I once gave a talk about how circles are better than squares. It was a 9-minute speech with racial undertones. In the talk, I used the n-word a couple of different times. I knew that it had the potential to make the room uncomfortable. I was sharing this talk in an environment of mostly white people, but it was the best way to get the point across I was trying to make. A few days after I gave the talk, I got some feedback from a 60-year-old white man who said that I shouldn’t use that word because it made him uncomfortable. It was bizarre for me, a black man, to hear that the n-word made a white man uncomfortable, but I understood what he intended to communicate. The word is hard to hear because it has such a loaded history. I get it. I know why we avoid using it in mixed company. It’s a complicated word with a long and arduous past.
But. There is another n-word that we seem to avoid these days that shouldn’t elicit visceral responses, but it often does – unlike the word used to degrade blacks, this word shocks and offends in other ways. No one re-coils when they hear or see this word, but people react when it’s brought to bear on a conversation featuring strong opinions.
Try suggesting that taking an innocent life is tragic and women should have the right to choose in the same sentence and you’ll see pretty quickly that some people can’t handle the n-word. We live in a time where people are so convinced of their own righteous beliefs that they make little to no room for opinions that veer from their own even slightly. The mob mentality is strong these days. We are herded into tribal thinking before we have a chance to form our own opinions. People tend to parade gray areas as black or white, and if we don’t accept them as such, we can find ourselves without a tribe. This is especially true for those of us who subscribe to a religion.
These days religion too often boils down to taking sides. “The only opinion there is to be had is the one that I hold based on my interpretation of the sacred texts or traditions.” Sure, no one would say that out loud. (At least I hope not) But, you can feel this kind of posture being taken by people the moment you suggest that there is another way to interpret the belief they hold so sacred.
Religious people believe that being open-handed with beliefs is tantamount to blasphemy or heresy and warn against leading people astray or getting too close to fires of hell. God’s judgment is always looming with people like that. God is an agent of vengeance looking on angrily as human beings struggle to understand the meaning and work through the pain of life. How tragic is this view of God? How sad is it that for people who have found meaning for their own lives through religious practice and beliefs, that they are so unwilling to allow space for people to think and reason for themselves outside of the limited scope of their self-righteous opinions.
We have reduced too many of our social conversations down to binary beliefs. Complicated issues like gender, race, sex, and women’s health are far too NUANCED for the dogmatic mind to engage in. If you’re already entirely convinced that what you believe is all there is to know about a subject, don’t join a dialog. There is no point. You waste your time and the time of the people you’re engaging in conversation with when your opinion is already the final authority on the issue.
We need more people willing to allow for NUANCE on issues. Because human beings have so many varied experiences and ideas about life, it’s impossible to move forward when there are only two options to choose. “Believe this, or you’re wrong” will never move us forward as humans. Only NUANCED thinking and willingness to enter into dialog with the possibility that my view isn’t complete without the opinions of others will.
NUANCE makes it possible to believe in the validity of multiple arguments and ideas. When I embrace NUANCE, new facts, discoveries, or experiences aren’t adversarial to me. Instead, further details about something I’m passionate about add to and enhance my thoughts and feelings. I welcome the experience of others. I appreciate new studies and ideas because they provide new insights to factor.
If you’re a person who struggles with allowing for NUANCE, Here are a few things that can help you.
- Seek out someone you respect who has a different take on an issue than you do. Perhaps even the complete opposite opinion than yours. If you’re having trouble thinking of someone, that’s a bigger problem. Seek help immediately.
- Listen to the stories of people with life experience for something you have passionate views, but no experience.
- Educate yourself through books, blogs, podcasts, or articles. The more you educate yourself, the less dogmatic your opinions become.
If you put these three things into practice, you’ll see how much bigger the world is, and you’ll find a new appreciation for other experiences, thoughts, and ideas.
After my conversation about how much I used the n-word in my speech, I started to feel like a white man being uncomfortable with me using it to drive home a point about the ugliness of division was his problem, not mine. The same is true for those offended by NUANCED opinions. It’s not your problem when someone is disturbed by your ability to recognize the validity of multiple points of view. It’s theirs.