Rationality and Nuance

Greta Christina

It’s a fun skeptical exercise to imagine which cognitive biases we’d like to get rid of. Even when we understand the psychological necessity for these biases—even when we know the reasons they evolved and how they help us function—they can still be exasperating. For a long time, my candidates for “most annoying cognitive bias” were rationalization and the just-world fallacy. But lately, I’m leaning in the direction of our human minds’ difficulty dealing with nuance.

We boil down complex situations into simple ones. We exaggerate subtle situations into extreme ones. We sort gradations into boxes, exemplified by the shades on the furthest ends of the spectra. We make up strawmen, responding to ideas we dislike by making up the most extreme and absurd versions of them. We come up with aphorisms and treat them as conversation stoppers.

It drives me up a tree. It’s one of the most frustrating forms of reality denial. And like many forms of reality denial, it leads us into making bad decisions.

Examples? Sure. Here’s one: “The two political parties in the United States are the same.” Nope. Demonstrably not true. Five minutes of Googling will show you tons of practical, significant differences between the two parties. Instead, try replacing that phrase with this one: “The two political parties aren’t as different as I’d like them to be.” Or, “Of the two major political parties, the one that most closely represents my views and values doesn’t represent them closely enough.” Or even, “The party that’s closer to my views is often a disappointment, and sometimes it really sucks.”

Those are very different statements, and they demand different courses of action. If the parties really were the same, it might be a reasonable choice to opt out of the political process—or start a revolution. If instead one party is sometimes good and sometimes disappointing or crappy, while the other is almost always appalling, that calls for a different response. It calls for participation, for the hard work necessary to push things closer to the direction you want them to go.

What’s more, when we treat nuanced situations as extreme, it makes it difficult to respond when a situation really is extreme. It’s a version of crying wolf. I’ll call myself out on this one: in my decades as a liberal/progressive/leftist activist, I will admit that I threw around the word fascist when it really didn’t apply (or when it only applied somewhat, when our government and society had a few fascistic elements). So when 2017 came around and the United States seriously entered the early stages of real fascism, it was harder to get people to pay attention. “Oh, you liberals, you think everything conservatives do is fascist.” Mea culpa.

It’s ironic. As a writer, I know that exaggeration and hyperbole can be very effective in getting people’s attention. When a situation is seriously bad, and not enough people are paying attention or taking action, using the strongest language possible can break through the fog. But it can also create numbness. It’s hard to know where to draw the line.

That’s the crux of the nuance problem. Or one of the cruxes, anyway. When we recognize that human life comes in a million gradations and spectra, how do we draw lines? To put it in ethical terms: How do we decide which behavior is fairly bad but understandable and forgivable, which is seriously bad with real consequences needed before forgiveness can be considered, and which is beyond the pale? If we impose artificial categories, we can make bad decisions. If we don’t impose any categories, we can let the water get turned up gradually, hotter and hotter, until we’re letting ourselves boil. After all, if the difference between warm and scalding is a matter of gradation and there’s no clear bright line between them, what harm could it do to turn the heat up one more degree?

I really do get it. Too much complexity can be overwhelming; too much nuance can be immobilizing. We can spend all day evaluating the subtle nuances and moral complexities of a situation, looking at how different life experiences affect our decisions, considering how different values come into conflict, and examining the questions from every angle. But at the end of that day, we have to make choices. And making choices means drawing lines.

I don’t have an answer. But I keep coming back to the phrase, “How do we draw the line?” If there’s an answer to the problem of nuance, it might lie there—in the recognition that we are the ones drawing the lines. We are the ones creating the categories. They don’t have some objective reality separate from us; they certainly aren’t imposed by deities who know the right answers all the time. The categories and lines are our creations. We create them to help us make decisions and to help us make sense of the world. They’re not objects we observe in the external world; they’re a function, a verb rather than a noun.

The lines we draw exist to serve us. So we should use them accordingly. When we draw clear lines or blurry ones, solid lines or flexible ones, we need to take responsibility for them. When we draw them badly, or when the world simply changes, we need to be willing to redraw them. They don’t need to be in the exact right place. They simply need to work.

Greta Christina

Greta Christina is an author, blogger at The Orbit, and speaker. Her latest book is The Way of the Heathen: Practicing Atheism in Everyday Life (Pitchstone Publishing, 2016).


How much nuance is too much? The answer is not a given; it’s up to us where to draw the lines.

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