This is the second half of an essay on cloth masks — on their own merits and as a symbol of our loss of nuance in the public square. If you haven’t read Part 1, it’s a good place to start. It focuses mostly on masks and their effectiveness. Here I’ll summarize several facets of mask-related nuance, then turn to more general questions: why losing our sense of nuance matters, how it may have happened, and a few things we might do about it.
I Wear a Cloth Mask, But …
For me, wearing a cloth mask to slow the spread of COVID-19 is not a one-sided question. There’s nuance here. Allow me to illustrate.
I wear a cloth mask at church, at stores, and at work right now, even sometimes when it’s not required. I don’t mind that my mask protects you a lot more than it protects me. And I can accept a cloth mask’s usefulness even when I know it’s far less than 100% effective in stopping the spread of COVID-19. (See Part 1.)
I wear a mask, but I agree that elected and unelected officials have confused the issue by saying one thing, then another. I agree that their recommendations may be influenced by their own goals, especially as regards the November 2020 election.
I wear a mask, but I acknowledge that the pandemic itself has been politicized, with deadly effect. Even the science has been politicized — corrupted — also with deadly effect. Yet I don’t simply reject science or politics; each has its place.
I wear a mask, but I neither automatically embrace nor automatically reject counsel because it comes from an ecclesiastical source, or resent a church for taking a reasonable position on masks that isn’t exactly my position.
I wear a mask, but I don’t use President Trump as a model or excuse for my own behavior, and I don’t automatically accept or reject something because he says or does it, or because of his tone. Actual humans are more nuanced than most of our rhetoric — and political simplicity (mixed or not with rage and hatred) is not an adequate response to human complexity.
I wear a mask, but I understand the need to assert one’s individuality and independence, even sometimes to rebel, when so much of life is dictated by others. When your state, county, or city declares your employment and your communal worship nonessential and locks you out of both in the name of COVID-19, but allows and excuses large funerals and even mass protests, if the politics are right (that is, Left), it’s human nature to resist a mask order. It’s American nature.
When the cloth mask diktat comes from the same official (in Vermont or Michigan) who forbade your grocery store to sell you garden seeds in planting season (but lottery tickets were okay) … Well, thank heaven and the Founders that we have states, not just administrative regions of a centralized national government.
I wear a mask, and two people in my household (plus dozens at work) have significant risk factors, but I understand the attraction of — and long-term need for — herd immunity.
I wear a mask, and I don’t resist or even grouse when a workplace, business, or other institution requires it. I’ve weighed the pros and cons. I prefer to have government officials strongly recommending masks, with reasoned and nuanced arguments, and treating citizens with dignity, instead of commanding them as subjects. Utah Governor Gary Herbert is on my good list for, we might say, realizing that individual and local circumstances are too nuanced for an edict.
I wear a mask, but if I see you without one, I don’t assume you’re evil. Maybe I’d make the same choice in your circumstances, whatever they are. Please don’t cough or sneeze on me — but I didn’t want you doing that before COVID-19 either.
Why Nuance Is a Big Deal
When we banish nuance from the public square and from legislative and regulatory processes, bad things happen.
In the worst-case scenario, we ask the wrong questions and implement the wrong solutions to the wrong problems. The other scenarios aren’t much better: we implement the wrong solutions to the right problems, or the right solutions to the wrong problems.
Often enough we’ll reject a good partial solution to a problem because it’s not a complete solution, while our minds seek an unnuanced perfection which does not and cannot exist.
Pick your poison; real problems go unsolved.
Yet science itself demands nuance. It moves slowly, at the speed of experiment, data collection, analysis, and peer review, not at the speed of electronic press releases. We learn one piece of a complex picture at a time. Often enough, we have to unlearn or adjust it later in the face of better data or better analysis.
Here’s a crucial lesson: Science (when it’s being scientific) continually adjusts its conclusions as new data arrives. Politics (or science when it’s corrupted by politics) tends to cling to and enforce an early, politically convenient view despite new data.
We need nuance not just in our pursuit of science, but also in our policymaking in view of science. Even if we thoroughly understood the virus itself, how should we weigh that scientific knowledge against economics, psychology, education, human freedom, and other considerations? The brilliant, dogged folks who figure out the virus don’t have anything close to the same expertise in these other fields.
So we discuss and debate and consider and propose and balance and amend and assess. Because the people (not the government) are sovereign, and because just power derives from the consent of the governed, as much as possible these balances should be struck by elected officials, acting within their constitutional and legal authority and according to established, transparent processes. If we still care about American freedom, major policy decisions should not be made by unelected career bureaucrats.
Rarely does any of this come easily. When everything is politicized and we’ve abandoned nuance, we’re lucky if it happens at all.
What often happens instead cripples our discussion of key questions in several familiar ways:
- We declare parts of questions or certain serious answers out of bounds.
- We adopt with religious fervor the first bit of self-proclaimed science that supports our politics, and ignore or even attack further developments.
- We use and distort questions and answers for political advantage.
- We act to preserve a problem so we can exploit it, rather than laboring in good faith to solve it.
- We dehumanize and even hate other humans, if they disagree — and sometimes if they remain undecided or agree with insufficient fervor.
If you don’t see all these things happening around us, not just in matters COVID-19, you’re not paying enough attention.
Wars and great, tyrannical bloodbaths can start this way. Even if we pull up short of a holocaust, there’s unnecessary suffering in the meantime. People die who didn’t have to, and many more suffer in preventable ways and degrees.
For example, when we jettison nuance, we’re free to act on our fear (or our lust for political power) by moving the goalposts on COVID-19 policy, from slowing its spread (bending the curve) to trying to save “just one life” — to prevent every COVID-19 death — at the expense of harming millions and killing thousands by other means.
Shooting Ourselves in the Political Foot
Even if what motivates your view of cloth masks is the advancement of a political cause, you should care about nuance.
Extreme, unnuanced rhetoric in favor of masks and against those who resist them discredits more reasoned arguments for masks and increases resistance. Extreme, unnuanced rhetoric against masks discredits more reasoned assessments of them and more reasoned defenses of human freedom. Both extremes prolong the pandemic and multiply collateral damage to society — that is, to people.
If you’re vocal on one side or the other of the mask question, maybe you call yourself principled or compassionate instead of extreme. Here are three fairly reliable tests you can use to see if you’re extreme or not on an issue:
- Do your principles include a commitment to nuance and to seeing all sides of an issue, not just yours?
- Do you feel like you’re considering and balancing pros and cons, not just standing firm on one end of the teeter-totter, with no substantial weight on the other end?
- Does your compassion embrace people with whom you disagree, and people who aren’t just like you?
If you can answer yes to these questions, the extreme shoe probably doesn’t fit.
Meanwhile, here’s a thought for my friends on the right. The Left’s strategy includes politicizing everything, both to sow division and to make everything subject to government power. When you help them politicize the mask question, you … help them.
Why (Toward a Theory)
Why have we lost our taste for nuance? You’re not expecting one, overarching answer, are you? In an essay on nuance?
See what you think.
I’m sure part of it is that we’ve been goaded, mostly by the Left that has conquered liberalism in our politics, but also by some on the Right, to see everything as political. But this can’t be a complete explanation. Even when it’s not easy, it’s still possible to resist this. We’ve resisted it before.
Are we simply exhausted from the hourly struggle to make ends meet, fiscally and emotionally, in a challenging time? I’m sure it doesn’t help.
Are we lazy? Some are, no doubt — but many are not.
Have we given up hope of common sense ever mattering again, let alone ruling in our public and private-turned-tribal lives?
Have we given up on God, either altogether or as a source of nuanced wisdom or restraint on our conduct?
Perhaps there are many causes, in a different mix for each person (more nuance!) — but I think a large part of the problem is that we’re more willing than before to be ruled by our baser emotions, starting with fear, moving to anger, and tending toward hatred. We’ve left reason bound and gagged in a musty corner of the basement.
People who readily acknowledge at church that loving one’s neighbor is a commandment from God feel justified in flooding the world (and social media) with anger and hatred for their opponents.
People who style themselves compassionate lovers of humanity cannot be bothered to show compassion or respect for anyone who refuses to toe the ideological line — wherever they’ve drawn it this week.
People who aspire to or even preach faith, hope, or optimism allow themselves to cower in fear. In our troubled minds fear justifies a multitude of sins against each other and our future. Fear, anger, and hatred rob of us of our ability to see nuance and our willingness to tolerate it.
But my anger is just, we say. They’ve earned my hatred. And how can we not be consumed with fear in such a time?
Justified or not, what or whom does our anger help? Does it help others when we hate them? Does it help us? Do we really want to be on the side that gets stronger when we act in fear and anger? Do we feel happier when we hate?
Wouldn’t it be wiser to fear that fear itself will rob us of our reason and our humanity? We should resist fear, not indulge it. Likewise anger and especially hatred.
Surely fear, anger, and hatred do not serve freedom or any honorable sort of peace. Surely they do not serve knowledge, understanding, or wisdom. Surely they do not serve God. Can we not feel, somewhere deep down, that the causes which fear, anger, and hatred serve may be evil, no matter what good they claim to promote, or what evil they claim to oppose?
Ah, but what can we do?
Forgive me — some of you, as necessary — if I say I think the most powerful answers to these questions are religious. Forgive me — others of you — if, after saying that, I nevertheless focus here on secular remedies.
What (You and) I Can Do
What I’m trying to do — for myself — grows out of who I am. I’ll explain, in case some of it’s useful to you.
I’ve watched and studied politics and government for more than 40 of my 56 years. I was taught formally and informally by good, dazzingly intelligent people across most of the political spectrum. (There were actual members of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, but no white supremacists that I know of — in the sane definition, not the current one.)
I’ve studied history and worked and volunteered in government and politics at several levels. Along the way — and in other pursuits — I’ve met and listened to people of many sorts and views. Over time I learned to see the humanity in people who are much different from myself, so I can’t bring myself to hate them.
May we speak of you too? You know things I don’t know. You have views and experience I don’t have. I have knowledge and experience you don’t have. No doubt you feel some things differently. I may alter my views, a little or a lot, when I begin to see what you see, as you see it.
This makes you more interesting to me. None of it makes me hate you. It doesn’t make me superior. It doesn’t make you my enemy — but if it did, no matter. I profess to worship a God who thinks we should love our enemies. How’s that for a plot twist … er, nuance?
You may think me a hypocrite for saying such things, then continuing to take sides in politics. I may work to defeat your cause or even your candidacy. But I don’t see how that makes you less human; I don’t see why I should hate you. (I’ll understand if it doesn’t make you particularly fond of me.)
Granted, these are aspirations, and I don’t always reach them. (More nuance.) I still feel, sometimes keenly, temptations to cultivate and serve anger and fear. I often feel frustrated. I still bungle attempts to — as I suppose — introduce nuance into a discussion.
But here are five things I’m trying to do about it these days.
1. Put the Wolves on Strict Diet
Though I’m often tempted to make a full and lasting retreat, I can’t altogether avoid issues and politics and still consider myself an alert and responsible American citizen. I can’t stop feeding my inner wolves — but I’ve put them on a diet, and it’s starting to work.
Six days a week, I confine my attention to news and politics to an hour or two per day, and never before midday, if I can help it. Sometimes it’s a lot less than an hour. Except for that period, I ignore as best I can all news alerts, political e-mail, podcasts, talk radio, my favorite political columnists and websites (and all the others I read), and the news media in general — even during my morning commute.
I try to insure that, before I spend a single minute’s thought on politics on a given day, I’ve done some productive work, spent at least a few minutes in religious devotions, and even found a brief interval or more for my newer, happier avocation, writing fiction.
At the end of the day, I wrench myself away from the wolves earlier than before and spend some time reading a book about something else. I’ve finished a number of previously-started books lately.
I’m doing pretty well at ignoring news alerts on my phone. I’ve even turned off nearly all of my sports news alerts, in part because, while I’m trying to keep the wolves on a diet, most American sports leagues have turned to producing wolf food, not entertainment, as their primary product.
Most Sundays, I impose a 24-hour fast on the wolves. At least I try — but sometimes I connect with friends and family who want to talk politics and current events. So the wolves don’t altogether starve.
All of this is my way of reducing my exposure to our radioactive politics and society. I’m not trying to jettison citizenship and civic activity altogether. I’m trying to be one of those cooler heads that I hope will still prevail, as the proverb predicts. So far, I’m less distracted from other important things, and when I do commune with the wolves, for that hour or two, it’s easier to respond with more thought and less negative emotion.
I haven’t figured out how this is compatible, at least time-wise, with blogging about politics during campaign season.
2. Take a Step Back
I try not to respond — verbally, intellectually, or emotionally — to every twitch in the tyrannical 24/7 news cycle. I try to sit back and watch things unfold. When one side of an issue catches my eye, I look for other sides — for nuance, you might say.
This more patient stance tempers my responses to people and institutions. It helps me resist fear, anger, and the temptation to think others are bad because they disagree. It helps me look past hype and see substance, when there is some.
In patience we’re better poised to find ways to serve and encourage people, perhaps even the people we’re disposed — or supposed — to hate or dismiss.
3. Read History
When I finish reading a history book, I start another.
One thing we might learn from history, even as the Left characteristically labors to erase it, is that no one with lofty ideals can fully live up to them — including us, not just the enemy. Yet some people have made a heroic effort and have done great good in the world, despite their weaknesses, vices, and mistakes.
When we approach history with humility and patience, we’re better able to suspend judgment, even if we think historical figures’ best should have been better. Conversely, when we dismiss the good they did because they didn’t do all the good we think they should have done, we reveal more of ourselves than of them.
4. Try to Forgive
Forgiveness is incompatible with hatred, and it’s good for the soul. We can start by forgiving people who are no longer alive for things they did to other people who are no longer alive. (I want to say we have no business forgiving people for their sins against someone else — that’s someone else’s prerogative — but this doesn’t stop us from taking offense.) It may be difficult to forgive them, when we’ve been taught to despise them and the train they rode in on, but this is relatively the easy part.
We can labor mightily to forgive people who have done things to us. Whatever effect this may have on them, it will keep the past from holding us back and dragging us down. If it spreads, it might prevent us from burning down our civilization in our smug, demonic rage.
Nuance lives in forgiveness too. We can stop demanding that a thing be perfect before we acknowledge its good: a cloth mask, a remedy, an ideal, a policy, yes — but especially a person.
5. Try to Keep This Perspective
All of this is difficult for me. If you try it, it will be likely difficult for you. But no one’s asking us to seize Okinawa, storm the beaches of Normandy, or march into the meat grinder at Gettysburg. In most of the country, so far, no one is burning our homes or workplaces.
No one is forcing us across an ocean or half a continent, into the wilderness where we’ll settle and try again to survive. That’s the legacy of my people, who understandably never developed our modern appreciation for mob violence. (Did I mention fear, anger, and forgiveness?)
We can apply the time and effort required to explore the nuance in things and especially in people. At the very least, it’s more productive and less pathological than stewing in fear, anger, and hatred. We will do more good and less harm.
For many of us, the wolves will always be there. We need not let them rule our lives.
Likewise, nuance is almost always there, and it’s usually visible — if we have eyes to see; hearts tuned to higher things than fear, anger, and hatred; and minds disposed to probe and connect, and to regulate both our emotions and how we act on them.
Nuance is only dead if we kill it.
Thanks for reading!
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