Sunday, July 19, 2009

The need for nuance

Originally published in the Post Register.

The need for a reasoned, sensible public debate has never been greater?

Public debate has almost always been as it is today -- unsophisticated, lacking nuance and perspective, shrill, destructive.

Keith Olbermann refers to "the dark, hateful place of Dick Cheney's own soul." Sean Hannity said "You have to be a moral fool" if you oppose water-boarding.

On and on it goes.

There have been exceptions over the years. The Federalist Papers, written to support ratification of the Constitution, were reasoned and focused on the issues at a time when the stakes couldn't have been higher. (One of the Federalist's chief authors, Alexander Hamilton, would later engage in despicable distortions during the presidential election of 1800.)

We look all the way back to the ancient Greeks for a preferred model.

But these are the exceptions, not the rule. The main difference between the ugliness of today's public discourse and that of 200 years ago is the shear immediacy and ubiquity of the media. There's no waiting for pamphlets to be written, printed and distributed. We debate in real time and suffer from the lack of opportunity for contemplation.

Add to that the need for commentators to draw viewers, readers and/or visitors to make money and you get a perfect recipe for a breathtakingly ill-mannered public discourse that generally serves to ratchet up anger and hatred, not to mention ignorance and misunderstanding. No political wing is exempt from this charge.

There is no time for or interest in nuance -- the simple recognition that most issues are complex and require the ability to differentiate their subtleties and shadings. In my experience, there are few issues, once they are fully explored, that can be simply explained. This does not mean that we shouldn't have an opinion or not be firm in its defense.

But we should embrace a process of developing opinions that requires one to be fully informed, to consider all responsible arguments and arrive at a reasoned and rational conclusion -- and when new evidence is brought forward, to be open to revisiting the process.

What would happen if, even just once, one of our political commentators -- the Post Register's editorial page, for example -- wrote something like this: "In taking a fresh look at this issue, we have concluded that we erred in our opinion and, after further study, wish to change our position." Or, if Hannity or Olbermann talked about solutions instead of people they don't like?

They do what they do because we the viewer, listener and reader encourage bombast. When the discussion is thoughtful and in-depth, we pay no attention. The commentators who entertain by denigrating win the ratings. We can change that if we have the will.

Do we?

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