Fighting for Nuance

There is an individual in one of my classes who likes to take rigid, controversial stances and present them as if they are settled fact. “Charter schools,” he once said as an aside, “are private schools.” He then continued to make a separate point unrelated to charter schools (it was about student performance on standardized testing in private schools, I think), assuming no one would vocally disagree. Obviously there were many people in the room who disagreed with him — and not just a little bit. A fellow student in the class who had committed much of her adult life to working in a charter school serving low income kids in a mostly black neighborhood took exception to the statement and made the counterpoint.

To start with, charter schools are publicly funded and open to all students, she said.

The organizations that operate charter schools, the argumentative individual protested, is a non-governmental institution.

It went back and forth for a bit, and I chimed in too, and ultimately instead of a debate about what’s true or what’s best or how to address problems in the system, it became a series of devil’s advocate-style arguments dominated by extreme, polarized positions.

I spoke afterward with the student who originally took exception to the blanket statement, the one who worked in a charter school and saw her students achieve at higher rates than their peers, about the exchange. “I feel like like I have to argue for people who aren’t in the room,” she said. Most of the people who were in the room hadn’t developed an opinion on this particular issue; if she didn’t represent the alternative point of view, even if she didn't fully agree with it, then no one would — and that’s not fair to the people trying to develop their own opinions or the people not in the room. 

Since then, both of us have adopted the role of fighting for nuance in complex debates. We see it as a sort of academic responsibility to make sure people recognize the complexity in debates about big, complicated issues.

It reminded me of Jed Bartlet condemning ten word answers in his fictional debate with Governor Ritchie. After the debate, in the spin room, press secretary CJ Cregg approaches Albie Duncan, a former Republican official who is working as a surrogate for Bartlet. Earlier in the episode he had been trying to explain the complexity of international trade with China to CJ; she was more focused on simplifying the issue down to talking points that were favorable to the president's point of view.

Hearing Bartlet’s ten word answer critique changed her perspective. "Every once in awhile, every once in awhile, there's a day with an absolute right and absolute wrong, but those days almost always include body counts. Other than that, there aren't many un-nuanced moments in leading a country that's way too big for ten words," Bartlet said during the debate.

Now, in the spin room, CJ raises her hand and Duncan calls on her, a bit confused. “Mr. Secretary, I have a question. Isn’t there a decent chance that you and the President are wrong? I mean, doesn’t he also know that Chinese political prisoners are gonna be sewing soccer balls together with their teeth whether we sell them cheeseburgers or not? I mention this because the President just reminded us that complexity isn’t a vice.”

Complexity isn't a vice. America is too big of a place for ten word answers -- and blanket statements and forced dichotomies and oversimplification. More often than not, though, that's what our politics is boiled down too. Binary choices that force us to pick side, pick a team, pick a Party. You're either with us or against us, it seems. The dumbing down of complicated public policy problems reinforces the toxic tribalism that dominates American political culture today. We will be better off when our leaders consistently acknowledge that this stuff is hard -- there are no easy answers.