Warning: If There's 'Nuance,' You're Being Had

Clear speaking and clear writing are foundational to clear thinking.  These concepts do not imply a crude command of language or understanding, but rather a solid command of thought.  Unfortunately, clarity of expression is too often confused with primitiveness, and obscurity (or even gibberish) is too often confused with sophistication (or the dreaded nuance).  These confusions are especially common in liberals and so-called intellectuals.

In many ways.  When you next hear or read this phrase, try to imagine what the many ways might be.  Invariably, "many ways" refers to just one, or maybe a few, possibilities.  This idiom is not just meaningless; most of the time, it is mendacious, meant to vaguely indicate the existence of even more unspoken insights, which usually do not exist.

Sort of (and its variant "kind of").  This may be the most overworked phrase among liberals and intellectuals.  It is intended to indicate the speaker's unvoiced depths of intelligence and nuanced understanding (see below).  This excerpt from a music review I recently read is a classic example of this tactic: "This song is a sort of metaphor for a kind of common experience of angst."  Either it's a metaphor or it isn't.  Either it's angst or it isn't.  Everything is "a sort" of something.  This affectation almost never carries meaning apart from an ego telegraphing its need to be admired.

Experts say.  This ubiquitous phrase attempts to impart a sense of fact-based knowledge gained from study and research.  It is commonly used by pundits, newscasters, and other intellectually shiftless crowds.  I can't shake the feeling that if asked to exactly explain what experts exactly said, a pundit would usually reply with a blank stare.  In fact, while standing in line at a Thanksgiving buffet last week, a chatterbox behind me was decrying Republicans for being global warming deniers who aren't bright enough to heed the scientific experts.  I asked him pleasantly if he could recommend any of those scientific experts for my education, and he actually did stare at me blankly.

Nuanced.  Nuance is the holy grail of liberals and intellectuals.  It is also meaningless, except as a way to obfuscate muddled thinking and puff up an ego.  The only way to understand difficult material -- pardon me, nuanced material -- is through a lucid understanding of what is unclear or complex.  A beautiful example of how clear communication does not equate with a lack of polish or insight involves Richard Feynman, the greatest physicist of his time.  He had a unique way of explaining complex phenomena.

Shortly after the Challenger space shuttle disaster in 1986, mathematicians, engineers, researchers, and scientists of all stripes were tasked with looking into its causes.  Feynman was among them.  In a public demonstration, Feynman asked for a glass of ice water.  He dropped a piece of rubber into the glass, took it out, and showed how at freezing temperature, the rubber lost resilience.  This un-nuanced demonstration -- no equations, no jargon, no blackboard -- illuminated to the general public and the struggling experts what had gone wrong (at least with the engineering) to cause the explosion.

S. Fred Singer's American Thinker articles about global warming are also excellent examples of how genuine nuance arises naturally from clearly described questions and conditions.

Even in literature, nuance arises from clarity.  You might think that the line "Jewels and binoculars hang from the head of the mule" is poppycock (from Bob Dylan's song "Visions of Johanna").  But at least you know what the poppycock is.  You may appreciate the nuances of Hamlet's dilemma, but to do so, you must first understand what is bothering him.

Eric Holder's infamous remarks about our nation's cowardice are a good example of what passes for nuance in the liberal political realm.  (As a bonus, he even threw in a "many ways" reference.)  "Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards[.]"  Without further exploration of that notion, he then called for a nuanced discussion of affirmative action.  How can you hope to sip from the holy grail of nuance if you're busy defending yourself against an ugly, unfocused accusation?  (For a hilarious exposé of nuance gone wild, read Alan Sokal's book, Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science.)

Potential and potentially.  These weenie words that distort and attenuate meaning have insinuated themselves into everyday speech.  I first became aware of this trend years ago during an inspection tour a radioactive spill.  The sludgy puddle was roped off with signs that read POTENTIAL RADIOACTIVE HAZARD.  The signs exasperated my boss.  "Potentially radioactive?  Or potentially a hazard?  It's radioactive or not, and it's a hazard or it's not.  The sign should be STAY AWAY.  DEADLY RADIOACTIVE HAZARD."

"Potentially" and "potential" are often inserted before words (such "risk," "danger," and "side-effects") that are already, by their nature, potentials.  For example, a risk is a potential for something to occur.  A potential risk, strictly speaking, isn't necessarily even a risk.

The same lack of forthrightness sometimes afflicts the word "allegation."  I once read this gem: "The allegations in the indictment suggest that the defendant allegedly ..."  First, allegations don't suggest; they charge.  Second, an allegation describes a criminal act.  An indictment that alleges an alleged crime is actually alleging an allegation of a crime, not a crime itself.

Phony laughter.  This offense does not involve words, but it is closely enough related to warrant mention.  Mostly the practice of liberals, it expresses smugness.  Every false tee-hee announces, "Aren't I marvelously subtle in my superior appreciation of whatever!"  Hillary Clinton is a master of this technique.  A giveaway of phony laughter is that what triggers it is not funny.  Here's an egregious example: I recently heard the host of the National Public Radio show say the word Republican -- not as a punchline to anything, but simply in passing.  No sooner had he uttered the word than a noisy, self-satisfied tittering swept through the liberal audience.

The misuses of language discussed in this article are more than trivial cavils.  They are tools of arrogance, self-puffery, intellectual sloth, and muddled thinking.  They all mask real richness by distancing ideas from meaning.  They are often meant to intimidate or hoodwink.  Even though this article has been a sort of airing of pet peeves of these mot justes of lazy thinking, the author hopes that in many ways it will shed potentially nuanced light on these problems.

And the next time you run into something like that last sentence, beware.