The decline of greyscale
The single most surprising thing about the last decade, to me, is how polarised public debate has become. It’s almost physical, as if there’s a law of magnetism in public spaces that demands I be either attracted to or repulsed by any given statement.
I find it deeply distressing. I’ve always thought and felt in shades of grey: this world of black and white is too reductive for me. I’m a relativist surrounded by absolutism. Studying constructivism, I once wrote an optimistic essay on how we build the world around us through our relationships, our storytelling, and through the lenses we choose. I say “optimistic” because I focused on how — if we can reframe historical narratives, understand each other more, and find a way to meet in the middle and create shared perspectives — we might rebuild a better world.
The optimism seems misplaced, though collective social construction is very real. Looking over the last decade, the world-building has been led by thinkers creating alternate realities seeking not to unite but to polarise politics further. Rather than coming together to explore shades of grey, people are stepping away from each other, pulled into the Vantablack.
I feel like I’m standing alone in the grey. At best my positions would be interpreted as fence-sitting; at worst, I’m a villain from all angles. My views on complex, contentious social and political issues almost always start with “it depends”. I want to hear and explore different perspectives and nuances, try to understand the experiences and contexts from which different positions spring, learn what outcomes people are trying to achieve and why, so that we can find a better route forward together. Rather than pragmatic, anyone arguing for such an approach is seen as mealy-mouthed, naive, complicit, or slippery.
I’m hoping this means that though I often feel alone, I’m not. That others who take this approach to developing a position on an issue are many, they are simply choosing not to speak up. Because speaking up makes you are target. And because when they do speak, their voices are drowned out by all the shouting.