Emotions

Nuance is for Suckers

Culture Philosophy Policy Pop Culture Rantish

Today, ladies and gents, I will link those new Facebook buttons with the fall of discourse in our civilization and the rise of outrage.

Yesterday, Facebook rolled out their much-awaited new “Reactions” feature whereby instead of just ‘liking’ something, you can express all other sorts of emotions.  No longer will the bereaved be tortured by the people ‘liking’ the post on the passing of a loved one.  With more ways to express ourselves we gain a whole new realm of opportunities for self-expression.

I instantly hated them.  Don’t get me wrong, I love brightly coloured emotional pictograms.  Facebook allows you to put “stickers” in messages and comments.  There are hundreds and hundreds of options to choose from.  Whether or not you feel like R2D2 and C3PO freaking out or Pusheen being propelled by its own flatulence perfectly encapsulates your emotional state, there’s something there for you.

Facebook has given the illusion of a spectrum of emotional reactions but has limited the scope of those reactions to ones that, for example, couldn’t express disdain or disapproval.

Facebook reactions, however, are limited to six: like, love, haha, wow, sad, angry.  The two are like night and day.  This was on purpose – obviously having hundreds of options as do stickers would make it completely unusable, but they also deliberately excluded “dislike”, “joy” and the like (apparently joy is a slang term for cocaine, which is extraordinarily silly, as common knowledge holds that it is a quirk of English that pretty much any noun can be used as a euphemism for male reproductive organs.)  Facebook has given the illusion of a spectrum of emotional reactions but has limited the scope of those reactions to ones that, for example, couldn’t express disdain or disapproval.  It weakens our ability to express complicated ideas by giving us a small set of options and calling that meaningful.

Of course, the ‘like’ couldn’t do any of these things either, but was still a useful tool.  The like’s power was in its ambiguity.  It didn’t really mean that you “liked” something.  No one mistook your liking of an obituary for sincere joy at the passing of Great Aunt Muriel.  It was acknowledgement, recognition, validation, condolence, and every other kind of appropriate reaction.  Research shows that humans deliberately don’t look to deeply when interpreting signals sent by others, leading us to accept white lies that are there to save face.  We believe that our acquaintance genuinely can’t come to our party because they “have a thing” because it’s preferable to believing they don’t enjoy our company.

Donald Trump is the ‘like’ of people.  He can be all things to all people.  His seeming lack of substance gives him the power to transform into what is needed when it is needed.

The lack of this ambiguity and nuance in the new setup is indicative of a larger shift away from nuance and subtlety in the way we communicate with others, and this is something we should avoid.  Just the other day I watched a clip from a presidential debate between Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush.  In it, they addressed each other sincerely and gave surprisingly substantive and subtle answers to questions from the crowd.  Compare that with the tire fire that is the GOP nomination for 2016.  Donald Trump is a master of the art of being subtly-unsubtle.  As Youtuber Nerdwriter points out, Trump’s seemingly thoughtless screeds are actually carefully and masterfully constructed to make the most of his text.  While his text is very black and white, read between the lines and you find a million shades of grey.  Much of Trump’s power comes from the idea that he is unvarnished, unpackaged.  He’s seen to speak truth because he speaks it without subtlety, even though truth often lies between stark positions.  This both appeals to base emotional reactions and creates an ambiguity because, without precise proposals or language, people can fill in those gaps to mean what they want him to mean.

Donald Trump is the ‘like’ of people.  He can be all things to all people.  His seeming lack of substance gives him the power to transform into what is needed when it is needed.

It’s not just Trump and the GOP that fall for this, of course.  Sanders’ proposals are straight-up bananas when you look too closely, and when it comes to Clinton most people are certain that, should the winds of fate blow in a different direction, her policies will quickly change course to take advantage of the opportunity.  Primaries aren’t about substance and nuance, but they still matter.

Still, this is indicative of a culture that has decided that subtlety and nuance are not virtues, and thus that truth is secondary.  Social media supports this phenomenon: headlines with nuanced and true titles don’t get nearly as many clicks as clickbait headlines.  Truth is disregarded in favour of virality.  Firms chase insubstantial headlines instead of doing other things, like their jobs.

For example, the internet’s latest fixation is that a substantial number of Trump supporters believe that the Emancipation Proclamation was illegitimate.  Never mind that it wasn’t on either a legal or philosophical level – upon further examination, it was basically a question designed to get a headline.  The two questions asked before were “Do you approve or disapprove Presidents using executive orders?” and “From what you know now, do you think executive orders are constitutional or unconstitutional?”, both of which are extraordinarily broad and unacceptably vague questions (i.e. maybe some executive orders are legitimate, and some aren’t.)  The clear plan is to get people to say they disapprove and that they’re unconstitutional (because they’re surveying Republicans, and partisans widely reject the use of EOs by presidents from the other team), and then hit them with six questions about executive orders they might support (emancipation, internment, military desegregation, the ban on abortion funding, torture, and delaying the deportation of minors.)  The reaction is predictable – outrage that anyone wouldn’t support the Emancipation Proclamation.*  Looking more closely, it’s just a case of a pollster trying to stir up dust and publicity at the expense of truth.

Trump and Sanders are the result of our departure from the search for truth informing our opinions, the result of throwing caution and detail to the wind, the result of putting our emotions in the driver’s seat.

It’s part of our outrage culture.  Outrage is intolerant of nuance and detail.  It’s a base emotional response to stimulus that stands completely against rational consideration.  It’s appropriate at times, but it has become the internet’s fuel.  Every day we receive word of new outrages because Buzzfeed or Huffpo or some other outlet has done a hatchet job of someone’s words and actions in order to get views.  No longer is there any room for us to talk honestly about life’s complexity – if you don’t toe the line, expect to be hounded and bullied and threatened because people cannot tolerate the idea that someone dissents.

You can see this idea at work when you engage with many Trump or Sanders supporters.  Both sets are driven by outrage at various Big Bads who can be conquered by their preferred candidate.  Opposition to their candidate invites outrage because they do not conceive of an alternative where the world is more complex than profane tweets or naked demagoguery.  They are the result of our departure from the search for truth informing our opinions, the result of throwing caution and detail to the wind, the result of putting our emotions in the driver’s seat.

We should speak less of efficiency and growth and more of peace and freedom.

How do we combat the outrage?  Sensible people need to become less mealy mouthed.  It is possible to be both dedicated to nuance while not providing endless caveats in every speech or op-ed.  Classical liberals and moderates need to be proud to declare their principles, and then link well-crafted policy and ideas to those higher principles.  There is no dearth of great rhetoricians in the liberal tradition.  We could learn something from them.  We also need to find our own equivalent of the triggers that Trumists or Sandernistas use to evoke outrage, ideas and phrases that bring people to reflect on what’s important to them and what they truly value.  We should speak less of efficiency and growth and more of peace and freedom.  Allowing outrage to become the new normal endangers the liberal democratic project and puts us in real peril.  We need to step up to the plate and take the battle against outrage to the very ideas that fuel it.

Unrelated to anything, what on earth is this?  I imagine it serves some purpose, but I can’t fathom what.
whites and vinegar

*There are, in fact, good reasons to disagree with its details – chief among which was that it allowed slaveholders in the Union or Union-controlled states of Maryland, Missouri, Delaware, Kentucky, and Tennessee to hold on to their chattel.  The Emancipation Proclamation was made on New Year’s Day in 1863, while the constitutional amendment banning slavery wasn’t ratified until the end of 1865.

No Comments Write a comment

No Comments

Leave a Reply