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Nuance in Political Debate

In public political debate today, there seems to be little capacity for nuance.

For example, many conservatives seem unable, or unwilling, to differentiate between marijuana and “drugs”. Or for example, many liberals seem unable, or unwilling, to differentiate between legal and illegal immigration.

I believe politicians and pundits often understand the nuance, but just pretend not to. If you act like your opponent made a statement about B when they actually made a statement about A, many people in your audience will believe it. You can them trick your audience into believing your opponent has a different opinion than they actually have – usually a more extreme and idiotic opinion.

For example, you can convince many conservatives that somebody who wants to legalize marijuana, wants to legalize all drugs. Or you can easily convince many liberals that a person who wants stricter enforcement of immigration laws, wants to end all immigration.

Many people are ready and willing to be so convinced, quite comfortable overlooking nuance if it validates their opinions, to the point where many people literally stop perceiving the difference between A and B. When somebody says A, they actually hear B.

At that point, people just talk past each other.

So many liberals respond to statements about illegal immigration by uselessly citing the low crime rate within the immigrant population, without addressing the (higher) crime rates of illegal immigrant populations. And many conservatives respond to statements about legalization of marijuana with useless anecdotes of people who were devastated by heroin addiction, without touching on the (lesser) dangers of marijuana.

These arguments may end with one side “winning”, by convincing more people that their opponent is saying something idiotic. But collateral damage come from using such tactics of political warfare. Those who do perceive the nuance (mostly, the supporters of your opponent), will see you at best as ignorant, and at worse as unscrupulous. This leads of course to further entrenchment and polarization. This may benefit your side politically, but in general it’s a net loss for society.

There is probably a right side to all of these issues. But I think it is usually wrong to ignore the nuance of the arguments on the other side.

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