Sunday, October 1, 2017

The Death of Subtlety?

One of Tolkien's subtler bits...

The problem with our civilization is the death of subtlety.  Or – scratch that.  One of many problems with a lot of the culture of the United States in 2017 is that there is less subtlety than there maybe should be.

I continue to have – albeit with somewhat diminished enthusiasm as of late – hope that subtle questioning is on the whole a better method than bludgeoning people with the truth.

The Subtlety of Philosophy and the Philosophy of Subtlety

A lot of this comes from my background in philosophy.  Philosophy is – or at least can be – a highly subtle endeavor.  For example, Socrates doesn’t just tell his interlocutors what the truth is, he tries to help them discover it through questioning.  Discovering an idea for yourself is more effective than receiving it through intellectual bombardment, because doing so creates an active relationship between your mind, the new idea, and your other ideas.  This is education as personal transformation rather than memory for later regurgitation, although in my experience people are also more likely to remember things they learn subtly and Socraticly.

While contemporary scholars of ancient Greek philosophy of course have all sorts of elaborate theories about what Socrates or Plato meant, I think it’s entirely possible that Socrates and Plato are far too subtle for us to understand in full, especially given the great distances of time and culture that stretch between us.  Much the same could be said for my own area of scholarly specialization in the philosophical traditions of classical India.  In fact, one of the things I love about ancient philosophy in India, China, and the Mediterranean is its subtlety: these traditions do not merely present beliefs and arguments, but complex processes for becoming fully human, processes we moderns may not entirely understand but can nonetheless learn from.  They present, as Pierre Hadot puts it, philosophy as a way of life, and the subtleties of life encourage subtle philosophies.

Sadly, however, much of our contemporary culture (at least here in the United States) appears to be moving away from any kind of subtlety in thought, feeling, interpretation, communication, aesthetics, or much of anything.

Examples from Public Discourse, Politics, and More

I have some disagreements with the so-called New Atheists (e.g., Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, etc.), but my main complaint is that I find them a bit gauche.  It is perhaps too subtle a point that one can be non-religious without being anti-religious.  I think the whole movement (if it still is a movement) is wrong to fixate on the incredibly difficult question of whether something as amorphous as religion does more harm than good on a planet of seven billion creatures as complex as humans.  These days the word “atheist” implies a sort of either-or-ism and a huge host of views (some veering into thinly veiled racism and cultural chauvinism), when in fact the word is simply a denial of a metaphysical proposition (albeit one that is rarely spelled out).

Nietzsche is not typically thought of as a subtle philosopher, given his bombastic style and all that (overly) dramatic “death of God” business.   I have my philosophical quibbles with Nietzsche himself, but the real threat is the parade of angry young men who use his work as an excuse to be blunt assholes or worse, turn to the alt-right.  The trouble is that they lose the subtlety of Nietzsche’s thought.  Case in point: anti-Semitic Nietzsche fans who are apparently unaware of Nietzsche’s loathing of anti-Semites.

A lot of contemporary politics seems to have devolved into virtue signaling and moral grandstanding from all sides rather than anything like honest political debate.  My basic political values are leftist/progressive.  I was in favor of universal healthcare long before millennial Bernie fans made it hip.  But I’m unsure about increasingly popular modes of expressing these values.  In these unsubtle times my point may be taken as either tone policing or tone deafness, so let me say that people ought to be free to rail against the evils of capitalism, institutionalized racism, and the like.  There are plenty of evils there to rail against. 

But such railing is not always productive in all contexts.  It might derail a conversation before it starts, especially if the audience isn’t on board with your basic presuppositions or vocabulary. This is what Buddhists call skillful means.  Sometimes you need to start a conversation from where people are before they can understand where you are.  For example, if your audience is unfamiliar with hip leftist terms like "late capitalism" or "neoliberalism," it would seem a simple point to consider either defining these terms or leaving them out of it.   

Speaking truth to power is a good thing, but sometimes gentle Socratic questioning is more powerful yet.  Questions can bypass the defense mechanisms people erect against ideas they don’t like.  My point is not that gentle questioning is always the right method.  I am certainly not on board with the profoundly unsubtle anti-political correctness, anti-identity politics narrative that is sadly proliferating left, right, and center (mostly among white men).

Blunt denunciations have their place.  By all means, let’s denounce Nazis and other white supremacist hate groups.  But if you’re discussing race with white people somewhere on the spectrum between “woke” and “KKK,” it may be far more effective, both morally and pedagogically, to get them thinking with some Socratic inquiry.  This, of course, won’t always work, but then again moral grandstanding and dramatic denunciations don't always work, either, as they're usually more about making the denouncer seem good than actually doing any good.

Unsubtlety has been par-for-the course in trying to understand the 2016 election, as if something so complex could have a single cause.  Subtle thinkers like Ta-Nehisi Coates are denounced for saying that race is the one and only cause of the election results, which for my part I can’t understand as a plausible interpretation based on a careful reading of anything he actually wrote but which makes perfect sense against the unsubtle background of our times.

Unsubtlety has infected many other aspects of life in the US in 2017.  Dating apps remove a lot of subtlety from romantic relationships (and make me glad to have been married long before such things were commonplace).  Twitter has eviscerated any subtlety that can’t be expressed in 140 characters (or now 240 for a select few).  Increasingly, screen shots of tweets can pass for journalism.  The President of the United States regularly uses Twitter to present unhinged threats of war, petty and callous insults to a Mayor of an American city in need of disaster relief, Culture War salvos about whether black athletes should be fired for protesting, government policies from transgender military bans to immigration restrictions, and more.  This is a perfect marriage of form and content, a profoundly unsubtle medium for a profoundly unsubtle individual.  Stop for a second and think about how utterly bizarre all this is and how unimaginable it would have been even just a few years ago.

Even academic writing seems to be moving toward the kind of blunt ham-handedness prized in the rest of our culture.  Consider the case of a recent controversial paper called “The Case for Colonialism,” which is basically a click bait article in academic form. 

Is Subtlety Anachronistic?

Lately I’ve come to worry that I’m either just wrong about everything or that my attitude is hopelessly anachronistic in these new unsubtle times, a relic of a slower, more deliberative era (if indeed such an era ever existed).  I’m not saying this merely to make the point that questioning your own conclusions is a variety of subtlety in vanishingly short supply these days.

All of this generates another possibly anachronistic move for me: admitting I don’t know the answers.  Is subtlety possible anymore?  Have recent technological, economic, and cultural forces made subtlety an anachronism?  Should I acquiesce to our unsubtle times, or might I persist in the hope that the rumors of subtlety's death have been unsubtly exaggerated?

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