playing the devil’s advocate against these beliefs. And, by extension, to try to be extra charitable toward the beliefs held by the notional out-group, whether it be “the Left” or “the Right”, “the religious” or “the atheists”.
Beyond that, we should also be aware that our minds likely often paint the out-group in an unfairly unfavorable light, viewing them as much less sincere and well-intentioned — one may even say more evil — than they actually are, however misguided (we may think) their particular views are. And it seems a natural temptation for us to try to score points by publicly broadcasting such a negative view of the out-group as a way of showing our in-group just how unlikely we are to change affiliation.
Thinking in Degrees of Certainty
It seems that we have a tendency to express our views in a very binary, 0-or-1 fashion. We tend to be either clearly for something or clearly against it, be it abortion, efforts to prevent climate change, the death penalty, or universal health care. And it seems to me that what we express outwardly is generally much more absolutist, i.e. more purely 0 or 1, than what happens inwardly, under the hood — perhaps even underneath our conscious awareness — where there is probably more conflicting data than what we are aware of and allow ourselves to admit.
I have observed this pattern in conversations: people will argue strongly for a given position which they continue to insist on, until, quite suddenly it seems, they say that they accept the opposite conclusion. In terms of their outward behavior, they went from 0 to 1 quite rapidly, although it seems likely that the process that took place underneath the hood was much more continuous — a more gradual move from 0 to 1, where the signal “express 1 now” was then passed at some threshold.
An extreme example of similar behavior found in recent events is that of Omarosa Manigault Newman, who was the so-called Director of African-American Outreach for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in 2016. She went from describing Trump in adulating terms and calling him “a trailblazer on women’s issues”, to being strongly against him and calling him a racist and a misogynist. It seems unlikely that this shift was based purely on evidence she encountered after she made her adulating statements. There probably was a lot of information in her brain that contradicted the claim of Trump’s status as such a trailblazer, but which she ignored and suppressed. And the reason why is quite obvious: she had a political aim. She needed to broadcast the message that Trump was a good person to further a campaign and to further her own career tied to this campaign. It was about signaling first, not truth-tracking (which is not to say that she did not sincerely believe what she said, but her sincere belief was probably just conveniently biased).
The important thing to realize, of course, is that this applies to all of us. We are all inclined to be more like a politician than a scientist in many situations. In particular, we are all inclined to believe and express either a pure 0 or a pure 1 for social reasons. And the nature of these social reasons may vary. It may be about signaling opposition to someone who believes the opposite, or about signaling loyalty to a given group (few groups rally around low-credence claims). It may also be about signaling that we have a mind that is of a strong conviction. After all, doubt is generally not sexy. Just consider the words we usually associate with it, such as uncertainty, confusion, and indecision. Certainty, on the other hand, signals strength, and is commonly associated with more positive words such as decisiveness, confidence, resoluteness, and firmness. And so, for this reason as well, it only seems natural that we would generally be inclined to signal certainty rather than doubt, even when we do not possess anything close to justified certainty.
Fortunately, there exists a corrective for our tendency toward 0-or-1 thinking, which is to think in terms of credences along a continuum, ranging from 0 to 1. For one, this would constitute a more honest form of communication, in that it would force us to carefully weigh all the information that our brain keeps hidden from us, as well as to express its underlying credence in detail — as opposed to merely expressing whether this credence has crossed some given threshold. Yet perhaps even more significantly, thinking in terms of such a continuum would also help subvert the tribal aspect of our either-or thinking by placing us all in the same boat: the boat of degrees of certainty, in which the only thing that differs between us is our level of certainty in any given claim. For example, think how strange it would be for a religious believer to present their religious beliefs by saying that their credence in the existence of a God lies around 93 percent. This is a much weaker statement, in terms of its social signaling function, than a statement such as “I am a Christian”.
Such an honest, more detailed description of one’s beliefs is not good for keeping groups divided by different beliefs. Indeed, it is good for the exact opposite: it helps us move toward a more open and sincere conversation about what we in fact believe and why, regardless of our group affiliations.
Different Perspectives Can Be Equally True
There are two common definitions of the term “perspective” that are quite different, yet closely related at the same time. One is “a mental outlook/point of view”, while the other is “the art of representing three-dimensional objects on a two-dimensional surface”. And they are related in that the latter can be viewed as a metaphor for the former: our particular perspective, the representation of the world we call our point of view, is in a sense a limited two-dimensional representation of a more complex, multi-dimensional reality. A representation that is bound to leave out a lot of information about this reality. The best we can do, then, is to try to paint the two-dimensional canvas that is our mind so as to make it as rich and informative as possible about the complex and many-faceted world we inhabit.
And an important point for us to realize in our quest for more balanced and nuanced views, as well as for the betterment of human conversation, is to realize that seemingly conflicting reports of different perspectives on the same underlying reality can in fact all be true, as hinted by the following illustrations:
The same object can have very different reflections when viewed from different angles. Similarly, the same events can be viewed very differently by different people who each have their own unique dispositions and prior experiences. And these different views can all be true; John really does see X when he looks at this event, while Jane really does see Y. And, like the square- and circle-shaped reflections above, X and Y need not be incompatible. (A similar sentiment is reflected in the Jain doctrine of Anekantavada.)
And even when someone does get something wrong, they may nonetheless still be reporting the appearance of the world as it is revealed to them as honestly and accurately as they can. For example, to many of us, it really does seem as though the lines in the following picture are not parallel, although they in fact are:
Which is merely to state the obvious point that it is possible, indeed quite common, to be perfectly honest and wrong at the same time, which is worth keeping in mind when we engage with people whom we think are obviously wrong; they usually think they are right, and that we are obviously wrong — and perhaps even dishonest.
Another important point the visual illusion above hints at is that we should be careful not to confuse external reality with our representation of it. Our conscious experience of the external world is not, obviously, the external world itself. And yet we tend to speak as though it were.
This is an evolutionarily adaptive illusion no doubt, but it is an illusion nonetheless. All we ever inhabit is, in the words of David Pearce, our own world simulation, a world of conscious experience residing in our head. And given that we all find ourselves stuck in — or indeed as — such separate, albeit mutually communicating bubbles, it is not so strange that we can have so many disagreements about what we think reality is like. All we have to go on is our own private, phenomenal cartoon model of each other and the world at large; a cartoon model that may get many things right, but which is also sure to miss a lot of important things.
Framing Shapes Our Perspective
From the vantage point of our respective world simulations, we each interpret information from the external world with our own unique framing. And this framing in part determines how we will experience it, as demonstrated by the following illustration, where one can change one’s framing so as to either see a duck or a rabbit:
As well as the following illustration where one’s framing determines whether one sees a cube from above or below — or indeed just a two dimensional pattern without depth:
Sometimes, as in the examples above, our framing is readily alterable. In other cases, however, it can be more difficult to just switch our framing, as when it comes to how different people with different life experiences will naturally interpret the same scenario in very different ways. For instance, a physicist might enter a room and see a lot of interesting physical phenomena there. Air consisting of molecules which bounce around in accord with the laws of thermodynamics; sound waves that travel adiabatically across the room; long lamps dangling in their natural frequency while emitting photons. An artistic person, in contrast, may enter the same room and instead see a lot of people. And this person may view these people as a sea of flowing creative potential in the process of being unleashed, inspired by deeply emotional music and a warm glowing light that fits perfectly with the atmosphere of the music.
Although these two perspectives on the events of this same room are very different, none of them are necessarily wrong. Indeed, they seem perfectly compatible, despite their representing what seems to be two very different cognitive styles — two different paradigms of thinking and perceiving, one may say. And what is important to realize is that a similar story applies to all of us. We all experience the world in different ways, due to our differing biological dispositions, life experiences, and vantage points. And while these different experiences are not necessarily incompatible, it can nonetheless be difficult to achieve mutual understanding between such differing perspectives.
Acknowledging Many Perspectives Is Not a Denial of Truth
It should be noted, however, that none of the above makes a case for the relativistic claim that there are no truths. On the contrary, what the above implies is indeed that it is a truth — as hard and strong as could be — that different individuals can have different perspectives and experiences in reaction to the same external reality, and that it is possible for such differing perspectives to all have merit, even if they seem in tension with each other. And to acknowledge this fact by no means amounts to the illogical statement that no given perspective can ever be wrong and make false claims about reality — that, sadly, is clearly all too common. This middle-position of rejecting both the claim that there is only one valid perspective and the claim that there are no truths is, I submit, the only reasonable one on offer.
And the fact that there can be merit in a plurality of perspectives implies that, beyond conceiving of our credences along a continuum ranging from 0 to 1, we also need to think in terms of a diversity of continua in a more general sense if we are to gain a fuller, more nuanced understanding that does justice to reality, including the people around us with whom we interact. More than just thinking in terms of shades of grey found in-between the two endpoints of black and white, we need to think in terms of many different shades of many different colors.
At the same time, it is also important to acknowledge the limits of our understanding of other minds and experiences we have not had. This does not amount to some obscure claim about how we each have our own, wholly incommensurable experiences, and hence that mutual understanding between individuals with different backgrounds is impossible. Rather, it is simply to acknowledge that psychological diversity is real, which implies that we should be careful to avoid the so-called typical mind fallacy, as well as to acknowledge that at least some experiences just cannot be conveyed faithfully with words alone to those who have not had them. And this does, at the very least, pose a challenge to the endeavor of communicating with and understanding each other. For example, most of us have never tried experiencing extreme forms of suffering, such as the experience of being burned alive. And beyond describing this class of experiences with thin yet accurate labels such as “horrible” and “bad”, most of us are surely very ignorant — luckily for us.
However, this realization that we do not know what certain experiences are like is in fact itself an important insight that does help expand and advance our outlook. For it at least helps us realize that our own understanding, as well as the range and variety of experiences we are familiar with, are far from exhaustive. With this realization in mind, we can look upon a state of absolute horror and admit that we have virtually no understanding of just how bad it is, which, I submit, comprises a significantly greater understanding than does beholding it with both the same absence of comprehension, and the absence of the admission of this absent comprehension. The realization that we are ignorant itself constitutes knowledge of sorts. The kind of knowledge that makes us rightfully humble.
Grains of Truth in Different Perspectives
Even when two different perspectives indeed are in conflict with each other, this does not imply that they are necessarily both entirely wrong, as there can still be significant grains of truth in both of them. Most of today’s widely endorsed perspectives and narratives make a wide range of claims and arguments, and even if not all of these stand up to scrutiny, many of them often do, at least when modified slightly. And part of being charitable is to seek out such grains of truth in a position one does not agree with. This can also help us realize which truths and plausible claims that might motivate people to support (what we consider) misguided views, and thus help further mutual understanding among us. Therefore, this seems a reasonable precept to follow as well: sincerely ask what might be the grains of truth in the views you disagree with. One can almost always find something, and often a good deal more than one would naively have thought.
As mentioned earlier, it is also possible for different perspectives to support what seems to be very different positions on the same subject without necessarily being wrong in any way; if they have different lenses, looking in different directions. Indeed, different perspectives on the same issue are often merely the result of different emphases which each focus on certain framings and sets of data rather than others. And thus seemingly incompatible perspectives may in fact all be right about the particular aspects of a given subject that they emphasize, which is why it is important to seek out different treatments of the same subject from multiple angles. Oftentimes, it is not that novel perspectives show our current perspective wrong, but merely that it is not sufficiently nuanced — i.e. that we have failed to take certain things into account, such as alternative framings, particular kinds of data, and critical counter-considerations.
This is, I believe, a common pattern in human conversation, and another sense in which we should be mindful of the possible existence of different grains of truth, namely: when different views on the same subject are all completely true, yet where each of them merely comprise a small grain in the larger mosaic that is the complete truth. And hence we should remind ourselves, as stated in the illustration above, that just because we are right does not mean that the person who says something else on the same subject is wrong.
Having made a general case for nuance, let us now turn our eyes toward our time in particular, and why it is especially important to actively seek to be nuanced and charitable today.
Our Time Is Different
Every period in history likely sees itself as uniquely unique. Yet in terms of how humanity communicates, it is clear that our time indeed is a highly unique one. For never before in history has human communication been so screen-based as it is today. Or, expressed equivalently: never before has so much of our communication been without face-to-face interaction. And this has significant implications for how and what we communicate.
It is clear that our brains process communication through a screen in a very different way. Writing a message in a Facebook group consisting of a thousand people does not, for most of us, feel remotely the same as delivering the same message in front of a thousand people crowd. And a similar discrepancy between the two forms of communication is found when we interact with just a single person, which is no wonder. Communication through a screen consists of a string of black and white symbols. Face-to-face interaction, in contrast, is composed of multiple streams of information. We read off important cues from a person’s face and posture, as well as from the tone and pace of their voice.
All this information provides a much more comprehensive, one might indeed say more nuanced, picture of the state of mind of the person we are interacting with. We get the verbal content of the conversation (as we would through a screen), plus a ton of information about the emotional state of the other. And beyond being informative, this information also serves the purpose of making the other person relatable. It makes the reality of their individuality and emotions almost impossible to deny, which is much less true when we communicate through a screen.
Indeed, it is as though these two forms of communication activate entirely different sets of brain circuits. Not only in that we communicate via a much broader bandwidth and likely see each other as more relatable when we communicate face-to-face, but also in that face-to-face communication naturally motivates us to be civil and agreeable. When we are in the direct physical presence of someone else, we have a strong interest in keeping things civil enough to allow our co-existence in the same physical space. When we interact through a screen, however, this is no longer a necessity. The notional brain circuitry underlying peaceful co-existence with antagonists can more safely be put on stand-by mode.
The reality of these differences between the two forms of communication has, I would argue, some serious implications. First of all, it highlights the importance of being aware that these two forms of communication indeed are very different, and that we are, in various ways, quite handicapped communicators when we communicate through a screen, often entering a state of mind that perhaps only a sociopath would be able to maintain in a face-to-face interaction. A handicap that further implies that we should be even more aware of the tendencies reviewed above when interacting through a screen, as these tendencies then become much easier and more tempting to engage in. It is (even) more difficult to relate to those who disagree with us, and we have (even) less of an incentive to understand them properly and be civil. Which is to say that it is (even) more difficult to be charitable. Written communication through a screen makes it easier than ever before to paint the out-group antagonists we interact with in an unreasonably unfavorable light.
And our modern means of communication arguably also make it easier than ever before to not interact with the out-group at all, as the internet has made it possible for us to diverge into our own respective in-group echo chambers to an extent not possible in the past. It is therefore now easy to end up in communities in which we continuously echo data that supports our own narrative, which ultimately gives us a one-sided and distorted picture of reality. And while it may be easier than ever to find counter-perspectives if we were to look for them, this is of little use if we mostly find ourselves collectively indulging in our own in-group confirmation bias. As we often do. For instance, feminists may find themselves mostly informing each other about how women are being discriminated against, while men’s rights activists may disproportionally share and discuss ways in which men are discriminated against. And so by joining only one of these communities, one is likely to end up with a skewed, insufficiently nuanced view of reality.
This mode of interaction has serious sociological implications. Indeed, the change in our style of interaction brought about by the internet is probably in large part why, in spite of the promise technology seemed to hold to connect us with each other, we now appear increasingly balkanized, divided along various lines in ways that feed into our tribal nature all too well. Democrats and republicans, for example, increasingly see each other as a “threat to the nation’s well-being” — significantly more so than they did even just ten years ago. This is a real problem that does not seem to be going away on its own. And one of the greatest hopes we have for improving this situation is, I submit, to become aware of and actively try to control for our own pitfalls. Especially when we interact through screens.
With all the information we have reviewed thus far in mind, let us now turn to some concrete examples of heated issues that divide people today, and where more nuanced perspectives and a greater commitment to being charitable are desperately needed. (I should note, however, that given the brevity of the following remarks, what I write here on these issues is, needless to say, itself bound to fail to express a highly nuanced perspective, as that would require a longer treatment. Nonetheless, the following brief remarks will at least gesture at some ways in which we can generally be more nuanced about these topics.)
As hinted above, there are two groups that seem to tell very different stories about the state of sex discrimination in our world today. On the one hand there are the feminists, who seem to argue that women generally face much more discrimination than men, and on the other, there are the so-called men’s rights activists, who seem to argue that men are, at least in some parts of the world, generally the more discriminated sex. And these two claims surely cannot both be right, can they?
If one were to define sex discrimination in terms of some single general measure, a “General Discrimination Factor”, then no, they could not both be right. Yet if one instead talks about concrete forms of discrimination, then it is entirely possible, and indeed clearly the case, that women are discriminated against more than men in some respects, while men face more discrimination in other respects. And it is arguably also much more fruitful to talk about such concrete cases than it is to talk about discrimination “in general”. (In response to those who insist that it is obvious that women face more discrimination everywhere, almost regardless of how one constructs such a general measure, I would recommend watching the documentary The Red Pill, and, for a more academic treatment, reading David Benatar’s The Second Sexism.)
For example, it is a well-known fact that women have, historically, been granted the right to vote much later than men have, which undeniably constitutes a severe form of discrimination against women. Similarly, women have also historically been denied the right to take a formal education, and they still are in many parts of the world. In general, women have been denied many of the opportunities that men have had, including access to professions in which they were clearly more than competent to contribute. These are all undeniable facts about undeniably severe forms of discrimination.
However, tempting as it may be to infer, none of this implies that men have not also faced severe discrimination in the past, nor that they evade such discrimination today. For example, it is generally only men who have been subject to conscription — i.e. forced duty to enlist for state service, such as in the military. Historically, as well as today, men have been forced by law to join the military and go to war, often without returning — whether they wanted to or not (sure, some men wanted to join the military, yet the fact that some men wanted to do this does not imply that making it compulsive for virtually all men and only men is not discriminatory; as a side note, it should be noted that many feminists have criticized conscription).
Thus, at a global level, it is true to say that, historically as well as today, women have generally faced more discrimination in terms of their rights to vote and pursue an education, as well as in their professional opportunities in general, while men have faced more discrimination in terms of state-enforced duties.
Different forms of discrimination against men and women are also present at various other levels. For example, in one study where the same job application was sent to different scientists, and where half of the applications had a female name on them, the other half a male name, the “female applicants” were generally rated as less competent, and the scientists were willing to pay the “male applicants” more than 14 percent more.
The same general pattern seems reported by those who have conducted a controlled experiment in being a man and a women from “the inside”, namely from transgender men (those who have transitioned from being a woman to being a man). Many of these men report being viewed as more competent after their transition, as well as being listened to more and interrupted less. This also fits with the finding that both men and women seem to interrupt women more than they interrupt men.
At the same time, many of these transgender men also generally report that people seem to care less about them now that they are men. As one transgender man wrote about the change in his experience:
What continues to strike me is the significant reduction in friendliness and kindness now extended to me in public spaces. It now feels as though I am on my own: No one, outside of family and close friends, is paying any attention to my well-being.
Such anecdotal reports seem well in line with the finding that both men and women show more aggression toward men than women, as well as with recent research (see page 137) conducted by social psychologist Tania Reynolds, which among other things found that:
[…] female harm or disadvantage evoked more sympathy and outrage and was perceived as more unfair than equivalent male harm or disadvantage. Participants more strongly blamed men for their own disadvantages, were more supportive of policies that favored women, and donated more to a female-only (vs male-only) homeless shelter. Female participants showed a stronger in-group bias, perceiving women’s harm as more problematic and more strongly endorsed policies that favored women.
As these examples show, it seems that men and women are generally discriminated against in different ways. And it is worth noting that these different forms of discrimination are probably in large part the natural products of our evolutionary history rather than some deliberate, premeditated conspiracy (which is obviously not to say that they are ethically justified).
Yet deliberation and premeditation is exactly what is required if we are to step beyond such discrimination. More generally, what seems required is that we get a clearer view of the ways in which women and men face discrimination, and that we then take active steps toward remedying these problems. Something that is only possible if we allow ourselves enough of a nuanced perspective to admit that both women and men are subject to serious discrimination and injustice.
It seems that many progressives are inspired by the theoretical framework called intersectionality, according to which we should seek to understand many aspects of the modern human condition in terms of interlocking forms of power, oppression, and privilege. One problem with relying on this framework is that it can easily become like only seeing nails when all one has is a hammer. If one insists on understanding the world predominantly in terms of oppression and social privilege, one risks seeing it in many places where it is not, as well as overemphasizing its relevance in many cases — and, by extension, to underemphasize the importance of other factors.
As with most popular ideas, there is no doubt a significant grain of truth in some of what intersectional theory talks about, such as the fact that discrimination is a very real phenomenon, that privilege is too, and that both of these phenomena can compound. Yet the narrow focus on only social explanations and versions of these phenomena means that intersectional theory misses a lot about the nature of discrimination and privilege. For example, some people are privileged to be born with genes that predispose them to be very happy, while others have genes that dispose them to have chronic depression. Such two people may be of the same race, gender, and sexuality, and they may be equally able-bodied. Yet such two people will most likely have very different opportunities and quality of life. A similar thing can be said about genetic differences that predispose individuals to have a higher or lower IQ, as well as about genetic differences that make people more or less physically attractive.
Intersectional theory seems to have very little to say about such cases, even as these genetic factors seem able to impact opportunities and quality of life to a similar degree as discrimination and social exclusion. Indeed, it seems that intersectional theory actively ignores, or at the very least underplays, the relevance of such factors — what may be called biological privileges in general — perhaps because they go against the tacit assumption that inequity and other bad things must be attributable to an oppressive agent or social system in some way, as opposed to just being the default outcome one should expect to find in an apathetic universe.
In general, it seems that intersectional theory significantly underestimates the importance of biology, which is, of course, by no means a mistake that is unique to intersectionality in particular. And it is indeed understandable how such an underestimation can emerge. For the truth is that many of the most relevant human traits, including those of personality and intelligence, are strongly influenced by both genetic and environmental factors. Indeed, around 40-60 percent of the variance of such traits tends to be explained by genetics, and, consequently, the amount of variance explained by the environment lies roughly in this range as well. This means that, with respect to these traits, it is both true to say that cultural factors are extremely significant, and to say that biological factors are extremely significant. And the mistake that many seem to make, including many proponents of intersectionality, is to believe that one of these truths rules out the other.
Another critique one can direct toward intersectional theory is that it often makes asymmetrical claims about how one group, “the privileged”, are unable to understand the experiences of another group of individuals, “the unprivileged”, whatever form the privilege and lack thereof may take. Yet it is rarely conceded that this argument can also, with roughly as much plausibility, be made the other way around: that the (allegedly) unprivileged might not fully understand the experience of the (allegedly) privileged, and that they may, in effect, overstate the differences in their experience, and overstate how easy the (allegedly) privileged in fact have it. A commitment to intellectual openness and honesty would at least require us to not dismiss this possibility out of hand.
A similar critique that intersectional theorists ought to contend with is that some of the people whom intersectional theory maintains are discriminated against and oppressed themselves argue that they are not, and some indeed further argue that many of the solutions and practical steps supported by intersectional theorists are often harmful rather than beneficial. Such voices must, at least, be counted as weak anomalies relative to the theory, and considered worthy of serious engagement.
More generally, a case can be made that intersectional theory greatly overemphasizes group membership and identities in its analyses of and attempts to address societal problems. As Brian Tomasik notes:
[…] I suspect it’s tempting for our tribalistic primate brains to overemphasize identity membership and us-vs.-them thinking when examining social ills, rather than just focusing on helping people in general with whatever problems they have. For example, I suspect that one of the best ways to help racial minorities in the USA is to reduce poverty (such as through, say, universal health insurance), rather than exploring ever more intricate nuances of social-justice theory.
A regrettable complication that likely bolsters the focus of intersectionalists is that many people seem to flatly deny that there are any grains of truth to any of the claims intersectional theory makes. Some claim, for instance, that there is no such thing as being transgendered, and that there barely is such a thing as racial or sex discrimination in the Western world today. Rather than serving as a meaningful critique of the overreaches of intersectionality, such unnuanced and ill-informed statements seem likely to only help convince intersectionalists that they are uniquely right while others are dangerously wrong, as well as to suggest to them that more radical tactics may be needed, since current tactics clearly do not work to make other people see basic reality for what it is.
This speaks to the more general point that if we make measured views a rarity, and convince ourselves that all one can do is join either team A or team B — e.g. “camp discrimination exists” or “camp discrimination does not exist” — then we only push people toward division. We risk finding ourselves in a run-away spiral where people try to eagerly signal that they do not belong to the other team, which may in turn push us toward ever more extreme views. The alternative option to this tribal game is to simply aspire toward, and express, measured and nuanced views. That might just be the best remedy against such polarization and toward reasonable consensus. Whether our tribal brains indeed want such a consensus is, of course, a separate question.
A final critique I would direct at mainstream intersectional theory is that, despite its strong focus on unjustified discrimination, it nonetheless generally fails to acknowledge and examine what is, I have argued, the greatest, most pervasive, and most harmful form of discrimination that exists today, namely: speciesism, the unjustified discrimination against individuals based on their species membership. The so-called argument from species overlap is rarely examined, nor are the implications that follow, including when it comes to what equality in fact entails. This renders mainstream versions of intersectionality, as a theory of discrimination against vulnerable individuals, a complete failure.
Another controversial issue closely related to intersectionality is that of political correctness. What do we mean by political correctness? The answer is actually not straightforward, since the term has a rather complex history throughout which it has had many different meanings. Yet one sense of the term that was at least prominent at one point refers simply to conduct and speech that embodies fairness and common decency toward others, especially in a way that avoids offending particular groups of people. In this sense of the term, political correctness is about not referring to people with ethnic slurs, such as “nigger” and “paki”, or homophobic slurs, such as “faggot” and “dyke”. A more recent sense of the term, in contrast, refers to instances where such a commitment to not offend people has been taken too far (in the eyes of those who use the term), which is arguably the sense in which it is most commonly used today.
This then leads us to what seems the quintessential point of contention when it comes to political correctness, namely: what is too far? What does the optimum level of decency entail? And the only reasonable answer, I believe, will have to be a nuanced one found between the two extremes of “nothing is too offensive” and “everything is too offensive”.
Some seem to approach this subject with the rather unnuanced attitude that feelings of being offended do not matter in any way whatsoever. Yet this view seems difficult to maintain, however, at least if one is called a pejorative name in an unjoking manner oneself. For most people, such name-calling is likely to hurt — indeed, it can easily hurt quite a lot. And significant amounts of hurt and unpleasantness do, I submit, matter. A universe with fewer, less intense feelings of offense is, other things being equal, better than a universe with more, more intense feelings of offense.
Yet the words “other things being equal” should not be missed here. For the truth is that there can be, indeed there clearly is, a tension between 1) risking to offend people and 2) talking freely and honestly about the realities of life. And it is not clear what the optimal balance is.
Yet what is quite clear, I would argue, is that if we cannot talk in an unrestricted way about what matters most in life, then we have gone too far. In particular, if we cannot draw distinctions between different kinds of discrimination and forms of suffering, and if we are not allowed to weigh these ills against each other to assess which are most urgent, then we have gone too far. For if we deny ourselves a clear sense of proportion with respect to the problems of the world, we end up undermining our ability to sensibly prioritize our limited resources in a world that urgently demands reasonable prioritization. And this is, I submit, much too high a price to pay to avoid the risk of offending people.
Relationship Styles and Promiscuity
Another subject that a lot of people seem to express quite strong and unnuanced positions on is that of sexual promiscuity and relationship styles. For example, some claim that strict monogamy is the only healthy and viable choice for everybody, while others seem to make more or less the same claim about polyamory: that most people would be happier if they were in loving, sexual relationships with more than one person, and that only our modern culture prevents us from realizing this. Similar opinions can be found on the subject of casual sex. Some say it is not a big deal, while others say it is — for everyone.
An essential thing to acknowledge on this subject, it seems, is the reality of individual differences. Most of these strong opinions seem to arise from the fallacious assumption that other people are significantly much like ourselves — i.e. the typical mind fallacy. The truth is that some may well thrive best in monogamous relationships, while others may thrive best in polyamorous relationships; some may well thrive having casual sex, some may not. And in the absence of systematic studies, it is difficult to say which distribution people fall along in these respects — in terms of what circumstance people thrive best in — as well as how much this distribution can be influenced by culture.
None of this is to say that there is no such thing as human nature when it comes to sexuality, but merely that it should be considered an open question just what this nature is exactly, and how much plasticity and individual variation it entails. And we should all admit this much.
Politics and Making the World a Better Place
The subjects of politics and “how to make the world a better place” more generally are both subjects on which people tend to have strong convictions, limited nuance, and powerful incentives to signal group loyalty. Indeed, they are about as good examples as any of subjects where it is important to be charitable and actively seek out nuance, as well as to acknowledge one’s own biased nature.
A significant step we can take toward thinking more clearly about these matters is to adopt the aforementioned virtue of thinking in terms of continuous credences. Just as the expression of a “merely” high credence in the existence of the Christian God is more conducive to open-minded conversation, so is having a “merely” high credence in any given political ideology, principle, or policy likely more conducive to honest and constructive conversations and greater mutual updating.
If nothing else, the fact that the world is so complex implies that we will at least have considerable uncertainty about what the consequences of our actions will be. In many cases, we simply cannot know with great certainty which policy or candidate is going to be best (relative to any set of plausible values) all things considered. This suggests that our strong convictions about how a given political candidate or policy is all bad, and about how immeasurably greater the alternatives would be, are likely often overstated. More generally, it implies that our estimates of which actions that are best to take, in the realm of politics in particular as well as with respect to improving the world in general, should probably be more measured and humble than they tend to be.
For example: what is your credence that Donald Trump was a better choice (with respect to your core values) than Hillary Clinton for the US presidency in 2016? I suspect most people’s credence on this question is either much too low or much too high relative to what can be justified. For even if one thinks his influence is clearly positive or clearly negative in the short term, this still leaves open the question of what the long-term effects will be. If the short-term effects are negative, for instance, it does not seem entirely implausible that there will be a counter-reaction in the future whose effects will end up being better in the long term, or vice versa. This consideration alone should dampen one’s credence somewhat — away from the extremes and closer toward the middle. A similar argument could be made about grave atrocities and instances of extreme suffering occurring today and in the near future: although it seems unlikely, we cannot exclude that these may in fact lead to a future with fewer atrocities and less suffering in the long term. (Note, however, that none of this implies that one should not fight hard for what one believes to be the best thing; even if one has only, say, a 60 percent credence in some action being better than another, it can still make perfect sense to push very hard for this seemingly better option.)
Or, to take another concrete example: would granting everyone a universal basic income be better (relative to your values) than not doing so? Again, being absolutely certain in either a positive or a negative answer to this question is hardly defensible. More reasonable, it seems, would it be to maintain a credence that lies somewhere in-between. (And in relation to what one’s underlying values are, I would argue that this is one of the very first things we need to reflect upon if we are to make a reasonable effort toward making the world a better place.)
A similar point can be made about existing laws and institutions. When we are young and radical, we have a tendency to find existing laws and social structures to be obviously stupid compared to the brilliant alternatives we ourselves envision. Yet, in reality, our knowledge of the roles played by these existing systems, as well as the consequences of our proposed alternatives, will tend to be quite limited in most cases. And it seems wise to admit this much, and to adjust our credences and plans of action accordingly.
A related pitfall worth avoiding is that of believing a single political candidate or policy to have purely good or purely bad effects; such an outcome seems extraordinarily unlikely. In the words of economist Thomas Sowell, there are no perfect solutions in the real world, only trade-offs. Similarly, it is also worth steering clear of the tendency to look to a single intellectual for the answers to all important questions. For the truth is that we all have blindspots and false beliefs, and virtually everyone is going to be ignorant of things that others would consider common knowledge. Indeed, no single person can read and reflect widely and deeply enough to be an expert on everything of importance. Expertise requires specialization, which means that we must look to different experts if we are to find expert views on a wide range of topics. In other words, the quest for a more complete and nuanced outlook requires us to engage with many different thinkers from very different disciplines.
The preceding notes about ways in which we could be more nuanced on various concrete topics are, of course, merely scratching the surface. Yet they hopefully do serve to establish the core point that nuance is essential if we are to gain a balanced understanding of virtually any complicated issue.
Can We Have Too Much Nuance?
In a piece that argues for the virtues of being nuanced, it seems worth asking whether I am being too one-sided. Might I not be overstating the case in its favor, and should I not be a bit more nuanced about the utility of nuance itself? Indeed, might we not be be able to have too much nuance in some cases?
I would be the first to admit that we probably can have too much nuance in many cases. I will grant that in situations that call for quick action, and where there is not much time to build a nuanced perspective, it may well often be better to act on one’s limited understanding rather than a more nuanced, yet harder-won picture. There are many situations like this, no doubt. Yet at the level of our public conversations, this is not often the case. We usually do have time to build a more nuanced picture, and we are rarely required to act promptly. Indeed, we are rarely required to act at all. And, unthinkable as it may seem, it could just be that expressions of agnosticism, and perhaps no public expressions at all on a given hot topic, would tend to serve everyone better than expressions of poorly considered views.
One could perhaps attempt to make a case against nuance with reference to examples where near-equal weight is granted to all considerations and perspectives — reasonable and less reasonable ones alike. This, one may argue, is a bad thing, and surely demonstrates that there is such a thing as too much nuance. Yet while I would agree that weighing arguments so blindly and undiscerningly is unreasonable, I would not consider this an example of too much nuance as such. For being nuanced does not mean giving equal weight to all arguments a posteriori, after all the relevant arguments have been presented. Instead, what it requires is that we at least consider these relevant arguments, and that we strive to be minimally prejudiced toward them a priori. In other words, the quest for appropriately nuanced perspectives demands us to grant equality of opportunity to all arguments, not equality of outcome.
Another objection one may be tempted to raise against being nuanced and charitable is that it implies that we should be submissive and over-accommodating. This does not follow, however. For to say that we should be charitable is not to say that we cannot be firm in our convictions when such firmness is justified, much less that we should ever tolerate disrespect or unfair treatment; we should not. We have no obligation to tolerate bullies and intimidators, and if someone repeatedly fails to act in a respectful, good-faith manner, we have every right, and arguably even good reason, to remove ourselves from them. After all, the maxim “assume the other person is acting in good faith” does not entail that we should not update this assumption as soon as we encounter evidence that contradicts it. And to assert one’s boundaries and self-respect in light of such updating is perfectly consistent with a commitment to being charitable.
A more plausible critique against being nuanced is that it might in some cases be strategically unwise, and that one should instead advocate for one’s views in an unnuanced, polemic manner in order to better achieve one’s objectives, at least in some cases. I think this is a decent point. Yet I think there are also good reasons to think that this will rarely be the optimal strategy when engaging in public conversations. First of all, we should acknowledge that, even if we were to grant this style of communication superior in a given situation, it still seems advantageous to possess a nuanced understanding of the counter-arguments. For, if nothing else, such an understanding would seem to make one better able to rebut these arguments, regardless of whether one then does so in a nuanced way or not.
And beyond this reason to acquire a nuanced understanding, there are also very good reasons to express such an understanding, as well as to treat the counter-arguments in as fair and measured a way as one can. One reason is the possibility that we might ourselves be wrong, which means that, if we want an honest conversation through which we can make our beliefs converge toward what is most reasonable, then we ourselves also have an interest in seeing the best and most unbiased arguments for and against different views. And hence we ourselves have an interest in moderating our own bravado and confirmation bias which actively keep us from evaluating our pre-existing beliefs as impartially as we should, as well as an interest in trying to express our own views in a measured and nuanced fashion.
Beyond that, there are also reasons to believe that people will be more receptive to one’s arguments if one communicates them in a way that demonstrates a sophisticated understanding of relevant counter-perspectives, and which lays out opposing views as strongly as possible. This will likely lead people to conclude that one’s perspective is at least built in the context of a sophisticated understanding, and it might thus plausibly be read as an honest signal that this perspective may be worth listening to.
Finally, one may object that some subjects just do not call for any nuance whatsoever. For example, should we be nuanced about the Holocaust? This is a reasonable point. Yet even here, I would argue that nuance is still important, in various ways. For one, if we do not have a sufficiently nuanced understanding of the Holocaust, we risk failing to learn from it. For example, to simply believe that the Germans were evil would appear the dangerous thing, as opposed to realizing that what happened was the result of primitive tendencies that we all share, as well as the result of a set of ideas which had a strong appeal to the German people for various reasons — reasons that we should seek to understand.
This is all descriptive, however, and so none of it implies taking a particularly nuanced stance on the ethical status of the Holocaust. Yet even in this respect, a fearless search for nuance and perspective can still be of great importance. In terms of the moral status of historical events, for instance, we should have enough perspective to realize that the Holocaust, although it was the greatest mass killing of humans in history, was by no means the only one; and hence that its ethical status is arguably not qualitatively unique compared to other similar events of the past. Beyond that, we should also admit that the Holocaust is not, sadly, the greatest atrocity imaginable, neither in terms of the number of victims it had, nor in terms of the horrors imposed on its victims. Greater atrocities than the Holocaust are imaginable. And we ought to both seriously contemplate whether such atrocities might indeed be actual, as well as to realize that there is a risk that atrocities that are much greater still may emerge in the future.
Almost everywhere one finds people discussing contentious issues, nuance and self-scrutiny seem to be in short supply. And yet the most essential point of this essay is not really one about looking outward and pointing fingers at others. Rather, the point is, first and foremost, that we all need to look into the mirror and ask ourselves some uncomfortable questions. Self-scrutiny can, after all, only be performed by ourselves.
“How might I be obstructing my own quest for truth?”
“How might my own impulse to signal group loyalty bias my views?”
“What beliefs of mine might mostly serve social rather than epistemic functions?”
Indeed, we all need to take a hard look in the mirror and let ourselves know that we are sure to be biased and wrong in many ways. And more than just realizing that we are wrong and biased, we also need to realize that we are limited creatures. Creatures who view the world from a limited vantage point from which we cannot fully integrate and comprehend all perspectives and modes of consciousness — least of all those we have never been close to experiencing.
We need to remind ourselves, continually and insistently, that we should be charitable and measured, and that we should seek out the grains of truth that may exist in different views so as to gain a more nuanced understanding that better reflects the true complexity of the world. Not least ought we remind ourselves that our brains evolved to express overconfident and unnuanced views for social reasons — especially in ways that favor our in-group and oppose our out-group. And we need to do a great deal of work to control for this. We should seek to scrutinize our in-group narrative, and be especially charitable to the out-group narrative.
None of us will ever be perfect in these regards, of course. Yet we can at least all strive to do better.