We Must Urgently Restore Nuance and Complexity to Public Debate

Nowadays, everyone is required to choose a camp, to get involved in the pros or the cons, to smash the opponent by stunning him with certainties. What place is left for questioning, compromise, or even free thinking?

Does nuance still have its place in the public debate? The term itself seems to have lost its meaning. Not so long ago, it evoked subtlety, complex thinking and a sense of dialectics; today it sounds like a weakness, a lack of backbone, a lack of convictions. This shift is not only semantic but also says a lot about the nature of our debate, where increasingly binary thinking is imposed.

Take any topic that might create a buzz on social media. The Muslim veil, feminism, secularism, racism, assisted reproduction, surrogacy or the appointment of Gérald Darmanin to the Ministry of the Interior — it doesn’t matter. Everyone is required to choose a camp, to get involved in the pros or the cons, to smash the opponent by stunning him with certainties, or even by “erasing” him altogether as the alarming progression of the cancel culture, imported from the United States, calls for.

What place is left for questioning, compromise or even free thinking? “Sometimes, it feels like living in a hysterical country!” regretted the leader of the CFDT,* Laurent Berger, a few months ago, in L’Obs. ” “It is no longer possible to have a single calm debate, and I’m not just talking about social issues. It has become difficult to appeal to individual or collective intelligence.” And for good reason: the in-between is now only worth an admission of helplessness, of incompetence — even of treason! Now is the time for hasty denunciations, for final jousts. Anger takes the place of exchange; the punchline replaces thought.


It’s easy to accuse social networks, these shooting fields where we hunt in packs, with a few dozen expeditious characters punctuated with a murderous emoji. True, they are a troll’s paradise, and they often sideline dialogue, stifling what we used to call the confrontation of viewpoints, the essential fuel of democracy. But don’t they simply mirror our sad passions, reflect our laziness?

Americans did not wait for the advent of Twitter to embark down this slope. To mark his difference from Bill Clinton, who was accused of using challenging argument, George W. Bush claimed that he didn’t “do nuance.” Barack Obama’s rhetorical intricacies were widely mocked throughout his two terms as evidence of his guilty procrastination and lack of determination. With many insults and cookie-cutter judgments, Donald Trump has made it his bread and butter, banning any form of nuance from his communication. Since then, this excessive polarization of public speech has spilled over to the other side: it is now taken on by part of the Democratic camp in the name of efficiency.

The media, too, must conduct its own introspection. “The truth, it seems to me, lies most often in the complex, in the contradictory,” wrote Jean Daniel in 1976. Nearly half a century later, this reflection by the founder of the L’Obs has never seemed so essential. Isn’t it time now to follow those who try, against all odds, to bring this imperative to life, to restore complexity? Of course, this requires time, work and research. But isn’t it essential to regain a form of serenity, to block out populism? The historian and philosopher Mona Ozouf, who worried about the rise of radicalism and the eternal French preference for revolution rather than reform, pleaded pointedly last week during a conference on her Breton soil, for “an education in nuance.” May she be heard.

*Translator’s note: CFDT stands for “Confédération française démocratique du travail,” the French Democratic Confederation of Labour, a national trade union center.

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