Episode 201: The Conservative, Faux-Erudite Rise of Nuance Trolling

Citations Needed | May 15, 2024 | Transcript

Citations Needed
54 min readMay 15, 2024
Barack Obama chats alongside Crooked Media podcasting stars. (The Obama Foundation)


Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.

Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed, a podcast on the media, power, PR, and the history of bullshit. I’m Nima Shirazi.

Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: You can follow the show on Twitter @citationspod, Facebook at Citations Needed and become a supporter of the show through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast. All your support through Patreon is so incredibly appreciated, as we are 100% listener-funded.

Adam: Yes, if you can please support the show on Patreon. As always, we’d be very grateful. Supporting us on Patreon helps keep the episodes themselves free and helps keep the show sustainable.

Nima: “Here’s why creating single-payer health care in America is so hard,” explained Harold Pollack in Vox in 2016. “The benefits of climate action…are diffuse and hard to pin down,” shrugged a Foreign Affairs article in 2020. “A nuanced view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” presented Aliza Pilichowski in The Jerusalem Post in 2023.

Adam: These are all examples of something that we call “nuance trolling,” the insistence that some major beneficial development like single-payer healthcare, ending wars or a bombing campaign, or the mitigation or even secession of climate change is impossible because the situation is too nuanced. It’s too complex. The plan too lacking in detail, the goal too hard to achieve. The public isn’t behind it or some other bad faith “concern” that makes bold action an impossibility. Nuance trolls present power-serving defeatism as savvy pragmatism, claiming over and over again that no good, meaningful change can happen because no version of it will simply ever work.

Nima: Nuance and complexity, of course, are real, legitimate things. Political, social, environmental and economic dynamics are often complicated, yes, but nuance trolls abuse this self-evident truism, using it as a mode of analysis and theory designed to weaken and water down movements for change that seek actual material solutions to political problems and instead promote inaction to ensure the continuation and maintenance of the already oppressive status quo. On today’s episode, we’ll examine the trope of the nuance troll, analyze the media’s selective evocation of “complexity” and “nuance” in order to stifle urgent movements for social justice, reducing poverty, curbing climate chaos, and ending occupation and war. Later on the show, we’ll be speaking with Natasha Lennard. A columnist for The Intercept, her work has also appeared in The Nation, Bookforum, Dissent, and the New York Times among many other outlets. Natasha is also the associate director of the Creative Publishing & Critical Journalism graduate program at the New School for Social Research, and the author of two books, the most recent is Being Numerous: Essays on Non-Fascist Life, which was published by Verso Books in 2019.

[Begin clip]

Natasha Lennard: So, similar to other forms of anti-politics we’ve talked about like the obsession with polarization or gerontocracy discourse or purity politics — and that attending to complexities and difficult things that we need to figure out and build knowledge around is crucial. But what that does, in the same way, is this really diversionary, obfuscatory work of meaning we’re not attending to what we’re actually pretty certain of.

[End clip]

Adam: So similar to other forms of anti-politics we’ve talked about, like the obsession with polarization, or gerontocracy discourse, or purity politics–

Nima: Civility.

Adam: The goal of nuance trolling is to make politics not be politics. It’s to make it a kind of sport for elites who’ve mastered it, and you need to kind of sit down because it’s very complex. And, you know, you’re kind of a drooling idiot. And we got it figured out because we have PhDs from Ivy League schools, and it’s extremely head patting, right? Because the assumption is that, like, oh, you have all these, like, slogans and simple answers, and it’s actually really complicated. Now, as we laid out at the intro, and we want to reiterate here, it’s not as if many problems aren’t genuinely complicated, a point we will reemphasize in this episode. It’s the evocation of complexity and nuance in a bad faith way. Because, again, that’s sort of a truism. Like, obviously things are complex, especially when you’re dealing with 330 million people with varying interests. Like, things are complex as sort of a no shit obvious thing to say. The problem with that, aside from its bad faith, is that it fundamentally gets the causality backwards in a lot of major issues, which is that historically, the way things change is not through eggheads and lawyers figuring out the details and then things change. There’s a broad political movement, a popular movement, to change X, Y, and Z, and then that is agreed upon. And then there’s a deadline set for that change, and then the eggheads and then the lawyers come by afterwards and sort of figure out how best to implement it. And what the nuance trolling does is it sort of inverses that. It says, actually we need to get all the eggheads and lawyers to sign off on something as a way of creating political impotence and undermining political will.

Nima: If you don’t have everything figured out right now before the movement kicks off or before we are expecting to see broad political consensus, well, therefore, you haven’t thought it through enough, and therefore, this can’t actually happen. The idea of nuance is like a virtue unto itself. It’s an entire mode of political thought and discussion, rather than nuance being something that can be used in service of action or decision-making. The idea of nuance as being stifling by design.

Adam: And what we’re arguing in this episode is that is both ahistoric and asymmetrical. It’s ahistoric because historically, social movements that have meaningfully improved society such as they have happened are not sorted out by MBAs first and then they happen. They’re usually the elites or political institutions responding to populist uprisings, and they have no choice but to reform. Secondly, it’s asymmetrical, because extremely violent and very dangerous, ambitious projects that serve power are not held to this kind of nuance. For example, invading Iraq was not held to any kind of nuance or complexity standards. It was just a thing we had to do. Invading Afghanistan was just a thing we had to do, supporting the bombing of Gaza and killing tens of thousands of people from the US Congress was never really something we had to discuss. Expanding the middle of the US military in general is never something we have to sort of hold to this nuanced standard. It’s just something that’s self-evidently something we have to do. And any kind of deaths or disease or famine that result from that are seen as kind of, well, that’s just the way it is. So it’s both ahistorical and asymmetrically applied because, again, nuance, while it is objectively a virtue and is good, as a sort of slogan, as a capital “N” nuance, can be employed pretty much whenever you want to undermine any kind of build up towards mass movement.

Nima: Right. The situation that’s already occurring is the given. So, any pushback to that, let’s say arguing that civilian populations should not be held in captivity and bombed mercilessly by nuclear-armed powers. That then gets put to well, you know, but have you really dug into the centuries-long history of the Zionist movement or have you really gotten into the complexity of the Sykes-Picot agreement? Because then we really need to unpack. It’s like the bombing is going to continue, and that’s the given. Anything against that is going to be subject to this nuance rolling in order to maintain the way things are as you said, Adam. And the media is deeply implicated in this because so much of the communication about “whoa, whoa, whoa, slow down, change can’t happen that fast” comes through the media. So. examples of this extend far back into our history. One early example comes from an article in The Economist dated May 21st, 1853 in which the magazine warned that slavery couldn’t be abolished immediately because enslaved people would therefore be helpless and abandoned if emancipation happened all at once. The article implied that the abolitionist movement couldn’t answer logistical questions about the end of slavery and thus, was not being realistic. Here is an excerpt from that piece from 1853:

It appears by the latest census that there are in the United States 3,204,093 slaves owned by about 3,000,000 people and valued at 1,200 millions of dollars. How can such a mass be emancipated? Where are they to go? How are they to live? How could they be employed? They could not get their own living. Are the planters to vacate the land for them? Are they to give their estates up to their slaves? Are they to become the servants of the negroes? Immediate and unconditional emancipation is simply an impossibility. Exeter Hall might as well resolve that the sun shall not shine or that the rivers shall not run into the sea.

Adam: Now, of course, that is what happened. The Emancipation Proclamation freed at least nominally, millions of slaves. And then within less than two, three years, that was accomplished because the political will and the top-down order by the US military made it so. And of course, there were tons of logistical problems caused by this that the Union army had to manage, Ulysses S. Grant being one of them. And you know what? They managed it. It wasn’t perfect. They made mistakes. There were logistical issues with, you know, whether or not they went to Union army camps, whether or not they got plots of land, which, of course, they ended up doing. But the logistical problems were far, far less than just continuing slavery at infinitum, right? That’s sort of the key.

Nima: Well, right. And what’s also kind of ironic here is that The Economist, a British magazine, is speaking out against the abolition of slavery when slavery has already been abolished in British territories by that time. And as we’ve mentioned before on the show, The New York Times across the pond trafficked in a similar hemming and hawing over abolition in an 1859 editorial that scolded abolitionists here in the United States for talking about slavery too damn much. Now, according to the so nuanced editors of The New York Times, there were plenty of process critiques to make regarding how to go about getting rid of a system that literally enslaved generations of human beings. These were some of their concerns:

Emancipation, whenever it comes, must be the work of the Slave States themselves. They must adopt it from a conviction of its necessity to their own well being. It will not come as an isolated act — complete at once and by itself — but as a result from other acts, — as the effect of separate and preparatory causes.

The article goes on to explain what this might look like to avoid abolishing the institution in one fell swoop:

Laws to prevent the separation of families, — to limit the sale of slaves on execution for debt, to give them the right now enjoyed by the slaves of Cuba of purchasing their own freedom, — to connect them permanently with the soi as in the old predial system of Europe, would soon press themselves, by their obvious justices and humanity, upon the attention of Southern legislators and prepare the way — in the public mind as well as in the condition of affairs — for the ultimate removal of Slavery itself…No system of immediate and total abolition — either with or without compensation — can ever commend itself to the sober judgment of our people.

Adam: Where this bad-faith concern really hit its peak in many ways was the Vietnam War, which was routinely presented as something that was very complex and nuanced and required a complicated, yearslong process, even if one kind of accepted the increasingly popular liberal or left-wing premise that the war had to end and that the far left, the hippies, the anti-war protesters, the Black Panthers, et cetera were sort of just unrealistic and were working in a simplistic slogan filled universe that didn’t quite understand the nuances and the reality of the situation on the ground.

For example, in his 1967 book The Bitter Heritage: Vietnam and American Democracy, presidential historian Arthur M. Schlesinger claimed to offer a “solution” to the Vietnam War in a chapter entitled “The Middle Course,” Schlesinger called the proposal of a ceasefire on the ground in South Vietnam “possibly very dangerous” and added that “no serious person” has suggested that the US undertake a unilateral ceasefire. The very same year the book was published in 1967, Martin Luther King, in fact, did call for a unilateral ceasefire. Instead of what he deemed a reckless approach, Schlesinger recommended measures like applying moderate force, “tapering off” the bombing, and a promise to the Vietnamese Communists of a future in Vietnam.

Arthur M. Schlesinger (AP file)

Author Mary McCarthy, who at the time supported an immediate end to the war, challenged Schlesinger’s prescriptions, writing a critique of it in 1967 entitled “Vietnam: Solutions.” That same year in 1967, the New York Review of Books published an “exchange” between McCarthy and writer Diana Trilling, who critiqued McCarthy’s “refusal to deal with a Communist victory in South Vietnam.” Trilling wrote, “I too oppose this war and urge our withdrawal from Vietnam,” later adding, “But even as I take this stand I confront the grim reality that in withdrawing from Vietnam we consign untold numbers of Southeast Asian opponents of Communism to their death and countless more to the abrogation of the right of protest which we American intellectuals hold so dear.” Yeah. Well, case closed, I guess we have to keep the war going.

Nima: Well, nothing to do. Untold numbers.

Adam: Yeah, it’s too complex. Yeah, sorry.

Nima: Yeah, let’s just keep slaughtering millions of people. So interestingly, in Mary McCarthy’s piece “Vietnam: Solutions,” she actually wrote about a tactic of nuance trolling, though she didn’t use that terminology as applied to those who were against the war. McCarthy wrote this:

If [a critic of the war] says “Get Out” — the only sane answer — [his opponent] pounces. ‘How?’ And he sits back smiling. He has won. The tables are turned, and the critic is on the defensive. If he tries to outline a plan for rapid withdrawal, conscious that 464,000 troops, plus their civilian supporting services, cannot be pulled out overnight (and what about the ‘loyal’ Vietnamese — should they be left behind or do we owe them an airlift to Taiwan?), the plan inevitably appears feeble and amateurish in comparison with the massed power and professionalism of the war actually being waged.

Adam: Boy, where have we heard that one? I mean, that was very popular in Iraq. It’s currently popular, of course, in Gaza. There’s this idea that the status quo never needs to have the burden of proof, that the people who want to stop the horrific thing need to have a 500-page PowerPoint presentation with a detailed logistics plan because the alternative never needs to prove itself. Only those opposing the status quo have to have this sort of infinitely fractal nuance, right? You can keep zooming in, and you have to have more detailed and more detailed plans and more detailed plans because you can keep moving the goalpost.

Nima: Exactly. So, these tactics that McCarthy described back in 1967 persist to the present day in all manner of discussion, not only when it comes to war, bombing, and aggression, but also when it comes to things like healthcare. A January 2016 Vox article written by Harold Pollack emphasized the complexity and difficulty of designing and implementing single payer healthcare. Under the headline quote, “Here’s why creating single payer health care in America is so hard.” Pollack contended that “The pitch for single-payer is admirably simple,” but countered with assertions that single-payer would cause “transition issues” and be “disruptive” to people who already had insurance and “liked” it. Pollack added that those who stood to benefit the most from single-payer would be poor people, but spent more time sympathizing with “affluent people who would face large tax increases to finance a single-payer system.”

In September of 2017, New York Magazine published a piece by Jonathan Chait entitled “Bernie Sanders’s Bill Gets America Zero Percent Closer to Single Payer” in which he makes many the same arguments of Harold Pollack, stating that he agreed with single payer in theory, right? They always sort of agree in theory. We agree we should leave Vietnam in theory.

Nima: We don’t like the bad thing, but we can’t possibly imagine why anything would be less bad.

Adam: Oh, we can’t do anything about it because it’s complex. He insisted that 155 million Americans who already had health care represented an insuperable barrier and that the issue of how to move them all into a government-run system “is not a detail to work out. It is an entire problem.” Chait added that Lyndon Johnson, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama failed to undo the private system, which is weird because that implies they really wanted to when at the very least, Clinton and Obama certainly did not really want to.

Nima: Everyone’s done everything they possibly could already. Yeah, sure.

Adam: There’s nothing more we can do. It’s too complex, and neither Pollack and Chait were, of course, interested in exploring the fact that most people don’t like private insurance and by most indications, would be happy to transition to a single payer.

A 2021 study in the Journal of American Medical Association found that

Individuals with employer-sponsored and individually purchased private insurance were more likely to report poor access to health care, higher costs of care, and less satisfaction with care compared with individuals covered by publicly sponsored insurance programs.

This is a classic kind of, depends how you ask the question polling situation where if you ask people, do they like their private insurance, because they’re comparing it to the alternative of not having any at all, they will always say they like it. People’s individual insurance has very high approval ratings because they know the alternative. But when you ask people, do you support a single payer healthcare system similar to what they have say in Britain as kind of an NHS style, it polls depending on how you ask the question, somewhere between 60% and 70%. So again, this is kind of how you poll it, how you sort of frame it. And the Jonathan Chaits of the world and Harold Pollacks of the world aren’t interested in changing how people see the world. They’re not interested in using the bully pulpit or changing the kind of moral framework of any particular issue. They just want to sort of put their finger to the wind, see which way it’s blowing, and say, ah, you know, it’s too complex. It’s too hard, takes too much convincing rather than actually using their media influence to change things, to convince people of things, right? Politics is about responding to the status quo and kind of curating it and massaging it and managing it. It’s not about changing what the status quo is.

And I wrote at the time for the Los Angeles Times, I wrote an article in 2017 critiquing Jonathan Chait where I accused him of nuance trolling. We’ve had this as a sort of mode of critique for many years now. Am I allowed to quote myself? Is that against the rules?

Nima: Yeah, sure.

Adam: Okay, I’m gonna quote myself.

And if the demand for nuance seems reasonable enough, consider that pundits rarely require it when it comes to military interventions — Chait and others set this issue aside when it came to invading Iraq in 2003, for instance. The idea at the time was: This is an urgent threat, we will rush to solve it and sort out the details later. With an estimated 45,000 people dying a year because of a lack of healthcare and almost half of the money raised on GoFundMe used to pay medical bills, we must ask: How is this crisis any less urgent?

Of course, Jonathan Chait was a huge supporter of the Iraq War. None of his articles promoting the Iraq War up to and including one that says “Give War A Chance” was the headline in the New Republic did he actually seem concerned about the nuances of destroying the entire government and civil society of Iraq and what wars that may unleash. But needless to say, trying to convert people politically from private health insurance to single payer under Chait’s metric causes more harm than invading Iraq, which killed upwards of half a million to a million people, depending on your estimate.

Nima: This trope is also popular when it comes to things like climate action. A Foreign Affairs piece from April 2020 headlined “The Paths to Net Zero,” claimed that climate action hadn’t happened because its benefits were “diffuse and hard to pin down,” that collective action was “difficult to organize,” and that “the profound uncertainty about what lies ahead makes it hard to move decisively.” So, the conclusion of this Foreign Affairs piece: policymakers shouldn’t bother with all that complicated stuff. They should instead direct investment towards so-called clean tech, potentially made by the companies already responsible for contributing the most to climate change and to what else? Public-private partnerships. The piece went on to criticize then-pending climate legislation in the US and Europe as impractical, stating this:

The much-touted Green New Deal in the United States is still weak on specifics, and the more concrete it becomes, the harder it may be to form a supportive political coalition around it. Its counterpart, the European Green Deal, is further along yet also faces political challenges and administrative hurdles.

So therefore, let the planet burn because, you know what?

Adam: Yeah, no rush, no urgency, no sense that something has to be done. We can get there. It’s like the Honda commercial I saw where it says, you know, we’re on a path to be carbon-neutral by 2050. It’s like, oh, you’re on the path as a corporation to be carbon-neutral. No rush!

Nima: Yeah, take your time. Well, I love also, how if there aren’t enough specifics, then we need to, you know, I don’t think there’s really enough nuance here. There aren’t any details. And then, as was just quoted in that Foreign Affairs piece, it says, the more concrete that these legislative efforts or these policies or these solutions are made, the more detail added, well, now it’s just harder to actually get anyone to agree with it. Now, it’s just too complex, right? So it’s either not complex enough or then it jumps immediately to too complex because the point is actually not to change.

Adam: It’s a skeleton key. You can use it for anything. I mean, anything’s either too complex or not complex enough or not popular enough. And it’s like, yeah, everything, every social movement in history, has been unpopular before it’s popular. That’s how things become popular, right? So, there’s kind of two modes, there’s logistics, there’s sort of political popularity, right? You sort of say, oh, not enough people support it. This is very popular when people were trying to concern troll single payer even when polls showed, you know, it’d be 60, 70%, there’s always, you know, people really like their health care. They’re not going to want to do it. It’s like, yeah, because you have to convince them of things. That’s what politics is. It’s a fundamentally evangelical enterprise. And you’re sort of saying, ah you know what? It’s not worth it. We don’t need to go to this town and convert anyone. They’re they’re already really hardcore religious freaks. Let’s just move on. I mean, well, then what are you doing being an evangelical? You’re just sort of saying, let’s not do anything. And you see this a lot with foreign policy more broadly.

Again, we saw this during the Bernie Sanders run. This was a very popular mode. The way one signals they were very serious adult pundits in the room was anytime Bernie Sanders said, hey, this thing’s evil or this thing’s really important, we should do better, it’s too pie in the sky. It’s not nuanced enough. Vox, which was the ground zero for this kind of writing during the 2016 and 2017 election and leading up to the 2020 election, Jennifer Williams at Vox wrote a piece in 2017 headlined “Bernie Sanders wants world peace and prosperity. But he has no idea how to get there.” Ah, okay. The piece published in response to a speech that Bernie Sanders delivered shortly before chided Sanders for a lack of detail in his calls for the US to shift from a default position of war to one of diplomacy when addressing international conflicts. Author Jennifer Williams quoted an excerpt from the Sanders speech, which reads as follows, “We must offer people a vision that one day, maybe not in our lifetimes, but one day in the future, human beings on this planet will live in a world where international conflicts will be resolved peacefully, not by mass murder.” Now, this is sort of the way politics works. You know, especially when he planned on running for office in 2020, is that you build a moral vision, you campaign in poetry, you kind of lay out a vision and then from that, you sort of follow that up. But this was not sufficient for Williams who, of course, needed to “tsk” this. Now, she made a perfunctory reference to it being a laudable stance, right? Because this kind of patronizing like, Oh, the kids mean well. But she quickly articulated that this pie-in-the-sky thinking, which is to say, reducing mass death and building foreign policy around war and weapon shipments was simply unrealistic and not supported by “concrete ideas.”

She wrote,

He offered a moving portrait of the world as it should be. What he didn’t offer, though, was any sort of new or innovative or even particularly concrete ideas for how to achieve this grand utopian vision. Of course, big political speeches like this often present the world as it should be and don’t get bogged down in the details — but especially when it comes to foreign policy, these details really do matter.

Williams would basically go on to defend military intervention and drone strikes in West Asia and the Middle East as well as the US backing of Saudi’s war in Yemen, suggesting that there is simply no alternative to addressing the threats of ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and Houthi rebels. Babies just have to die from US bombs. There’s sort of nothing else we can really do. And again, this is because, you know, it’s a speech by Bernie Sanders. What exactly was he supposed to sort of offer? And that’s how you sort of signal yourself as someone who’s serious.

Nima: Oh, you know, that guy standing up there at the Lincoln Memorial saying, “I have a dream,” but he’s pretty short on details, I gotta say.

Adam: Yeah, if you’re short on details, how are you really gonna figure that one out? Jennifer Williams is now the deputy editor at Foreign Policy and organizes debates for the Emirati government through Doha Debates. So, that’s how you sort of ingratiate oneself to the blob.

Nima: Yeah.

Adam: We saw this a lot once Biden took office, and there was a re-concentrated effort to end the Saudi bombing in Yemen, which had a ceasefire but could end at any minute. And Saudi Arabia was still blockading Yemen, preventing important medical trips, food, fuel against the so-called Houthi rebels. And this was the sort of default posture, which is that, yeah, we should end, but it’s more nuanced than you’re sort of letting on. So, at the end of 2022, there was a short-lived attempt to revive the War Powers Resolution effort, to end direct US participation in the Saudi-led war on Yemen. Major media were quick to emphasize the repercussions of a potential WPR in order to run interference for the Biden White House and its ongoing backing of Saudi Arabia in general.

So, one instance of this kind of nuance trolling comes from a piece from Politico that quoted Jonathan Lord, the director of the “Middle East Program” at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), a DC-based think tank, Lord said this:

Riyadh has largely abided by its commitments under the ceasefire that was implemented earlier this year. At this juncture, the WPR would only serve to punish the Saudis for past sins, which is ultimately unhelpful in incentivizing their continued and future cooperation in achieving a lasting peace agreement in Yemen.

It’s worth noting that two big funders of the Center for a New American Security are the US Defense Department and weapons manufacturer Northrop Grumman. Therefore, the think tank itself has an obvious stake in the United States’ ongoing backing of Saudi Arabia and other military efforts. Yeah, and I wrote at the time for my Substack, the column I wrote at the time, an article, “On Cue, Saudi and Weapons-Contractor-Funded Pundits Attack Bernie Sanders’ Yemen War Powers Resolution,” which was basically making the same arguments that there were various Saudi-funded think tanks that suddenly had a very nuanced interpretation of the events. It was very complex. It was very oversimplified. Namely, the Middle East Institute whose biggest donors that year were Saudi Arabia and UAE, which donated 1.7 million and 233,000, respectively.

In addition to CNAS, as you mentioned, was also the Arab Gulf Institute in Washington, which was quoted repeatedly by various outlets at the time, talking about how complex the situation was. They were created by the Saudi and UAE governments, which funded them and also the Saudi Arabia Foundation, which is 100% funded by Saudi Arabia. So, the Saudi-funded weapons contractor-funded groups, they didn’t want to come out and say like, yeah, there’s tens of thousands of people dying of famine and being bombed. And while there was a temporary pause at the time, Saudi Arabia was threatening to restart the war. They didn’t want to come out and say we support continuing bombing the poorest country in the Middle East because that sounds bad, right? You sort of can’t say that. You say, actually, it’s really complex. We need leverage against the Houthis. There needs to be a ceasefire. That’s this, this, and this. And it’s like, okay but when you’re making that argument, you’re basically saying that the continued collective punishment of the civilian population of Yemen is worth it as a way to achieve a political end. But just make that argument. But you can’t make that argument. So, what you do is, you say, it’s very complex. It’s, you know, fog of war. It’s, you know, it’s not so simple. The US can’t stop supporting Saudi Arabia, and it’s like, well, okay, I mean, we can’t stop supporting a theoretic dictatorship that takes a bone saw to journalists because it’s so complex.

And again, like we’ve mentioned, this nuance is not really afforded to other countries. If the US started arming and funding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, people wouldn’t come along and say, it’s very complex. You know, Ukraine needs to do X, Y, and Z first. We would sort of view it in simple moral terms. But when the US is doing an objectively horrific and bad thing and supporting objectively despotic governments, suddenly, it’s just, you know, who can say? It’s very complicated. You know, it’s a Rashomon situation. Do you know the 7000-year history? Can you tell me who the sixth-century kingdom in Yemen was? Oh, you don’t know? Okay, well, you can’t comment on it because you’re not at the Saudi Arabia institute forum sponsored by Raytheon. Any of those mercenary PhDs who sort of appear to the woodwork and “tsk, tsk,” you know, the sort of radical Bernie Sanders crowd for wanting to end such an obviously evil war. And that’s the line you take because if you can’t defend the status quo as such, whether it be Vietnam or slavery or shitty healthcare system, you do the next best thing, which is a process critique vis a vis nuance, saying actually, it’s very complex.

Nima: Yeah, which is exactly what has been happening since before the establishment of Israel in 1948 and in the subsequent 75 years. To always have there be some kind of nuance that’s too complex, too historical, too fraught, too complicated to actually just say that you know what colonizing a land that is not your own is bad or apartheid is bad or ethnic cleansing is bad or genocide is bad.

So, we have all of these historic timelines that came out after October 7th.

Now, of course, we’ve seen this for years and decades past but more recently, Vox, on October 19th, 2023 published a piece headlined “A timeline of Israel and Palestine’s complicated history.” The piece summarizes events from the 1917 Balfour Declaration in which the British government effectively signs on to establish “a national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine and then goes through all of these other kind of historic events, unpacking all the nuance and complexity. But again, this is all a way to avoid the simple fact that already Israel was committing genocide in Gaza. All of this was to distract from the simple fact that there were people already calling for Israel to stop bombing Gaza, to stop committing an act of genocide that was already underway just weeks after October 7th. But no, no, no, we have to hand wave that away because you know, it’s not that simple. So, we can’t stop doing the thing that’s happening now until we read about 15 2,000-page books on the complicated Middle East history of the Levant.

Adam: Yeah, because some things are very complicated and some things are very nuanced. But then some things aren’t. Or rather, the sort of moral impetus is not the substance of the solution, we can argue, or what we do afterwards, we can argue. But what they see is a bunch of Zoomers on Tiktok and Twitter and YouTube and Facebook, seeing a bunch of horrific videos of amputated children and toddlers under rubble. And they say, hmm, that’s bad. My government should probably stop supporting that. And they start backwards from there, saying, ah, you know, actually, you know, you’re just a bunch of simple-minded Zoomers. You really don’t know the complexities of it. And who better to do this posture, right, than the sort of ultimate head-patting, pull-your-pants-up Barack Obama who spent the better part of 15 years tsking the left student activists for being too simple-minded, for being too simplistic, too demagogic, too moralistic. On November 23, he appeared on Pod Save America where he did the “it’s complex” routine. We’re going to listen to that clip right now.

[Begin clip]

Barack Obama: If there’s any chance of us being able to act constructively to do something, it will require an admission of complexity and maintaining what on the surface may seem contradictory ideas. That what Hamas did was horrific, and there’s no justification for it. And what is also true is that the occupation and what’s happening to Palestinians is unbearable. And what is also true is that there is a history of the Jewish people that may be dismissed unless your grandparents or your great grandparents or your uncle or your aunt tell you stories about the madness of anti-semitism. And what is true is that there are people right now who are dying, who have nothing to do with what Hamas did. Right? I mean, we can go on for a while.

[End clip]

Adam: We can go on for a while, which is exactly the point. You listen to this whole interview. You listen to that segment a million times. He never actually has a position. He never supports a ceasefire, never supports conditioning weapons to Israel. It’s peak Obama in that it’s sort of liberal empathy box-checking.

Barack Obama recording a guest appearance on Pod Save America in 2017. (Pod Save America)

Nima: I’m really wringing my hands here, but you know, there are so many different sides to consider and so many contradictory feelings and ideas and histories. And how do you ever reconcile that? Therefore, I guess we just have to keep sending new planes, bombs, bullets, and weapons to Israel because otherwise, I mean, we could do this all day, man. We can go back and forth. I mean, there are kids dying, but also, I mean, remember the Holocaust, right? I mean, so what are we fuckin’ supposed to do here?

Adam: I mean, yeah, it’s really just the Macbeth. It’s the sound and fury signifying nothing. It is, what the fuck did you just say? Because the point of complexity trolling and nuance trolling is to sound fucking intelligent and to sort of position oneself as a sort of expert. Again, you sort of box check. You’re deep, you’re thoughtful, it’s very complex. And then you realize that this was all sound and fury signifying nothing. What was said in this? Nothing. There was no position taken, no risk taken, no tension exposed, no cognitive dissonance, no thesis, or antithesis, right? Nothing.

Nima: Because that’s the point. Nuance is the virtue itself, not a way to actually dissect an important issue to reach a conclusion. The conclusion itself is nuance. It’s supposed to stop the debate.

Adam: Correct, because the point is to just confuse people and have them move on so they ignore calls for a ceasefire and to pressure Biden to end the military support. And again, this popped up because what you got to see is that we’ve seen this a lot over the last few months because clearly, Biden was never going to change course in any meaningful way. Again, they’ll push for a temporary ceasefire to release hostages, but that’s it, nothing permanent, basically telling Israel to wrap it up and go home to end the war, which Biden thus far, has refused to do.

And everybody sort of knows this and sees this is happening, but at the same time, they know they have a political problem in their hand. And so, you really saw this complexity and nuance troll emerge among the kind of egghead classes over the last few months. Because again, what else is there? This is what’s really fascinating over the last five, six months, that basically no one defends the Israeli assault in Gaza as such at all. I mean, really never, unless far right-wing media or Fox News. But like, liberals aren’t even bothering, even though their president is supporting it and arming it and himself supporting it, no one really defends the substance. All they have is process critiques and nuanced critiques and complexity critiques. And you know, who’s to say what’s what? Or my favorite cop out, which is the “Biden can’t stop it if he wants to” non sequitur critique, right? That all this is sort of hemming and hawing over nothing because the US Empire is a bumbling child that can do nothing to stop this, the big bad Israelis who literally cannot function without US munition shipments every few weeks.

And so, what you saw is the sort of emerging class of this fixation with nuance as a kind of virtue in and of itself. So, there was one piece in January 2024 in the Washington Post by columnist Amanda Ripley that really took this posture to a very cynical endpoint where it said that in the context of Gaza, it was necessary to reject good vs. evil binaries and instead embrace complexity. Ripley pathologized the categorization of good and evil as a psychological phenomenon called “splitting,” thus glossing over, of course, the very important political and moral dynamics of bombing toddlers in Gaza who are being subjugated and sieged as a refugee population. She wrote:

One of the most helpful things I’ve read since the war in Gaza began was Lulu Garcia-Navarro’s interview with Israeli writer Etgar Keret for the New York Times. In the days after Hamas’s attacks, he felt the urge to split — and he was actively fighting it, working to see the fuller catastrophe, so to speak: ‘I think that in our souls, or our minds, or whatever you call it, there is something very complex, some ability to contain ambiguity, not to be swept with only one emotion. To be able to inhale the complexity of existing,’ he said.

Nima: Man, sit with that as the bombs fall.

Adam: Man, just sit there and meditate on that. That’s so fuckin’ deep. And the piece uses the kind of pseudo-psychology, pop psychology of the mind that wants to have binaries and wants to have right and wrong. And again, when we’re talking about things like, I don’t know, zoning laws or whether or not this property tax should be increased, sure. But when you’re talking about a “war” that is, by all metrics, objectively evil, right? An assault, what ICJ says is a “plausible genocide” that has seen tens of thousands of children amputate a limb, that sees tens of thousands of children ultimately going to die, that has 1 million people actively starving. This idea that this needs a ton of nuance literally serves one functional purpose, especially when the status quo continues as is, which is to make people impotent, which is to oppose the anti-war movement, the anti-genocide movement, and to stop it in its tracks. Because this is not complex. This is, again, how do you solve the problem after a ceasefire? Sure, that’s obviously complex, but at the very least, we can agree there isn’t any complexity to a totally gratuitous, totally one-sided, genocidal bombing, siege, starvation campaign, unleashing disease campaign on a besieged population that is 75% refugees. Certainly, that does not need ten thousand point PowerPoint presentations of what one does to stop that. Clearly, just stop doing the bad thing.

Nima: To discuss this more, we’re now going to be joined by Natasha Lennard, a columnist for The Intercept, her work has also appeared in The Nation, Bookforum, Dissent, and the New York Times among many other outlets. Natasha is also the associate director of the Creative Publishing & Critical Journalism graduate program at the New School for Social Research, and the author of two books, the most recent is Being Numerous: Essays on Non-Fascist Life, which was published by Verso Books in 2019. Natasha will join us in just a moment. Stay with us.


Nima: We are joined now by Natasha Lennard. Natasha, so great to have you back on Citations Needed.

Natasha Lennard: Oh, I’m delighted to be back. How are you doing?

Adam: We’re doing well, I’m speaking for you, Nima, sorry. He’s doing fine.

Natasha Lennard: Do you want to nuance that a little bit?

Adam: No such thing. We don’t believe in it.

Nima: We’re gonna problematize this.

Adam: Citations Needed is entirely just nothing but lizard-brain demagoguery. Let’s talk, if you would, a bit about this bad-faith tactic we’ve been talking about today. The idea that a sort of urgent moral issue is, in fact, extremely nuanced and complex, is a very useful backdoor conservatism. Because, after all, if something requires, you know, a 2000-year history lesson or a PhD in political science or is sort of full of naughty moral dilemmas and trolley problems, it gets a little overwhelming for the average person. So, there’s not really something that’s an evil or wrong that needs to be corrected. It’s actually something that’s very time-consuming, and it’s almost a sort of chore to dissect. And therefore, we kind of just all get deflated and go home. It kind of takes the momentum away and the moral clarity away. We saw this in efforts to push for single payer health care circa 2017 and 2019. We saw this around post-George Floyd meaningful police reforms in 2020. We see this, of course, most recently with Gaza. How anytime there’s a kind of consensus that something is wrong, immediately there appears to be 900 pundits that are dispatched to tell you how it’s actually very complex. And it’s not that it’s not that it’s not wrong, it’s that it’s also kind of right. And then, the result is, of course, paralysis, which, of course, is kind of by design. So, let’s talk about, generally, this kind of bad faith media tactic of nuance and complexity, not as something that is an intellectually honest pursuit but as a kind of bludgeon to prevent especially the Zoomers from getting mad.

Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard: No, I’m really delighted to be talking about this today, especially because after this interview, I’m going to be heading into university to speak to my students about history as propaganda by Du Bois and the kind of long history of these kind of rhetorical and narrative tactics that appeal to offering up robust and allegedly detailed histories in order to abstract from more important, and let’s call them insurgent truths that challenge a given common sense narrative, if you will. So, of course, nothing we’re critiquing here, nothing you guys have been talking about, nothing that I have a problem with is nuance per se or the idea of attending to the complexities of an issue and a history. We’re talking about the kind of bad-faith deployment of calls for nuance and a refusal to actually attend to an issue by saying it is too complicated.

And I think a lot of things go on when these discursive moves are put into play. First of all, it’s deeply patronizing, of course. If it’s coming from a media or political commentariat saying, you, the activists, you, the people in the streets, you, the campaigners, you say you’re calling for something, but you couldn’t possibly understand the complexities here. It’s patronizing. And obviously it does political work. It’s in many cases, cynical, right? It’s a go home, you couldn’t possibly understand. And obviously, there are various occasions where members of this commentariat truly believe that. Like, oh, you’re calling for degrowth of the global economy. You fools. You don’t understand how to feed people going forward. And it’s patronizing because obviously, many people at the forefront of these movements and not only in university settings are acutely aware of the difficulties of achieving the kind of mass social change we’re calling for but refuse to allow problems of complexity to indeed be dissuasions. It’s incredibly clear when calls for nuance or refusal to answer a question because it is too complicated are bad faith because often, you’ll find the very people that are interlocutors who are in fact, calling for change, demanding change, taking action, have not shied away from complexity at all. I think if we want to bring up Gaza and the people demanding an end to genocide and taking to the streets and acting for it, it’s not because there is either an absence in struggle of historical understanding. In fact, there’s been extraordinary writing shared from Palestinian voices, from academics and genocide studies, from international voices who understand acutely well the complexities and histories at play here and nonetheless, have no problem standing against genocide. And I think a couple of really key times I’ve seen this call to nuance as a reactionary and diversionary tactic deployed is certainly fiercely in this moment during the war on Gaza and also around debates around fascism. And so, it’s often about the application of a term with political weight. So, in the case of fascism, fascism, in the case of the genocidal war in Gaza, genocide.

And then the demand for nuance and complexity is itself very intellectually dishonest because it’s pretending that terms can only be used in a precise moment or in one historical setting. First of all, that’s not how language works. If we couldn’t use language and specific terms called into being in political historic moments and materially specific historical moments to describe one thing and then reapply them, those terms are useless. We don’t need them in circulation. With the use of the term “genocide” as a legal concept but also a descriptive concept with political clout that calls into being a certain sort of response, one would hope. Masha Gessen’s point that they made about the use of genocide to describe as potentially what is — and this was a few months ago — going on in Gaza, I think it would be very difficult to not say that is indeed what’s going on, is that we call upon these words in order to make comparison, in order to intervene.

So, the calls for nuance and complexity against these sort of descriptions are then in action, calls to not intervene even if those calling for nuance and avoiding the application of these kind of weighted historical terms don’t realize they’re doing that. Often, they do realize, but that is what they’re doing. Same with describing contemporary constellations in the US, right? And Modi, the AfD in Germany, calling these fascist constellations. And then, you get the, you know, nuance mongers, the most particularly nuance mongers in the last few years, saying, like, oh no, it’s not fascism, because it’s not from the fascism region of early 20th century Germany or Italy. Then what they’re denying is the possibility that language isn’t just historically contained because then it would be useless. Indeed, it works, as the great Wittgenstein always reminds us, in terms of family resemblance concepts. And really crucially, it forecloses that language doesn’t just describe but call certain constellations into being too. So, if I’m calling something fascist, maybe it’s because I’m saying we need an antifacist response. When it feels both grounded and well-evidenced that there is a genocide going on, it is not only deployed because it is descriptively correct. Surely, one would hope it is to intervene with that genocide. So, I think two things go on that are intellectually dishonest. It’s both this extraordinary refusal to understand the way language works and meaning is made and rejection of the possibility of language doing more than description and calling for political action, which doesn’t indeed foreclose understanding complexity and being able to attend to it.

Adam: Yeah, to me, it’s part of a broader kind of political posture of just tone down the temperature, like everyone just calm down, right? You said it’s inherently patronizing.

Nima: Caring and change is just hot-headed, but nuance is objective to get back to Du Bois there.

Adam: Yeah, it’s lame-o, it’s for Zoomers who are TikTok-addled Zoomers. And this is something we’ve talked about before, which is the anti-politics of polarization discourse for which this is an attendant discourse, right? It’s kind of very similar, a lot of overlap. And the goal is to kind of like you said, I think you’re right. It is to remove words that are viewed as being overly charged or overly tabloidy and to sort of play off the Wittgenstein, it’s kind of like, the limits of my word are the limits of my world, right? It’s like, so if you can’t use a word like genocide or fascism even when they are kind of overwhelmingly applicable, and even when scholars of those terms say, no, it actually makes sense here, because they’re viewed as being too charged, right? It’s all kind of very outcome-based. It’s like, does it make people feel bad? This is what the New York Times has said explicitly, I think, like, does it seem too charged? Does it seem too provocative? Only for America and its allies, obviously. For China and Iran and Russia, you can sort of use whatever you want but for those who are kind of considered in the good standing of the West, as it were, you have to use language that’s toned down because it’s viewed as being too charged. And I think that’s where a lot of this kind of this kind of discourse comes from. The second that you use the word “genocide,” you kind of foreclosed on nuance, rather than, again, like you said, some people can very, very nuancedly come to the conclusion that something is genocide. And simply saying we can’t because it makes us feel bad is both incredibly childish and also extremely convenient.

Natasha Lennard: Right, and the idea that, oh, but there is a difference between one historic genocide or the Shoah that was the reason the term got created as a legal term and established as a legal term. Oh, because it is not exactly this. The term doesn’t apply. I mean, simply that means that we aren’t allowed to use concepts at all because not every single reference point is exactly the same. So, that’s obviously absurd. Do we have validity in applying the certain abstractions we do in order to navigate the world? And of course, we absolutely need to if we’re going to move through the world.

You know, we’re also at this moment where a lot of the same centrist commentariat and political voices are saying, Oh, you know, we live in these uncertain times. Gosh, the uncertainty. Who could know? I can’t possibly point to knowing and understanding because there’s so much that is unknown. And of course, there is a lot of uncertainty. I’m not denying that there’s uncertainty and that attending to complexities and difficult things that we need to figure out and build knowledge around is crucial. But what that does in the same way is this really diversionary, obfuscatory work of meaning we’re not attending to what we’re actually pretty certain of, and there’s a lot that we’re actually able to view with the understanding of seeing it work as a set of certainties. And I really like what Wittgenstein does in his late notes on this issue, which is point us towards the difference that we might understand between knowledge and certainty. Not to get to in the weeds of this because we’re trying to talk about contemporary media, but there’s a lot of things that are carried out not because people have sat down and done lots of research and learnt a lot, but because we’re trained in certain modes of presumed action and certainty.

So, things are taken as givens, as hinges by which we live, and you could call the bedrock of how we organize society. So, border regimes, capital’s compulsions, racial hierarchies, patriarchy. These are not things that people learn through endeavors of knowledge. They’re held as certainties that then need to be dislodged. So, when people point to complexity and unknowing and what we don’t know, and so much uncertainty, I actually think we should be pretty attending, pretty aware and careful about what is taken as given and what is certain.

And it’s often the nuance mongers who refuse to do that work. So it’s, in fact, them who are failing at the, you know, the ruthless criticism of all that exists to call upon Uncle Karl, which would probably be not considered very nuanced of me to cite Marx so casually. But I think we can also remember that it was when Marx called for the ruthless criticism of all that exists, and it’s such a fabulous call, what he meant by ruthless, and I’ll continue the quote is not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be. So, those nuancemongers are absolutely not engaging with the ruthless criticism of all that exists, which is what they seem to allege to be doing. They’re doing quite the opposite because they are quite afraid of conflict with the powers that be.

Nima: Yeah, I love this idea that there are just these kind of givens in the world that really can’t be sussed out, right? They are complex. They’re inscrutable. And I think along with that, I mean, as we’ve been saying, but along with that, is just even the idea of confusion, that that itself is a state of being that media consumers or the voting public or all people everywhere are just in a constant state of not actually knowing what’s right or how they feel about anything because they don’t have all the information and how the media uses this idea of like mass public confusion in a really kind of tautological way, right? So, the public doesn’t want this thing like, oh, we’ve seen or polling shows or I spoke to some cab driver, and the public doesn’t want this thing, but also not investigating the fact that the media keeps reinforcing the fact that that thing that now they say they don’t want is totally impossible.

So, it’s always self-reinforcing. It’s that these things that could be better can’t be better, and here are all the reasons why. And then, when there doesn’t seem to be mass public support for those things, it’s like, well, see, that’s why they don’t want these things, right? Things are complex, totally unknowable to the public, and therefore, you can’t do this very simple thing, which is either give people health care or stop genocide.

So, to get kind of specific about this, one of our very favorite people here on Citations Needed is Jon Chait. He is a major practitioner of this mode of writing. Back in 2018, he was hand-wringing about single payer healthcare, and he wrote this, “In reality, single payer has always been and remains a political dilemma that no one has been able to resolve, and there is no evidence the resolution has grown any easier.” So, hey, you know, nothing to be done. It’s super complex. So, Natasha, please, if you would, if all movements for change, for justice, for peace, for anything, if they’re all so complex and therefore equally politically unpopular because no one actually understands them, how is it that our media keeps getting away with just shaping public perception of what is possible and deliberately, through nuance trolling, foreclosing maybe a slightly different, more just future.

Jonathan Chait

Natasha Lennard: Well, I mean, just based on Chait’s wisdom, it’s really quite extraordinary that anything has ever happened at all. You know, most notably, of course, what was at the time a very unpopular proposition of ending chattel slavery. So, yes, the idea of, well, you know, it’s very complicated, and the economy relies on this, but also you can’t have it and so why did you ask? Also, just presumes people don’t rise up. We’ve seen this recently, and yes, it was very much those of the Chait-ian persuasion have condemned during 2020 not just the kind of robust calls which I completely support for police and prison abolition, but even defund. And I think the media creating political perceptions on the behalf of the Democratic establishment really did shut down any burgeoning efforts from those sites to pull vast funds away from cops and prisons and put them elsewhere.

So, you actually see the kind of political work this kind of rhetoric and discourse does, but at the same time in these debates, when you get stuck having them, and it’s absolutely awful because it’s just so annoying. If I were to say I’m an abolitionist in a stop cop city, don’t let the mass police training faculty be built in Atlanta, I support that movement. It’s brilliant, and police abolition is very reasonable. Obviously, you get the immediate “what are you going to do with the murderers and the rapists?” as if that’s the role prisons serve, but also as if you are saying something absolutely unconsidered, as if it’s kind of just appeared in my head for the first time as a fun idea, and if I think it can happen overnight. Whereas obviously, you speak to any abolition, any activists, any prison abolitionists, any scholars of abolition, people talk at length. Mariame Kaba is one of the most powerful among them about the kind of work that needs to be done, to be put in place such that abolition becomes a very feasible, practical proposition, and they offer very, very kind of specific material ideas and suggestions that could be actionable. Yet, the people who say, what a bonkers, baseless, bananas thing to suggest. What would you do without prisons? You see the cynicism. Because as soon as someone gives steps towards a paradigm shift that are actionable as you’re saying with single payer health care, it’s like, oh no, those steps don’t lead to any sort of continuity towards your goal, so let’s not even try those steps. So, it is a kind of act of constant foreclosure from the jump.

Adam: It’s also an asymmetrical burden, right? Because those were asking for more cops and cages to solve social problems, which, again, is not a nuanced position. It’s a demagogic position. They’re never told they need to come up with a 10-step feasibility process. I mean, I think a lot about how over and over and over again when these so-called progressive DAs get kicked out of office or in the case of San Francisco, get recalled, substance abuse and homelessness increases anyway, and they say, well, I don’t understand. It’s like, well, yeah, because you just made an assertion that you could arrest your way out of the problem. And of course, there’s never any kind of complexity or nuance required from that position. It’s just more cops and cases is kind of assumed to be true. You didn’t really have to have a nuanced and complex ten-point PowerPoint explaining why you needed to invade Iraq. It was just, well, that’s the way it is. So it’s, again, I think there’s an asymmetry of complexity as well. When the President does his State of the Union and says we need to fund cops ten different times, no one sort of demands a feasibility study about how that’s supposed to work. It’s just taking for granted that it will.

Nima: Colin Powell decided to do just that PowerPoint, though and just filled it with lies so you could also go that route.

Natasha Lennard: Yes, you can either lie your way into performed nuance with kind of granular, detailed lies but nonetheless rely on taking a lot for granted, right? And that brings us back to this kind of question of the undergirding certainties of contemporary life that we might want to keep, we might want to shift, depending. We have to attend to them. So yeah, what gets held reasonable and not necessarily required to be defended through endless calls to complexity and knowledge are the very things that indeed are worthy of challenge and can be challenged with all their complexities and historical specificities. But like, I don’t see that being a lack on the left. I really don’t. I don’t think the ability to appeal to historical insights, economic insights, political insights, and the details of how they interact, I definitely don’t see that lack. So, the assumption that it is not there is obviously more than patronizing. It is oppositional, antagonistic.

Adam: I want to talk about it as a rhetorical mode as well if you’ll indulge me because I think Paul Ryan, for years, was kind of presented as this very complex, nuanced guy because he had 500 page PDF policy papers about how he was going to put Grandma, you know, on cat food. And there’s this kind of theater to it. You see a lot in reportage, right? You could come up with the most conservative pro-cop, you can, you know, do what Jeffrey Goldberg did at The New Yorker in 2002 and kind of launder a bunch of Bush administration, Dick Cheney propaganda. But as long as it’s 10,000 words, and it has the kind of gravitas of complexity. There’s an aesthetic here as well I kind of want to talk about. And you see this a lot in academia too where it’s like, you can listen to a three-hour lecture or read a 10,000-word piece that is not technical, but it’s ostensibly political. You’re reading it, and you’re like, wait, what was being said there? There is an aesthetic of nuance. There’s an aesthetic of complexity that is really about — aside from what we talked about earlier about kind of stopping movements in their tracks — is really kind of a professional brand for want of a better term.

Nima: And performance.

Adam: Performance. Again, which is not to say that some things aren’t complex. Like, you know, anyone who’s read a kind of richly detailed, complex historical book for example even if they don’t agree with its politics can understand the importance.

Nima: We are not anti-complexity on Citations Needed. Just to be clear, nuance is good. It’s actually like the thing we like talking about the most, right? But the performative bullshit of nuance?

Adam: Yeah, there’s a performative aesthetic to a lot of this. Again, you see this a lot any time there’s any kind of social movement, especially one that can’t really be contained by traditional media organs whether it be around Ferguson or George Floyd or Gaza or any kind of other social movements that don’t fit neatly into this partisan box. This aesthetic becomes very popular. I want you to talk about that aesthetic, specifically in the kind of think tank academic world where someone sees it as well as the media one we’ve been talking about.

Natasha Lennard: Oh yes, no. I think partly that’s to do with the neoliberalization of the university, right? Like it has some economic structural groundings there and that when you get fields that are ultra-specialized, and there’s a kind of gerontocracy of tenure so everyone needs to very specifically and with absolute granular detail, respond to an existing framework within a discipline and existing argument within a discipline and tweak it but only just so much so that you’re still performing the kind of deference to your chairs and your committees. And so, I think given the adjunctification of university labor and what that demands of people and means, the demand of nuance almost is, don’t make too much noise because you ain’t gonna get a job, I think does have an effect here.

There’s this fun sociology paper that was being passed around Twitter, X, whatever, not that long ago, called “Fuck Nuance.” And I was like, oh, I gotta look it up. And the author whose name is Kieran Healy had this very fun and I think accurate, points out a number of things that can be wrong with nuance as deployed in the specific discipline of sociology but also notes this aesthetic aspect of it, which is that “sensitivity to nuance is a manifestation of one’s distinctive (often metaphorically expressed and at times seemingly ineffable) ability to grasp and express the richness, texture, and flow of social reality itself. This is the nuance of the connoisseur. It is mostly a species of self-congratulatory symbolic violence.” And I thought that was a kind of very nice description of how you see certain types of nuanced performance and complexity performance play out that don’t necessarily do anything particularly wrong unless they are in the end, an evasion of making claims that are absolutely grounded and important to make either by virtue of cowardice or actual comfort with given paradigms of thought such that you don’t feel the need to undo them, and then, you know, you can spend all your time being nuanced and picking through the different shades of disagreements because, like, yeah, nuance is like the French word, right? Like, shades, color.

Nima: Well yeah, I mean, nuance really in service of the status quo. That it is, you know, something is so complex or you nuance it to death. But really, the whole point is just paralysis rather than progress in any kind of way. As you’ve been saying, you know, completely dismisses all the complexity and nuance that gets to progress or that drives movements for change to be kind of hokey and jargony about it, but just like, you know, actual, like, radical progress, or movements for justice. That is all built on such nuance and complexity, like, just to contend with the fuckin’ reality of power and the reality of reality, right, to get to a place. And that is so dismissed so that only the nuance remains. And when you just have nuance remaining, then it’s too complex to do anything. You can’t possibly move forward.

Natasha Lennard: And you just have a sort of very myopic set of descriptions, right? Whereas I think against nuance as nuance is used disposition also understands that change doesn’t happen because I’ve explained things best to you. Change happens because you know, also complex in its shapes, forms, and navigation, but action, like how we act together, the activities we engage in together that can disrupt the riverbeds of assumption, of the givens. And discussions around nuance and complexity keep all of our thoughts and what we’re talking about really in the realm of description and discourse and debate. And obviously, so much of change happens outside of that terrain. And I think the nuance mongers don’t really think about that enough and nor do they want to because that’s also part of a paralyzing force. And also, you know, be it just even the discursive fields too, not just, you know, taking to the streets, organizing together, picketing, blockading, boycotting, all the various activities that don’t really require in their instantiation, discussions of nuance all the time. Even if they have nuanced grounding and complexity of thought behind them, there’s a lot going on that we don’t and should not, even if we could, always defer to nuance. Like, you know, hundreds of children having legs amputated and arms amputated without anesthesia.

Adam: Right.

Natasha Lennard: Yeah, there’s a complicated history that leads us to that point, but there is nothing complex in the moral articulation of what needs to be done in response to a situation like that.

Adam: Yeah, because it’s fundamentally historical, because we’ve talked about this before, but there’s this kind of whiggish view of history that labor laws and civil rights laws are kind of passed down on high from good-government Protestants rather than being responsive, reactive. And broadly speaking, social change in the last 150 years or maybe forever has dealt in broad strokes. It is not preceded by nuance, that the nuance needs to follow the broad moral demands of X amount of people or X population and that labor strikes or social unrest or the riots of the ‘60s leads the reforms of the ’60s and the ’70s, or the fear of communism is what led to national healthcare systems in Europe, that it does deal in broad strokes. And then once you make a sort of political decision to do X, that’s considered progressive and good to people, whether it be, again, something that’s pro-labor or whether it’s the, you know, five-day work week, or whatever it is, that the lawyers and the eggheads go figure out the details later after you’ve made the decision. Again, I think rose attendantly with neoliberalism is that we reverse the order that the eggheads have to sort of approve of something or the wonk types have to kind of agree with something or run the numbers prior to it being sold as a kind of moral imperative. And that historically is just not how change happens. It’s not even how it happens today, even with the neoliberal paradigm.

Natasha Lennard: Right. And also, quite simply, what an affront to under genocide, populations facing starvation, populations being rounded up at the border, people being denied the healthcare they need or being able to have the identification that is accurate to their gender. Like, how dare anyone demand that they respond to their needs of survival and flourishing with a nuanced argument? Like, there’s no argument to be had there. There are, of course, complex histories that brought us to this point and the how is it to be done to overthrow those violent paradigms is complicated. But when demands for nuance are directed at the most oppressed and the occupied, the blockaded, and the genocided, I’m like, nope, you can hold your nuance. You sent me to read just before we spoke an article in the Jerusalem Post by a West Bank settler that was one of the more disgusting, I mean, hard to know where to start with what’s been put in the media, and it’s disgusting to read in the last months, but just this appalling piece saying, oh, I can be nuanced about the fact that I think all Palestinians are terrorists. It’s like, well, you know, a) what a cynical article. But yeah, like the most vile weaponization of this idea of nuance. It’s like, oh no, I will be a fascist, but I will be nuanced in explaining that I understand what you’re thinking.

Nima: Yeah, I think you can nuance all the way all the way to full fascism, right? And actually, that leads me to the final question here, considering you’ve written about fascism a lot, Natasha, but you also are working on a new book, which you referenced earlier. Can you tell us a little bit about what you’re working on so all the Wittgenstein Tiktok kids can get excited?

Natasha Lennard: Yeah, my Wittgenstein gang, I have to think of a fun like hive-based name for the what? Three people that will read this book. It is a book that I am behind on for extraordinary reasons of us having to organize and try to stop American US dollars going to fund a genocide. But I am looking at the way in which establishment media and political voices use and deploy the idea of uncertainty and risk prediction unknowns in a way that I find very particularly unhelpful and indeed pernicious in this moment. And that as I mentioned before, that we should be attending to some of the more ingrained certainties, organizing our given time and how they differ from things that we know and how they differ from knowledges. And it will be a little journey through some Wittgenstein, some Gramsci, Black radical tradition. Charles Mills, brilliant feminist scholars like Sophie Lewis, trans historians like Jules Gill-Peterson to survey the terrain of uncertainty and how we might want to rethink it.

Nima: We’re definitely going to stay tuned. I think that’s a great place to leave it. We’ve been speaking with Natasha Leonard, columnist for The Intercept, her work has also appeared in The Nation, Bookforum, Dissent, and the New York Times among many other outlets. Natasha is also the associate director of the Creative Publishing & Critical Journalism graduate program at the New School for Social Research, and the author of two books, the most recent is Being Numerous: Essays on Non-Fascist Life, which was published by Verso Books in 2019. And look out for her new one, and we will have you back on to talk about that, I’m sure. Natasha, it’s been so great to have you back on Citations Needed. Thanks so much for joining us.

Natasha Lennard: Thank you so much. Have a great day.


Adam: Yeah, I think there’s something very clever because, again, nuance is such an objectively important thing like no one’s gonna be anti-nuance. Unless you’re like Donald Trump, then you’re sort of overtly anti-nuance. So again, it’s such a clever way of taking this rise of the wonk class, right? The kind of rise of the professional, very sort of middle management MBA types, lawyers, those types who sort of take over, who’ve taken over politics more overtly in the last 30, 40 years, and playing to their narcissism and playing to their lack of ideological commitments, right? These are not people who come from meaningful political organizing. They don’t come from unions. They don’t come from radical politics of any kind. They don’t come from politics. They’re not sort of motivated by politics. They’re motivated by the game of politics, the kind of West Wing-ification of politics. It’s sort of a fun thing you do for sport before you rotate into working for, you know, Amazon or McDonald’s or whatever.

And it plays to that because again, when you start from the premise that it’s all about sort of implementation and clever policies and coming up with large PowerPoint presentations, you really avoid discussions of ideology. And that’s what people want to avoid. They want to discuss why we’re doing politics at all. Why are we not working on Madison Avenue, selling Toyotas or toothpaste? Why are we in politics? And that’s a fundamental question of you were born with the world a certain way, and you want to leave the world a certain way, and you want that world to be better than the one you were born into. And that’s why you get into politics. That’s why people should get into politics. That’s, of course, not why most people do. And whatever that ideology is is what’s important. What are your priors? What are your sort of ontological primitives as they say? And I think that’s why the sort of nuance troll is so powerful because it really does play to elite media institutions. It plays to educated professionals who don’t really think about those questions. You know, the government is sort of this thing that kind of just exists. And, yeah, you don’t want Donald Trump. You don’t want the President going on Twitter and talking about Fox News’s post-menstrual cycles or something embarrassing. But ultimately, it’s kind of just this thing that happens, and it needs to be tweaked, it needs to be managed.

Nima: But fundamentally, never really changed, right? So, you kind of get this technocratic, evidence-based worldview and the rise of what we’ve seen in media, right? You know, evidence-based journalism or evidence-based philanthropy, yada yada yada. And so you kind of do that, but then you do it enough that you break through the part where actual change can happen or you have an actual idea about doing something that doesn’t suck, and now you’ve gone too far. So, no longer is the devil in the details, but actually, nuance serves as like the death of change being in the details, right? There’s too many details so therefore, nothing can actually happen. It’s not just complex. It is unsolvable. It is impossible to change, and that is what nuance trolling does. It makes a virtue out of nuance and complexity in and of itself. That’s the thing. That’s the deep thought that is had, and it goes no further than that into actually changing the material conditions of people’s lives. That’s a bridge too far. That’s too much. How are we possibly going to get enough people to support us to do that? It’s too complex. It’s too detailed. People don’t want the details. But if it’s too simple, well then, you don’t actually know what you’re talking about. So therefore, how are we going to implement policy? Because you haven’t spelled it out, but once you do spell it out, well now it’s just too complex. It always jumps over the sweet spot that kind of, you know, Goldilocks reality of, oh, well, you’ve spelled it out, just enough, and enough people are on board that that’s what we can do, and somehow that sweet spot, that just right, never exists.

Adam: Yeah, well, and that process took five years. That process took five years, and everyone moved on. Because politics is fundamentally, you know, it’s ideological. It’s ideological. It’s also very emotive. It’s an emotional thing. People have emotional reactions to moments, right? People coalesce around things like Emmett Till or George Floyd or pictures of dead kids in Gaza. There is a sort of psychological and emotional component to it, and that’s good because usually that psychological, emotional component, again, barring certain obvious exceptions, can speak to our better angels. It can make us want to make the world better.

Nima: Yeah.

Adam: And you can harness that desire, that fundamentally good human desire, to make the world better, for good things. You can take things like the destruction of World War II to build national health care services or things like the uprisings and inner cities in the 1960s to pass the Civil Rights Act, or the assassination of JFK to pass the Civil Rights Act or, you know, Medicare. And when you take that emotional moment, that sort of populist moment, and instead of directing it into good things, you sort of nuance it to death. So, a few years go by, and then we say, ah, the wind got taken out of sails. Let me move on to the next thing. And that’s fundamentally what liberalism, when it’s done badly, does. It takes things and it kind of turns it into superficial reforms. It names a few streets, you know, it does the Kente cloth kneel, and we kind of move on.

Congressional Democrats kneel while wearing Kente cloth in 2020, shortly after George Floyd’s murder. (Today)

Nima: And then you just cool your jets so that we can get back to reality.

Adam: Right. When liberalism works, dare I say, as a leftist, you know, obviously that’s off-brand. But when liberalism works, when it actually sort of does its job, it takes that and it actually changes people’s lives for the better. And that you take the emotional heft, you take the sort of populism, the sort of outrage, whatever it is, then you direct it into things that are actually good. And that’s liberalism working. Unfortunately, liberalism rarely does that anymore because the other thing’s much cheaper, much easier, and much better for Wall Street, right?

Nima: And that’s why, you know, we can’t have good things. It’s too fucking complex.

That will do it for this episode of Citations Needed. Thank you all for listening. Of course, you can follow the show on Twitter @citationspod, Facebook at Citations Needed. To become a supporter of the show if you are so inclined, and we hope that you are, because we are 100% listener-funded, you can do that through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast.

Our senior producer is Florence Barrau-Adams. Producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Mahnoor Imran. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again, everyone. We’ll catch you next time.


This Citations Needed episode was released on Wednesday, May 15, 2024.

Transcription by Mahnoor Imran.



Citations Needed

A podcast on media, power, PR, and the history of bullshit. Hosted by @WideAsleepNima and @adamjohnsonnyc.