Where's All the Nuance Gone in Political Discourse—And Everything Else? | Opinion

We are experiencing the death of nuanced discourse in many parts of the world today. Instead, we see black or white debate between two sides, each insisting that they are right and the other wrong in every respect. Neither side is willing to give intellectual quarter to the other or even to listen to their counterarguments. Unconditional surrender is demanded. Compromise is unthinkable in this war of ideologies.

Gone are days when friends could disagree and yet respect each other's views. Today, long-term friendships end over an unwillingness to acknowledge that there may be two sides to a divisive issue. Counterarguments are not answered by facts or logic but by ad hominem insults.

The National Archive
The National Archives in Washington, DC, on Jan. 28. STEFANI REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images

Two current examples will illustrate this degrading of discourse. The first involves the disclosure that both former President Donald Trump and the current occupant of that office, Joe Biden, mishandled classified material after they left office. The good news is that virtually all Americans agree on one thing: that there are important and dispositive differences that make one case far more serious than the other. The bad news is that half the country is sure that Trump's is worse, while the other half is certain that Biden's is worse. No one seems to believe that there are some issues that make Trump's worse, while there other that make Biden's worse. For most, it's black and white. One of them did everything wrong, while the other did nothing wrong. Case closed.

The second example of lack of nuance involves the debates here and in Israel about the role and influence of the Supreme Court. Here, the hard left wants to weaken the current Supreme Court by packing it with enough new justices to move it leftward. In Israel, the right wants to weaken its high court by allowing the legislature to override its liberal decisions and by giving the conservative legislature more of a role in selecting the justices.

Left-wing Israelis are taking to the street in mass protests of these judicial "reforms," claiming they will bring an end to Israel as a democracy. Supporters claim they will enhance democracy by transferring power from an unelected elitist court to a Knesset elected by the majority.

Each side has a point. Courts are supposed to be checks on democracy and protectors of minorities and often unpopular civil liberties. When the courts rule in favor of minorities over majorities, pure democracy is compromised, but it is compromised in the interest of fundamental civil liberties and human rights for all. The goal is to strike the appropriate balance between majority and minority rights. This requires nuance, calibration, and a willingness to compromise—precisely the elements that are quickly disappearing from political, media, and academic dialogue.

Both in Israel and here, proponents of the only "correct" approach—and according to them there is only one correct approach— are subjected to ad hominem attacks, called fascist and canceled. Demonization has replaced dialogue. Both countries are the poorer for it.

The great American jurist Learned Hand correctly observed that the spirit of liberty is "the spirit which is not too sure that it is right." Certainty and intolerance of opposing views are the hallmarks of intellectual tyranny that easily morph into political tyranny. If one is certain of the absolute correctness of his views, he often sees no need for the right to dissent or the need for due process. We are seeing that today among many in the "woke" generation who believe that their noble ends justify ignoble means, such as shutting down debate and denying due process to those accused of politically incorrect sins or crimes. On the hard right, we have always seen intolerance and now increasing violence—justified in the name of preserving traditional American values.

The road to political hell is indeed paved with certainty that one's intentions are good. Or as the great Justice Louis Brandeis taught us a century ago, "the greatest dangers to Liberty lurk in the insidious encroachment by men of zeal but without understanding."

Today, not only is nuance not welcome in most political dialogue, but it is also punished. Those deemed guilty of compromising the narrative by introducing nuance are regarded as traitors to the cause and attacked, cancelled, or shunned. Others, who by their nature are open to compromise, are discouraged from participating in the discussion.

The result is the zero-sum games that are being played out in the conflicts over the dual mishandling of classified information and the attacks on the Supreme Court. The debates over these important issues have been considerably dumbed down by the extremism and lack of nuance of both sides.

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The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.