Dude where’s my nuance?

There are patterns in refusal to engage honestly and openly with ideas. One such pattern, I’m not sure if it has a name. But I’m going to call it “nuance blindness.” This is when a person not only fails to see the shades of gray required to understand an argument, but insists that they do not exist.

You can find a perfect example by Simon Penner writing for Status451 on privilege, via the Slate Star Codex Culture War Weekly Roundup. Penner wrote about an event “for successful people at successful companies to share what made them successful, so that the rest of us can do it too.”

It irritated Penner that some speakers began start their talks by checking their privilege, saying they were grateful for the opportunity “of even being able to have this discussion.” This, to Penner, “implies that the success and achievements of everyone involved are random endowments from the universe, and not hard-won achievements created through the work of the people involved.”

This is a classic mistake, assuming an both/and issue is either/or. The reality is that hard work/talent AND luck/privilege contributed to these panelists’ success. To claim otherwise is absurd.

Does it make any sense to claim that the panelists either worked hard and had natural talent and their race/gender/socioeconomic status had absolutely no impact on the opportunities they were given or hardships they faced or their entire success was predicated on their race/gender/socioeconomic status and their hard work and natural talent had absolutely no impact on their results?


It’s a straw-man argument. Of course the view that hard work and talent have nothing to do with success is easy to defeat. Because it’s dumb. Try instead wrestling with the nuanced view.

People who check their privilege aren’t saying they didn’t have talent and work hard. They’re saying other people, who are equally talented and worked just as hard didn’t achieve the same results because race/gender/socioeconomic status still influence who gets to do what.

Note the word I chose. Influence. These factors don’t decide who gets to do what. But they influence them.

It’s a particular kind of straw-man.

Your inability to see the issue as both/and don’t make it either/or. That’s like a color blind person insisting that blue and green are in fact the same. Your lack of facility with nuance doesn’t make the issue simple, it makes you unable to actually grasp what you’re talking about.


If the person speaking thusly sincerely believed what she was saying about privilege, then she would have nothing else to say. The entire discussion would go like so:

Q: How were you able to drive success at your company, and what lessons do you have to share with the audience A: I am so unbelievably privileged to work at a company that can focus on driving success. Not every company can afford to do that.

Q: Are you saying that your company’s success is just random chance, and has nothing to do with the work you’ve invested into it? A: I guess so. Sucks to be all y’all, working at terrible companies.

Maybe, just maybe, one person working really hard with a lot of talent at a well-run company will get more done than another person working equally hard with the same amount of talent at a poorly run company. Is that like difficult to understand? Talent and hard work matter. So do circumstances. You haven’t “defeated” the concept of privilege by claiming it implies that effort and skill are unimportant. You’ve only shown that you don’t understand the concept of privilege.

It matters less that you understand privilege and more that you understand how to argue. There are really very few things that are truly either/or. If I say that circumstance matters, I am not saying that hard work doesn’t. That’s a stupid leap to make. If I say low taxes matter, I’m not saying I don’t care about economic growth. That’s a stupid leap to make. If I say Blue Lives Matter, I’m probably a stupid racist. Just kidding. You get my point. Saying everyone who thinks privilege is real and important thinks hard work doesn’t matter is intellectually on par with saying everyone who thinks Blue Lives Matter necessarily thinks cops should be shooting more unarmed black people to death and not facing trial.

If your understanding of an argument is predicated on it being an either/or, chances are you don’t really understand the argument. Instead of railing against the either or the or, try fully comprehending the shades between.

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