Holding Many Truths: The Loss Of Nuance To Vicious Polarity
It’s the zoo’s fault.
No! Wait. It’s the parents’ fault.
No. It’s the gorilla’s fault — ah, yes, that’s it.
Hold up. It’s probably Captain America’s fault. Or Marvel’s.
Or Hillary’s, or Bernie’s, or yours, or mine.
This thing is the best, that thing is the worst. Ones and zeroes, baby.
Fandom is broken. Politics is a sewer plant on fire. Lady Ghostbusters is the end of cinema. A game is delayed and the only proper response is of course to issue death threats. America is a festering hole. We all shot that gorilla. The kid should’ve died. The zookeeper should be killed. You should be killed. I should be killed. God should flood us all again just to get it over with. The world is shit. Burn it all down. Burn it all up.
Everything is everything or it is nothing. We crave polarity. We loathe nuance.
This is a problem.
I read an article recently by the mightily hilariously wise Sara Benincasa about the election, and she asked a vital question: “Can you hold many truths in your brain at once?” As an adult, it seems to be that you have to. You must be able to hold many truths — not just about different things, but about individual things, as well. Sometimes these truths line up like little ducks, and sometimes they fight like snarly badgers. And yet, we reject that. We despise that level of complexity in our daily discourse — everything must be a toothy, wild-eyed dichotomy no matter how false it may be. Nuance is lost because nuance doesn’t bait you to click. The middle ground is widely populated with essential details, and yet it is at the fringes where we most find our reward: go to the middle and you get arrows from both sides. Stay behind the walls of your team’s fortification, though — ahh, now you will be celebrated, held aloft for your opinion, and all of you will drink and dance in frenzied froth-mouthed glory as you ready your next batch of arrows for THOSE OTHER MOTHERFUCKERS OVER THERE.
The gorilla is dead, and the kid is alive, and the worst news of it all is that it may not be anybody’s fault. Actually, perhaps the truly worstest news is that even if it is somebody’s fault, We The Unhuddled Internet Masses probably can’t actually fucking tell from over here in the digital bleachers. I’m sad the gorilla is dead. I’m happy the child is alive. I know some parents are not good with their kids, and I know some parents are great with their kids — and sometimes the parents who are great with their kids still miss the half-second window that their own child takes a header off the couch into the corner of a coffee table and needs like, 16 stitches. That’s not bad parenting. It’s just an accident. It’s just life. Life is full of things wonderful and horrible and a lot of stuff in between and it’s not always about WHO WE HAVE TO BLAME, WHO WE MUST HATE in order to make sense of it all. But blame makes it easier. Blame makes us feel just.
Captain America is a Hydra agent. Which means he’s a Nazi. Or it means he isn’t a Nazi. And he’ll be this way forever. Or for one issue. I have no idea. I know that I can hold multiple truths in mind. I know that I don’t believe the decision makes Marvel anti-semitic, nor are the creators and editors deserving of threats. I know that criticism against Hydra Cap doesn’t mean the critics deserve threats, either, and I know that the only way we seem to want to parse criticism is by dialing it up to 11 and then taking a hammer to the knob. Some troll either runs with the criticism and elevates it to death threats, or someone else says that criticism somehow punishes us all, even though criticism — agreeable or disagreeable as you find it — is an essential part of the pop-cultural conversation. And I know death threats are not an essential part of any cultural conversation ever, not against the audience, not against the storytellers.
I know that criticism doesn’t make you a hater. Or that telling a complicated story doesn’t make you a monster. Hate makes you a hater. And some stories are just stories and not sacred cows. I know that thinking the new Ghostbusters trailers didn’t look funny doesn’t make you a sexist, just as I know that hating the new Ghostbusters movie because it contains women makes you a total sexist even if you don’t tell us out loud that’s why you hate it. I know your childhood isn’t destroyed and if it is, that isn’t the fault or a movie or a TV show. I know wanting Elsa to have a girlfriend or wanting Poe to tongue-fuck Finn doesn’t make fandom broken. I know that not wanting Poe to tongue-fuck Finn doesn’t automagically make you a homophobe, unless the reason you don’t want it is because you think icky-ew-gross, then yeah, you’re a homophobe, you homophobe. I know fandom isn’t broken but it’s still got problems and problem-people and we need to see that, sometimes, and we need to talk about it even when it makes us uncomfortable. I know that social justice is not a see-saw scale from GOOD to EVIL, but rather, a delicate web, and sometimes you tug on one end and it shakes another part of the web you didn’t anticipate. I know that outrage is only outrage when it’s not the outrage you feel — because it’s easy to call something outrage when you don’t agree with it. People wanting representation in the storyworlds they love is not entitlement. People harassing creators and editors and artists are entitled and they are harassers, no matter how noble or ignoble their desires.
I know that Hillary is not a monster. I know that Bernie is not a savior. I know that if you look at both of them from a hundred feet up, they’re two qualified candidates whose policies are almost universally in line with one another. I know that Ted Cruz is the Zodiac killer. I know that this country might do better with more than two parties just as I know we live in a country engineered to reject the two-party dichotomy. I know that politics is corrupt. I know that Obama wasn’t the MAGICALLY PROGRESSIVE ANGEL we all wanted him to be, and yet despite that, he has done a lot of good for this country. I know that FDR revolutionized the country with the New Deal. I also know he put Japanese people in internment camps. We crave scandal and drama while shoving more complicated realities under the water so we don’t hear them kicking and screaming.
Many truths in your brain at once.
I don’t know where we lost that.
The Internet is probably a part of it. As I said yesterday in a rather long blabber-wank about fandom, I think the Internet is like a wonder drug. It does a great many things excellently, but it also has a lot of hinky side effects. Information moves fast on the Internet, and we’re more inclined to click the thing that either agrees or disagrees with us to the max. We don’t want somebody just to tell us we’re a little bit right — we want somebody to freeze-frame high-five us for just how fucking bad-ass right we are. We love confirmation bias. We greedily click the things that tell us what we already believe. We also seek to fulfill our wishes. This will cure cancer. This is what causes autism, ah, yes. My candidate is the best thing since masturbation, and yours is a pile of walking talking donkey shit and here look I have the polls to prove it, even though polls are notoriously unreliable and they require 1000 older people to answer landline phone calls at 2pm in Kansas. You’re stupid. I’m smart. America is the best. Wait, no, it’s the worst!
Maybe it’s the media, maybe it’s how we create and promote and read the news — news, after all, is just entertainment for the most part, isn’t it? Even in stories where we know there are real, genuine problems plaguing us — climate change or the post-antibiotic age — the stories either remind us how NOTHING IS WRONG GO BACK TO BED AMERICA or how EVERYTHING IS SO BAD WE MIGHT AS WELL JUST LIE DOWN IN THE MUD AND WAIT FOR A HORSE TO STEP ON US AND KILL US. Even there, nuance is lost. We push it away even in situations where we should know the score, where nuance and compromise both internal and external are key to tackling the tremendous problems we have in front of us.
Everything is everything. Or it is nothing. We won’t let one thing show many sides.
Maybe it’s just that we want answers. As our most renowned truant once said, “Life moves pretty fast.” Except we don’t stop and look around — we hard-charge through it, self-assured that as long as we have answers, as long as we are emboldened by unexamined singular truth, we can never be wrong. Rather than face the howling uncertainty of a gradational world, we want everything black and white. We need cancer to be cured because otherwise, that means children and mothers and really anybody at all can just die and nothing can be done. We need the zoo to be responsible, or we need the parents to face justice, because otherwise it renders that gorilla’s life meaningless. We need the thing we like to be a thing that is objectively best, lest we instead admit that so much of what we enjoy is subjective and not beholden really to any rules at all. Nuance is a lawless space, but if you’re willing to shuttle complexity to the curb, you can be assured. We are rewarded for our polarities — though, regrettably, one of those rewards is not progress, because when you’re willing to dig your heels in for everything and anything, and so is the other guy, it’s no surprise when the world burns down around you. (But at least you still have your principles.)
We need our enemies. We need our answers. We crave control. Can’t just be enough to think a thing. To examine it. We have to know the thing. We have to be faithful and ardent.
That’s not to say everything demands nuance. Human rights are vital. Representation is essential. Nobody should be starving, and they are. Everybody should have a right to use the goddamn public restroom of their goddamn gender-given choice, goddamnit. Donald Trump really is a demonic, Hitler-worshipping, self-tanner-drinking orangutan merkin who will almost surely lay waste to American Democracy the moment he presses his malevolent turd-cutter into the Oval Office chair. Not everything demands nuance and Devil’s Advocacy, no, and such diabolical advocacy can often be used to derail and dispute and distract (“Well, actually,” and “But, what if…”) — but the trick is knowing which fights need that ferocity and which ones don’t. If everything is a Crisis Level 1000, if everything is an echo of confirmation and an emblem of unswerving principle, nothing will ever get fixed, nothing will ever get done. Sometimes we need to swerve if only a little. Sometimes we need to be measured and uncertain. We don’t need Wicker Men. We don’t need heads rolling for every single transgression.
We do need nuance, sometimes.
We do need to hold many truths in our head, even as challenging and as uncertain and as muddy as that makes life. Everything can’t be everything or nothing.
Some things have to be many things all at one time.
P.S. Elsa needs a girlfriend and Poe needs a boyfriend, the end.