That word doesn't mean what you think it means

>> Friday, October 21, 2011

Republicans, including former Massachusetts governor and GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, pounced on the idea that Obama was "leading from behind." Romney told talk radio host Hugh Hewitt that the president was wrong to condition his Libyan action on an OK from the Arab League or the United Nations.

"Without a compass to guide him in our increasingly turbulent world, he's tentative, indecisive, timid and nuanced," Romney said.
-Scott Horsley,
"Does Libya Offer Clues To An Obama Doctrine?"
NPR, October 21th, 2011.

"You won't hear a lot of shape-shifting nuance from me," [Texas Governor Rick] Perry told Republicans gathered in Las Vegas on Wednesday, hitting Romney anew the day after the two sparred onstage during a debate.
-Kasie Hunt and Philip Elliott,
"GOP Primary Contest Getting Nasty And Personal", Associated Press, October 19th, 2011


noun, plural -anc·es

1. a subtle difference or distinction in expression, meaning, response, etc.
2. a very slight difference or variation in color or tone.

Origin: 1775–85; < French: shade, hue, equivalent to nu(er) to shade (literally, to cloud < Vulgar Latin *nūbāre, derivative of *nūba, for Latin nūbēs cloud) + -ance

Related forms
nu·anced, adjective
un·nu·anced, adjective

Synonyms 1. subtlety, nicety, hint, refinement.

Gods know, I should be used to this by now. This has been a staple talking point for a certain kind of politician for years now--I would say mostly on the GOP side, but I won't rule out the possibility that some Democrat somewhere has said something similarly stupid. I shouldn't rise to the bait, anyhow. Every time some jackass says "nuance" like it's an expletive, I ought to just roll my eyes and roll over, move on to something that's more obviously worth getting tetchy over.

But it annoys the piss out of me.

It was the first quote up there that did me in today. I'm lying in bed after the alarm clock has gone off, listening to the NPR and trying to overcome the immense weight of sleep and apathy sitting on my chest holding me down; it's cold, too, and warm under the blankets, so there's that. And here's this NPR Morning Edition piece from Scott Horsley with the sound bite from Romney, and as soon as Romney says "nuanced" like an expletive, I'm growling and gnashing my teeth. I mean, not really, not exactly, though I may have ground the teeth a bit.

And then I'm looking for the Romney quote so I can gripe about it, and here's the Rick Perry line. Sure, we'll include that one, add it to the list.

Thing is, I know that Republicans are using nuance as a pejorative as a way of chumming the waters for their base. They think their core voter is somebody who likes action, directness, black-and-white, right-and-wrong, yes-and-no, up-and-down binary, get-right-to-it doing (not thinking). Gods help us if they're right. They might be. So they go out and they accuse their opponents of "nuance", by which they mean "weaselly".

Which, of course, isn't what the word "nuance" means in the first place. That's "a". "B" is: whatever happened to the days when being subtle and cunning scored points, was considered virtuous as long as you were one of the good guys? It wasn't that long ago; I mean, not to be even dorkier than usual, but remember how Obi-Wan Kenobi told Luke Skywalker his old man was a "cunning warrior... and he was a good friend," in the movie Star Wars? I.e. "Your pops was pretty slick because he was smart, kid." This was before we knew Luke's dad was Darth Vader and well before we knew that what Obi-Wan meant by "cunning" was "whines a lot about stupid shit like how much he hates sand" (putting Obi-Wan's definition of "cunning" on the same page as his definition of "true", I guess).

If it was just the abuse of the word, I don't know that it would be as aggravating. Words evolve, change meaning, senses shift. But this isn't really a shifting, is it? It's a misuse, yes, but it's also a propagandist assault, using a word to mean something different from what it really means to create a negative impression. But that's not really the problem, either, or the whole problem. The big problem I have here is the negative impression itself: the idea that being sophisticated and smart is a bad thing. That's the part to get angry about and shake your rhetorical weaponry at, because the abuse and misuse of the word "nuance" is, really, a symptom and cause of the horrible dumbening of America.

Clever people realize the world is nuanced and requires nuanced approaches to its perils and problems. They may not like it: a major part of the appeal of escapist entertainments of any sort is that they're usually set in relatively simple worlds where everybody can agree on the big stuff--Sauron's ring needs to be melted, Hans Gruber deserves to be dropped out a window, The Joker belongs in jail, the Princess is too pretty and sweet to be left rotting in any Koopa castle (regardless of whether or not it's this one), insert your own examples here. The relative lack of ambiguity in these diversions, sometimes condescendingly trashed, is in fact a feature and not a bug (even in a slightly more ambiguous and ironically-titled fantasy, we probably all hope and agree that Angel Eyes belongs in the ground before Blondie and Tuco, however truly rotten and worthless the latter pair are).

But we all know those are fantasies, right? Right? The real world doesn't end at a hundred thousand words or eighty-eight minutes, real issues aren't soluble in the thirteen minutes following the last commercial break and we'll be back with a brand new (and equally agreeable) crisis next week, folks. The real world messes with us and keeps messing with us; good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people; the enemies of our enemies aren't necessarily our "friends" but sometimes they're our trade partners and/or allies; and sometimes our friends have really shitty friends. Sometimes people who like children and dogs really are all-that-bad. Sometimes one size doesn't fit all. Sometimes it's not "shades of grey", it's an infinite number of infinitely un-quantizable hues from which an infinite multitude of wavelengths can be tweaked until, when you do reduce it down to a single photon, you're stuck with knowing where it is or where it was/will be, but never both. Sometimes the only thing you can bet your next month's rent on is that the Law Of Unintended Consequences is a real bitch.

So how do you cope? You cope by being subtle, by being sophisticated, by being flexible. By being able to change your mind. By being philosophically bendy when you find out you're wrong. By being nuanced. Not the same--it shouldn't need to be said and tragically has to be because we've gotten so collectively stupid--as being unprincipled or unmoored. Not the same as being directionless; the idiot who really, truly thinks being nuanced is the same as being rudderless is probably the idiot who just crashed into the side of that jackknifed chicken truck on the highway because his GPS said he was supposed to go straight for fifteen miles and, by God, he knows how to take directions and "straight" does not mean "swerve" or "stop" or "pull off the goddamn side of the road before you run into a chicken truck, you idiot."

A fellow who really doesn't believe in being nuanced shouldn't be trusted to lead a campfire singalong, much less a nation. A fellow who says he doesn't believe in being nuanced when, in fact, he knows better and he just thinks his intended audience is stupid and ought to remain that way shouldn't be trusted, period.


vince Friday, October 21, 2011 at 8:57:00 PM EDT  

The stupidity, arrogance, misogyny, disdain, and hubris of the Republican party as it is now constituted makes me angry, sick, and exhausted.

Phiala Saturday, October 22, 2011 at 7:39:00 AM EDT  

You left out willful ignorance, Vince.

Warner Saturday, October 22, 2011 at 12:48:00 PM EDT  

It is elitist to use words correctly.

Eric Saturday, October 22, 2011 at 4:14:00 PM EDT  

There's another conservative-word-abuse peeve! (And I know you're being sarcastic, Warner, and kidding.) But when did "elitist" become a four-letter-word, y'know? I mean, yes, there's always been a kind of pejorative thing where "elitist" has been a synonym for "snobby", but originally (and I know you know this, I'm just ranting, and not at you) being one of the elite was a good thing, something one aspired to and others admired. I mean, yes, one doesn't want snobby leaders or anything, but does one really want a bunch of wash-outs and cretins in the top spot? Argh!

Warner Sunday, October 23, 2011 at 9:00:00 AM EDT  

Elite, that is five letters by my count not four.

I want leaders who are elite, who have gone to elite schools.

Elite is a good thing.

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