When you want to better understand someone? Look for the nuance. [I’m operating from the assumption that you desire to better understand your fellow humans, particularly those you regularly interact with, rather than arrogantly assume that your personal interpretation of them is unfailingly accurate—right?].
People are multi-faceted, nuanced.
People are not all of one thing, and none of another.
People are glimmers of light on water, and shadows deep, and if you watch a lake bouncing light on a clear summer’s day, you could never see all of the glimmer and all of the shadows and every ripple of a wave, all at the same time.
People are like that. When we are displeased with them, it’s easy to forget that they are more than just the piece that we are displeased with.
Who someone is in the heat of an argument, is not the totality of who they are.
Who someone is when they are operating from a place of conditioning or bias, is not the totality of how they will always operate.
Who someone is when they write one post on social media or a website, is not the totality of what they think on an issue.
(Similarly? The good deeds someone has done are also not the totality of who someone is–which we all see whenever someone accused of something has supporters going, “Well, they never treated me that way.” Just because they never treated you that way, doesn’t mean that they are incapable of causing harm in other areas).
We are reaching a tipping point where the one thing that someone said or did at one little glimmer or shadow in their life becomes a highly reductive interpretation of all of who they are.
I have said and done things in my lifetime that I have felt deep shame about. I have operated from those places of conditioning or bias. I have posted things on social media or my website that I might no longer agree with, that I might now see differently, or that only expresses one piece of what I’m trying to say.
And so have you.
So have all of us.
Look for the nuance
Remember this the next time you are inclined to judge: if anyone followed you around for twenty-four hours a day with a video camera, things would show up on the footage that would deeply embarrass you.
Remember this the next time you are inclined to write a quick social media post criticizing someone: if your own moments where you lacked generosity and compassion were pulled from the footage and projected onto a screen—just those moments, and none of the rest to give a balanced context—you would feel it was unfair.
Patriarchy operates from a binary place, a binary way of thinking. In binary logic, things are either good or bad, right or wrong. There’s a rigidity about being “with us or against us” and exclusion of those perceived to not meet the mark. There is little room for nuance.
Increasingly, I think we’re all seeing—and this should trouble us—a lack of nuance in how we interact with one another. Even among some of those claiming to be fighting for justice and the eradication of patriarchy, the mindset of the binary is there: you either agree with my perspective, or you are part of the oppression; you are either with me or against me; if you hold one oppressive view, this must mean that all of you/your life/your interactions are therefore oppressive.
We need to look for the nuance.
Nuance wants to call out oppressive views without dismantling someone’s humanity.
This is the real work, in my opinion. This is where courage is most required—because we’ll need to look closely to see where we can avoid cancel-out culture that shames and traumatizes and doesn’t get us the result we want (cancel-out culture doesn’t change people’s world views; it makes them defensive and then they just work to better hide their oppressive world views to avoid criticism). At the same time that we’re trying to avoid that shaming—that taking on of the energy of “good versus bad” that is the hallmark of patriarchy—we’ll need to look at excuse making, because certainly, some who try to avoid shaming oppressive view points flip into the opposite spectrum and make excuses for poor behavior.
In other words, if we step out of the binary and into the nuance, there is more to track—the shaming and the excuses, the unconscious conditioning and the conscious intentional choices, the fact of someone’s good and the fact of someone’s bad.
Nuance wants accountability, because that’s what integrity requires. To say, “Their mistakes are not the totality of who someone is” is not a call to excuse behavior without being accountable and making necessary repair when damage has happened. Again–it’s not “all or nothing.” It’s not “all or nothing” around the good or the bad.
Nuance wants us to step out of the binary. If we step out of the binary and into the nuance, we step towards that lake on a summer’s day, with the impossibility of taking in all of it at one time.
Again–it’s tough stuff. That’s why we don’t choose nuance more easily, as a culture. It’s easier to invoke the myth that someone who has done good things is a hero and someone who has done bad things is evil, and to ignore the edges and the in-betweens.
Look for the nuance. Pause to ask yourself, “Why would someone have this worldview?” and if their worldview reaps harm to others, ask yourself, “What’s the most effective way to encourage them to change?” I promise you, I’ve seen no behavioral science research that indicates that a Facebook pile-on and take-down is the way to do it.
In fact, go one deeper: pause to ask yourself, “Why do I have my own worldview?” Pick any issue about which you feel strongly.
And then ask yourself, “If someone was deeply invested in changing my mind on this issue, what would they have to say to me, to get me to shift?” Then ask yourself if a social media critique, a passive-aggressive blog post that discussed you while never naming you, or encouraging others to join in picking apart your character, would be very effective at truly changing your point of view.
Perfectionism within individuals is also born of this binary, right-wrong, “with us or against us” place. We do it to ourselves, so we do it to others, and then we are hurt and upset when others do it to us.
The weaknesses are only ever a piece of a developing human. So are the strengths. This is not a call to excuse mistakes—consequences are part of how people learn, and people who violate the very worst social norms need to be removed from a group—so much as to suggest that if we’ve seen how damaging patriarchal, binary thinking is, then we must take it upon ourselves to stop practicing it.