Compassionate Free Speech

Two loose currents appear to be in opposition in today’s culture. One is animated by a strong insistence on empathy and compassion as core values, the other by a strong insistence on free speech as a core value. These two currents are often portrayed as though they must necessarily be in conflict. I think this is a mistake.

To be sure, the two values described above can be in tension, and none of them strictly imply the other. But it is possible to reconcile them in a refined and elegant synthesis. That, I submit, is what we should be aiming for. A synthesis of two vital and mutually reinforcing values.

Definitions and outline

It is crucial to distinguish 1) social and ethical norms, and 2) state-enforced laws. The argument I make here pertains to the first level. That is, I am arguing that we should aim to observe and promote ethical norms of compassion and open conversation, respectively.

What do I mean by these terms? Compassion is commonly defined as “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it”. I here use the term in a broader sense that also covers related virtues such as understanding, charitable interpretation, and kindness.

By norms of open conversation, or free expression, I mean norms that enable people to express their honest views openly, even when these views are controversial and uncomfortable. These norms do not entail that speech should be wholly unrestricted; after all, virtually everyone agrees that defamation and incitements to commit severe crimes should be illegal, as they commonly are.

My view is that we should roughly think of these two broad values as prima facie duties: we should generally strive to observe norms of compassion and open conversation, except in (rare) cases where other duties or virtues override these norms.

Below is a short defense of these two respective values, highlighting their importance in their own right. This is followed by a case that these values are not only compatible, but indeed strongly complementary. Finally, I explore what I see as some of the causes of our current state of polarization, and suggest five heuristics that might be useful going forward.

Brief defenses

Free speech

There are many strong arguments in favor of free speech. A famous collection of such arguments is On Liberty (1859) by John Stuart Mill, whose case for free speech is primarily based on the harm principle: the only reason power can legitimately be exercised over any individual against their will is to prevent harm to others.

This principle is intuitively compelling, although it leaves it unspecified what exactly counts as a harm to others. That is perhaps the main crux in discussions about free speech, and this alone could provide an argument in favor of free and open expression. For how can we clarify what should count as sufficient harm to others to justify the exercise of power if not through open discussion?

A necessary corrective to biased, fallible minds

Another important argument Mill makes in favor of free speech is based not merely on the rights of the speaker, but in equal part on the rights of the would-be listeners, who are also robbed by the suppression of free expression:

[T]he peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.

In essence, Mill argues that, contrary to the annoyance we may instinctively feel, we should in fact be grateful for having our cherished views challenged, not least because it can help clarify and update our views.

Today, Mill’s argument can be further bolstered by a host of well-documented psychological biases. We now know that we are all vulnerable to confirmation bias, the bandwagon effect, groupthink, etc. These biases make it all too easy for us to deceive ourselves into thinking that we already possess the whole truth, although we most certainly do not. Consequently, if we want to hold reasonable beliefs, we should welcome and appreciate those who challenge the pitfalls of our groupish minds — pitfalls that we may otherwise be content to embrace.

After all, how can we know that our attempts to protect ourselves from hearing views that we dislike are not essentially unconscious attempts to protect our own confirmation bias? Free and open conversation is our best debiasing tool.

Strategic reasons

An altogether different argument in favor of honoring principles of free speech is that a failure to do so is strategically unwise. Indeed, as free-speech defender Noam Chomsky argues, there are several reasons to consider the suppression of free speech a tactical error if we are trying to create a better society.

First, reinforcing a norm of suppressing speech can have the unintended consequence of leading all sides, and perhaps eventually governments, to consider it increasingly legitimate to suppress certain forms of speech. “If they can suppress speech, why shouldn’t we?” The effects of such a regression would be worst for those who lack power.

Second, seeking to suppress speech is likely to backfire and to strengthen the other side, by making that side look more appealing than it in fact is — the suppressed becomes alluring — and by making the side that seeks to suppress speech look unreasonable, as though they are unable to muster a defense of their views.

When people try to make us do something, we tend to react negatively and to distance ourselves, even if we agreed with them from the outset (cf. psychological reactance). This is another strong reason against suppressing free expression, and against giving people the impression that they are not allowed to discuss or think certain things. It is human nature to react by asserting one’s freedom in defiance, even if it means voting for a president that one would otherwise have voted against. (See also Cialdini, 1984/2021, ch. 7.)

(Weak norms of free expression are thus a democratic problem in more than one way: it can keep citizens from voting in accordance with their ideal preferences both by making them ill-informed and by provoking votes of defiance.)

Steven Pinker has made a related point: if we place certain issues beyond the bounds of acceptable discourse, many people are likely to seek out discussion of these issues from unsavory sources, which can in turn put people on a path toward extreme and uncompassionate views. This parallels one of the main arguments made against the prevailing drug laws of today: such restrictions merely push the whole business into an underground market where people get dangerously polluted goods.

As Ayishat Akanbi eloquently put it (paraphrased slightly): if we suppress ideas, they will “operate with insidious undertones”, and we in effect “push people into the arms of extremism.”

Compassion

I will let my defense of compassion be even briefer still, as I have already made an elaborate defense of it in my book Suffering-Focused Ethics: Defense and Implications.

The short case is this: Suffering, especially the most intense suffering, truly matters. It is truly bad and truly worth preventing. Consequently, a desire to alleviate intense suffering is simply the most sensible response. Only a failure to connect with the reality of suffering can leave us apathetic. That is the simplest and foremost reason why compassion is of paramount importance.

Another reason to be compassionate, including in the broader sense of being kind and understanding, is that such an attitude has great instrumental benefits at the level of our communication and relations: it fosters trust and cooperation, which in turn enables win-win interactions.

However, to say that we should be compassionate is not to say that we should be game-theoretically naive in the sense of kindly allowing others to walk all over us. Compassion is wholly compatible with, and indeed mandates, tit for tat and assertiveness in the face of transgressions.

Lastly, it is worth emphasizing that compassion and empathy are not partisan values. Empathy is a human universal, and compassion has been considered a virtue in all major world traditions, as well as in most political movements, including political conservatism. Indeed, people of all political orientations score high on the harm/care dimension in Jonathan Haidt’s moral foundations framework. It really is a value on which people show uniquely wide agreement, at least on reflection. When they are not on Twitter.

Compassion and free speech: Complementary values

As noted above, the two values I defend here do not strictly imply each other, at least in some purely theoretical sense. But they are strongly complementary in many regards.

How free speech aids compassion

Compassion and the compassionate project can be aided by free speech in various ways. For example, to alleviate and prevent suffering effectively with our limited resources, we need to be able to discuss controversial ideas. We need to be able to discuss and measure different values and priorities against each other, including values that many people consider sacred and hence offensive to discuss.

As a case in point, in my book Suffering-Focused Ethics, I defend the moral primacy of reducing extreme suffering, even above other values that many people may consider sacred, and I further discuss the difficult question of which causes we should prioritize so as to best reduce extreme suffering. My arguments will no doubt be deeply offensive and infuriating to many, and I believe a substantial number of people would like to see my ideas suppressed if they could. This is not, of course, unique to my views: all treatises and positions on ethics are bound to be deemed too offensive and too dangerous by some.

This highlights the importance of free speech for ethics in general, and for the project of reducing suffering in particular. To conduct this most difficult conversation about what matters and what our priorities should be, we need a culture that allows, indeed promotes, this conversation — not a culture that stifles it. People who want to reduce suffering should thus have a strong interest in preserving and advancing free speech norms.

Another way in which free speech aids compassion is that, put simply, encouraging the free expression of, and listening to, each others’ underlying grievances can help us build mutual understanding, and in turn enable us to address our problems in cooperative ways. As Noam Chomsky notes in the context of hateful ideologies:

If you have a festering sore, the cure is not to irritate it, but to find out what its roots are and where it comes from, and to deal with those. Racist and other such speech is a festering sore. By silencing it, you simply amplify its appeal, and even lend it a veneer of respectability, as in fact we’ve seen very clearly in the last couple of years. And what has to be done, plainly, is to confront it, and to ask where it comes from, and to try to deal with the roots of such ideas. That’s the way to extirpate the ugliness and evil that lies behind such phenomena.

Human rights activist Deeyah Khan similarly argues that a root source of white supremacy is often a sense of fear and lack of opportunity, not inherent evil or apathy. She contends that the best solution to extremist ideologues is generally to engage in conversation and to seek to understand, not to shut down the conversation. (I recommend watching Khan’s documentary White Right: Meeting the Enemy.)

So while compassion per se does not directly imply free speech at some purely theoretical level, I would argue that a sophisticated and fully extrapolated version of compassion and the compassionate project does necessitate strong norms of free and open expression at the practical level.

How compassion aids free speech

One of the ways in which compassion can aid open conversation is exemplified in Deeyah Khan’s documentary mentioned above: she sits down and listens to white nationalists, seeking to understand them with compassion, which allows them to identify and express their own underlying issues, such as feelings of fear, vulnerability, and unworthiness. Such things can be difficult to share in apathetic and antagonistic environments, be they the macho ingroup or the angry outgroup. “Fuck you, racist” does not quite invite a response of “I’m afraid and hurting” as much as does, “How are you feeling, and what really motivates you?” On the contrary, it probably just serves to reinforce the facade of the pain.

We may not usually think of conditions that further the sharing of our underlying worries and vulnerabilities as a matter of free speech, perhaps because we all help perpetuate norms that suppress honesty about these things. But if free speech norms are essentially about enabling us to dare express our honest perspectives, then our de facto suppression of our inmost worries and vulnerabilities is indeed a free speech issue — and a rather consequential one at that (as I think Khan’s White Right makes clear). Compassion may well be the best remedy we have to our truth-subduing culture of suppressing our core worries and vulnerabilities.

A related way in which compassion, specifically the virtue of charitable interpretation, is important for free speech is, quite simply, that we suffocate free speech in its absence. If people hold back from expressing a nuanced view because they know that they will be strawmanned and vilely attacked based on bad-faith misinterpretations, then the state of free expression will be poor indeed.

In contrast, free expression will flourish when we do the opposite: when everyone engages with the strongest version of their opponents’ view — i.e. steelmans it — so that people feel positively motivated to present nuanced views and arguments in the expectation of being critiqued in good faith.

That, needless to say, is far from the state we are currently in.

Why we fail so spectacularly today

We are currently witnessing a primitive tribal dynamic exacerbated by the fact that we inhabit a treacherous environment to which we are not yet adapted, neither biologically nor culturally. I am speaking, of course, of the environment of screen-to-screen interaction.

Yet we should be clear that values and politics were never easy spheres to navigate in the first place. They have always been minefields. Politics is a notorious mind-killer for deep evolutionary reasons, and our political behavior is often more about signaling our group affiliations than it is about creating good policies. This is true not just of the “other side”; it is true of all of us, though we remain largely unaware of and self-deceived about it.

Thus, our predicament is that most of us care deeply about loyalty signaling, and such signaling has now become dangerously inflated. Moreover, we often use beliefs, ostensibly all about tracking reality, as ornaments that signal our group loyalty.

A hostage crisis instilling false assumptions

The two loose social currents I mentioned in the introduction can, I submit, be understood in this light. Specifically, values centered on empathy and compassion have become an ornament of sorts that signals loyalty to one side, while values centered on free speech have become a loyalty signal to another side. To be clear, I am not saying that these values are merely ornaments; they clearly are not. A value can be an ornament displayed with pride and be sincerely held at the same time. Yet our natural inclination to signal group loyalty can lead us to only express our support for one of these values, and to underemphasize the “opposing” value, even if we in fact do favor it.

In this way, the values of compassion and free speech have to some extent become hostages in a primitive tribal game, which in turn gives the false impression that there must be some deep conflict between these values, and that people must choose one or the other, as opposed to these values being, as I have argued, strongly complementary (with occasional and comparatively minor tensions).

The upshot is that supporters of free speech may feel nudged to display insensitivity in order to signal their loyalty and consistency, while supporters of anti-discrimination may feel nudged to oppose free speech.

Uncharitable claims beyond belief

A sad feature of this dynamic, and something that helps fuel it further, is how incredibly uncharitable the outer flanks of these two tribal currents are toward the other side.

“The PC-policing SJWs don’t care about the hard facts and just want to suppress them.”

“The free speech bros don’t care about minorities and just want to oppress them.”

To say that people are failing to steelman here would be quite the understatement. Indeed, this barely even qualifies as a strawman. It is more like the scream-man version of the other side: the worst, most scary version of the other side’s position that one could come up with. And this scream-man is repeatedly rehearsed in the partitioned echo halls of Twitter to the extent that people start believing these preposterously uncharitable narratives about the Scary Other.

It is a tragedy of the commons phenomenon: people are gleefully rewarded in their ingroup each time they promulgate the scream-man representation of the other side, and so it feels right to do so for individuals in these respective groups. But in the bigger picture, it just leaves everyone much worse off.

Distributions and the importance of self-criticism

To be sure, there are serious problems with significant numbers of people who conform too closely to the cartoon descriptions above. But a crucial point is that we must think in terms of statistical distributions. Specifically, the most loud-mouthed and scary two percent of the “other side” — a minority that tends to get a disproportionate amount of attention — should not be taken to represent everyone on that “side”, let alone its most reasonable representatives.

That being said, it is also true that many people on both sides tend to be bad at criticizing the harmful tendencies of their own “team”. There does indeed appear to be a tendency among certain defenders of free speech to fail to criticize and condemn those who discriminate against minorities. Likewise, there really does seem to be a tendency among certain progressives to fail to criticize and condemn those who suppress discussions of contentious issues.

This failure to speak out against the worst elements of one’s “own side”, side A, with sufficient force can create the impression, on side B, that most people on side A actually agree with these worst elements. That is how damning it is that we fail to criticize the transparent excesses of our ingroup in clear terms.

At cross-purposes

A problem with our failure to be charitable and to think in terms of distributions is that people end up talking past each other: both sides tend to criticize a strawman version of the other side based on the rabid tail-end elements of that side, which most people on the other side really do disagree with (although they may, as mentioned above, fail to express this disagreement with sufficient clarity).

This frequently results in debates with two sides that are in large part talking at cross-purposes: one side mostly defends free speech, while the other side mostly defends anti-discrimination, as though these were necessarily in great conflict. The failure to explore the compatibility and mutual complementarity of these values is striking.

The perils of screen-to-screen interaction

As noted above, our current mode of interaction only aggravates our political imbecility. When engaged in face-to-face interaction, we naturally relate to and empathize with the person before us, and we have a strong interest in keeping our interaction cordial so as to prevent it from escalating into conflict.

In screen-to-screen interaction, by contrast, our circuits for interpersonal interaction are all but inert, as we find ourselves shielded off from salient feedback and danger. Social media is road rage writ large. It is a road rage that renders it extra difficult to be charitable, and which renders it far more tempting to paint the outgroup in a bad light than it could ever be in a face-to-face environment, where preposterous strawmen would be called out and challenged in real time.

As a study on political polarization on Twitter put it:

Many messages contain sentiments more extreme than you would expect to encounter in face-to-face interactions, and the content is frequently disparaging of the identities and views associated with users across the partisan divide.

How can we reduce these unfortunate tendencies? The age of social media calls for new norms.

Better norms for screen communication

Human culture has adapted to technological changes before, and it seems that we have no choice but to do the same today, in the face of our current state of cultural maladaptation. The following are five heuristics, or norms, that I think are likely to be useful in this regard.

1. The face-to-face heuristic

In light of the above, it seems sensible to adopt the precept of communicating online in roughly the same way we would communicate face-to-face. Our skills in face-to-face interaction have deep biological and cultural bases, and hence this heuristic is a cheap way to tap into a well-honed toolbox for functional human communication.

One effect of employing this heuristic will likely be a reduction of sarcastic and taunting comments. Such comments are rarely useful for taking our conversations to the next level, as we tend to realize face-to-face.

2. The nuance heuristic

As I argue in my defense of nuance, much of the tension that we see today could likely be lessened greatly if we adopted more nuanced perspectives, such as by acknowledging grains of truth in different viewpoints, and by representing beliefs in terms of graded credences rather than posturing with overconfident all-or-nothing certainties.

3. The steelman heuristic

I have already mentioned this, but it can hardly be stressed enough: we must strive to be charitable and to steelman the views of our opponents, especially since our road-rage-behind-the-screen predicament makes it easier than ever to do the opposite.

Whenever we summarize and criticize the views of the other side, we should stop and ask ourselves: Is this really the most honest statement of their views that I can muster, let alone the strongest one? If I think their view is painfully stupid, do I really fully understand it? Do I really know what it entails and the best arguments that support it?

4. Compassion for the outgroup

As noted above, compassion really is a consensus value, if ever there were one. The disagreement mostly arises when it comes to which individuals we should extend our compassion to. Both of the notional “sides”, or social currents, described here suffer from selective compassion: they generally fail to show sufficient compassion and respect for the other side, which renders productive conversation difficult. And this point needs to be stressed with unique fervor today, as screens are an all too powerful and insidious catalyst for outgroup apathy.

5. Criticizing the ingroup

Condemning the excesses of one’s (vaguely associated) ingroup is also uniquely important today. Why? Because we now see large numbers of people behaving badly on social media, and our intuitions are statistically illiterate: we do not intuitively understand how a faction endorsing a certain view or behavior can simultaneously be large in number and constitute but a small minority of a given group. The world is big, and we mostly do not understand that (at an intuitive level).

Only by publicly countering the excesses of our “ingroup” can we make it clear to the other side — and perhaps also to our own side — that the extremists truly are a disapproved minority. Such ingroup criticism seems paramount if we are to mitigate the ongoing trend of polarization.

Conclusion

We have created a polarized online society in which people can feel pushed toward a needlessly narrow set of values — compassion or free speech, choose one! We are pushed in this way, not by totalitarian laws, but by modes of communication to which we are not yet adapted, and which we are navigating with patently defunct norms.

Norms are often more important than laws. After all, most of us can think of judgments from our peers that would be worse than a minor prison sentence. Hence, totalitarian laws are not required for free expression to be stifled into a de facto draconian state. The notion that harshly punitive norms do not restrict speech in costly ways is naive.

Sure, we should be free to judge others based on the things they say. But just how harshly should we judge people for discussing controversial views? And do we understand the risks and the strategic costs associated with such judgments, let alone the risks of trying to suppress certain viewpoints? If we place ourselves in opposition to free speech, and then give people the ultimatum of siding either with “us” or with “them”, a lot of people are going to choose the other side, even if that side has features they find genuinely worrying.

I have tried to argue that the choice between free speech or compassion is a false one. It really is possible to chart a balanced middle path of a free and compassionate society.

In Defense of Nuance

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. 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 today — 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 that should give us all pause about what we think we know — both about the world in general and about 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 acknowledging that we have fallible minds, it is also helpful to understand the deeper 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 that of our present condition. We humans are deeply social creatures, which 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 people 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.

Our social and tribal nature 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 in turn leads to poor decisions by these individuals.

Indeed, our beliefs about the world are far more socially influenced than we tend to realize, not just in that we get our views from others around us, but also in that we often believe things in order to signal to others that we possess certain desirable traits, or to signal 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 serve this practical function, they also often serve a very different, very social function, namely 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 tastes and group affiliations. One of Hanson and Simler’s main points is that we are not consciously aware that our beliefs have these distinct functions, 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

The preceding survey of the 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 want to see our pre-existing beliefs confirmed, and who tend to display excessive confidence in these beliefs. We do this in a social context, and many of the beliefs we hold serve social rather than epistemic functions, 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? A general implication, I submit, is 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 gives us reason to doubt our own beliefs and motives. More than that, it gives us reason to actively seek out the counter-perspectives and nuance that our confirmation bias so persistently struggles to keep us from accessing.

Reducing Our Biases

If we are to form accurate and nuanced perspectives, it seems helpful to cultivate an awareness of our biases, and to make an active effort to curb them.

Countering Confirmation Bias

To counteract our confirmation bias, it is critical to seek out viewpoints and arguments that challenge our pre-existing beliefs. 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 emphases and interpretations, we will, in the aggregate, tend to get a more balanced picture of the issues at hand.

Important in this respect is that we 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 steelman rather than the strawman version of it.

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 that 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 suggests that we should pay more attention to information and arguments that are inconvenient or otherwise contrary to what we wish were true. Do we believe that 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 if we suspect that the argument has merit, we will likely be inclined to ignore it altogether rather than giving it a fair hearing.

Countering Overconfidence Bias

When it comes to reducing our overconfidence bias, intellectual humility is a key virtue. 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 motives that might be driving our overconfidence much of the time, such as the motive of convincing others or to signal our traits and loyalties. These social functions of confidence give us reason to update away from bravado and toward being more measured.

Countering In-Group Conformity

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, while being extra charitable toward the beliefs held by the notional out-group. Likewise, it is worth being aware that our minds often paint the out-group in an unfairly unfavorable light, viewing them as much less sincere and well-intentioned than they actually are.

Thinking in Degrees of Certainty

Many of us 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, or universal health care. And it seems that what we express outwardly is generally much more absolutist, i.e. more purely 0 or 1, than what happens inwardly — 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 that they continue to insist on until, quite suddenly, 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.

An extreme example of similar behavior found in recent events is that of Omarosa Manigault Newman, who was the Director of African-American Outreach for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in 2016. She went from describing Trump in adulating terms, 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 those flattering statements, but which she ignored and suppressed. And the reason why is quite obvious: she had a political motive. 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.

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.

Fortunately, there is 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. Thinking in these terms can help make our expressed beliefs more refined and more faithful to the potentially contradicting information found in our brains. Additionally, such graded thinking may help subvert the tribal aspect of our either-or thinking, by moving us away from a framework of binary polarity and instead 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.

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. One is “a mental outlook/point of view”, while the other is “the art of representing three-dimensional objects on a two-dimensional surface”. These definitions 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 representation of a more complex, multi-dimensional reality — a representation that is bound to leave out a lot of information about the world at large. The best we can do, then, is to try to paint the canvas of our mind so as to make it as rich and informative as possible about the complex and many-faceted world we inhabit.

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 that seemingly conflicting reports of different perspectives on the same underlying reality can all be true, as hinted by the following illustration:

oscardamen

The same object can have 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 different reflections shown 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 truthfully reporting the appearance of the world as it is revealed to them. 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:

1024px-Café_wall.svg

This 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 that 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 no doubt an evolutionarily adaptive illusion, 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 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 facts and phenomena.

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 partly determines how we will experience what we observe, as demonstrated by the following illustration, where one can change one’s framing so as to either see a duck or a rabbit:

Image result for duck rabbit

Sometimes, as in the example 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 people with different life experiences will naturally interpret the same scenario. After all, we each experience the world in different ways, due to our unique biological dispositions and life experiences. And while differing outlooks are not necessarily incompatible, it can still be challenging to achieve mutual understanding between perspectives that are shaped by very different experiences and cultural backgrounds.

Acknowledging Many Perspectives Is Not a Denial of Truth

None of the above implies the relativistic claim that there are no truths. On the contrary, the above implies that it is itself a truth 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 appear to be in tension with each other. 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.

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 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 of experiences that 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 (i.e. the mistake of thinking that other minds work just like our own). More than that, admitting the limits of our understanding of others’ experiences is to acknowledge that at least some experiences just cannot be conveyed faithfully with words alone to those who have not had them. For example, most of us have never tried experiencing extreme forms of suffering, such as the experience of being burned alive, and hence we are largely ignorant about the nature of such experiences.

However, this realization that we do not know what certain experiences are like is itself an important insight that expands and advances our outlook. For it at least helps us realize that our own understanding, as well as the variety of experiences that we are familiar with, are quite limited. 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 represents a significantly greater level of understanding than does beholding such a state of horror without acknowledging of our lack of 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 are in conflict with each other, this does not imply that they are both entirely wrong, as there can still be significant grains of truth in both of them. Most of today’s popular narratives make a wide range of claims and arguments, and even if not all of these stand up to scrutiny, many of them arguably do. And part of being charitable is to seek out such grains of truth in positions that one does not agree with. This can also help give us a better sense of which realities and plausible claims might motivate people to support (what we consider) misguided views, and thus help advance mutual understanding.

As mentioned earlier, it is possible for different perspectives to support what seem to be very different positions on the same subject without necessarily being wrong; if they have different lenses, looking in different directions. Indeed, different perspectives on the same issue are often merely the result of different emphases that each focus on certain framings and sets of data rather than others. This is, I believe, a common pattern in human conversation: when different views on the same subject are all mostly true, yet where each of them merely constitute a small piece of the full picture — a pattern that further highlights the importance of seeking out different perspectives.

Having made a general case for nuance, let us now turn our gaze toward our time in particular, and why it is especially important to actively seek to be nuanced and charitable today.

Our Time Is Different: The Age of Screen Communication

Every period in history likely sees itself as uniquely special. Yet in terms of how humanity communicates, it appears that our time indeed is a highly unique one. Never before in history has human communication been so screen-based as it is today, which has significant implications for how and what we communicate.

Our brain seems to process communication through a screen in a very different way than it processes face-to-face communication. Writing a message in a Facebook group consisting of a thousand people does not, for most of us, feel remotely the same as delivering an equivalent speech in front of a live audience of a thousand people. And a similar discrepancy between the two forms of communication is found when we interact with just a single person. This is no wonder. After all, 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 say more nuanced — picture of the state of mind of the person that 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 person who communicates. 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 quite 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. Yet when we interact through a screen, this is no longer a necessity.

These differences between the two forms of communication give us reason to try to be especially nuanced when communicating through screens, not least because written communication through a screen makes it easier than ever before to paint the out-group antagonists whom we interact with in an unreasonably unfavorable light.

Indeed, our modern means of communication arguably 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 echo chambers to an extent not possible in the past. It is thus 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 also be easier than ever before 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 being discriminated against. And so by joining only one of these communities, one is likely to end up with a skewed and insufficiently nuanced picture of reality.

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 seem desperately needed. I should note that, given the brevity of the following remarks, what I write here on these issues is 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 try to be more nuanced about these topics.

Sex Discrimination

As hinted above, there are different groups that seem to tell very different stories about the state of sex discrimination in our world today. On the one hand, there are feminists who seem to argue that women generally face much more discrimination than men, and on the other, there are men’s rights activists who seem to argue that men are, at least in some parts of the world, generally the more discriminated sex. 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 they could not both be right. Yet if one instead talks about concrete forms of discrimination, it is entirely possible, and indeed clearly the case, that women face more discrimination than men in some respects, while men face more discrimination in other respects. And it is arguably also more fruitful to talk about such concrete cases than it is to talk about discrimination “in general”. (In response to those who think that it is obvious that women face more discrimination in every domain, 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 pursue 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 serious 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 avoid such discrimination today. For example, it is generally only men who have been subject to military conscription, i.e. forced duty to enlist in the military. Historically, as well as today, men have — in vastly disproportional numbers — been forced by law to join the military and to go to war, often without returning. (As a side note, it is worth noting that many feminists have criticized conscription.)

Thus, on 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 to pursue an education, as well as in their professional opportunities, 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 woman 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 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 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 in line with the finding that both men and women show more aggression toward men than they do toward women, as well as with recent research led 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.

It thus 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 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.

Intersectionality

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 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 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 significantly happier than average, 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 qualities of life. A similar thing can be said about genetic differences that predispose individuals to have a higher or lower IQ, and 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 do 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 — perhaps because they go against the tacit assumption that inequity must be attributable to oppressive agents or social systems in some way, as opposed to just being the default outcome that one should expect to find in an apathetic universe.

It seems that intersectional theory significantly underestimates the importance of biology in general, which is, of course, by no means a mistake that is unique to intersectional theory. And it is quite understandable how such an underestimation can occur. For the truth is that many 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 in 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 that biological factors are extremely significant. The mistake that many seem to make, including many proponents of intersectionality, is to think that one of these truths rules out the other.

More generally, a case can be made that intersectional theory greatly overemphasizes group membership and identities in its analyses of 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 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. This renders mainstream versions of intersectionality a glaring failure as a theory of discrimination against vulnerable individuals.

Political Correctness

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. One sense of the term 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, among other things, about not referring to people with ethnic or homophobic slurs. 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 main point of contention when it comes to political correctness, namely: what is too far? What does the optimal level of decency entail? The only sensible 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, 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 may 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.

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. 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. This is too high a price to pay to avoid the risk of offending people.

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 loyalties. Indeed, they are about as good examples as any of subjects where it is important to be charitable and to actively seek out nuance, as well as to acknowledge our 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. Having a “merely” high credence in any given political ideology, principle, or policy is likely more conducive to honest and constructive conversations than is a position of perfect conviction.

If nothing else, the fact that the world is so complex implies that there is 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 ultimately going to be best (relative to any set of plausible values). 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 broadly, it implies that our estimates regarding which actions are best to take, in the realm of politics in particular and with respect to improving the world in general, should probably be more measured and humble than they tend to be.

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. Similarly, it is worth steering clear of the tendency to look to a single intellectual for the answers to all important questions. The truth is that we all have blindspots and false beliefs. 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 spanning a wide range of disciplines.

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 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 often be better to act on one’s limited understanding rather than a more nuanced, yet harder-won picture. However, at the level of our public conversations, this is not typically the case. In that context, 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 perhaps it is generally better to abstain from expressing our views on a given hot topic if we have not made much of an effort to understand it.

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 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 regardless of their plausibility. Instead, what it requires is that we at least consider a wide range of arguments, and that we acknowledge whatever grains of truth that these arguments might have, but without overstating their degree of truth or plausibility.

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. To say that we have reason to be nuanced and 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 have no obligation to indulge bullies and intimidators, and if someone repeatedly fails to act in a respectful, good-faith manner, we have every right to remove ourselves from them. After all, the maxim “assume the other person is acting in good faith” in no way prevents us from updating 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 sometimes be strategically unwise, and that advocating one’s ideas in a decidedly unnuanced and polemic manner might be better for achieving certain aims. I think this may well be true. Yet I think there are also good reasons to think that this will rarely be the optimal strategy when engaging in public conversations, especially in the long run. First of all, we should acknowledge that, even if we were to grant that an unnuanced style of communication is superior in some situations, it still seems advantageous to possess a nuanced understanding of the arguments against one’s own views. 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.

In addition to this reason to acquire a nuanced understanding, there are also good reasons to express such an understanding, as well as to treat counter-arguments in a fair and measured way. 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 that actively keep us from evaluating our pre-existing beliefs as impartially as we ideally should.

Beyond that, there are 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-arguments, 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, which might 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 are worth understanding.

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 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.

Conclusion

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 about looking outward and pointing fingers at others. Rather, the point is that if we wish to form more accurate and nuanced perspectives, we need to look in the mirror and ask ourselves some uncomfortable questions.

“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 are mostly serving social rather than epistemic functions?”

We need to remind ourselves of the value of seeking out the grains of truth that may exist in different perspectives so that we can gain a more nuanced understanding that better reflects the true complexity of the world. We need to 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.

None of us will ever be perfect in these regards, of course. Yet we can at least all strive to do better.

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