Finding shades of grey in a black and white world
Did you know that if the entire history of planet Earth was represented by a 24 hour clock, humans arrived at 23.59.59?
Human civilisation has evolved rapidly, making life increasingly complicated. As the various complexities of life have manifested themselves, we have gained a greater understanding of our world and its nuances. Our vocabularies have expanded to meet our increasing need for making subtle distinctions.
In our recent exploration of the language of colour, we highlighted the fact that all civilisations developed words for colours in the same way. Terms for black and white were evolved first and the words for the other colours in the spectrum came later. The various civilisations then summoned up yet more words for the various shades of colours. Our ancestors saw only black and white. We see and can name shades of grey.
But is our sense of nuance being eroded by a new kind of black and white world?
The value of keeping things simple
It is the nature of the human condition that we love simplicity. Few of us relish the challenges of unravelling complexities. We like black and white issues because decision-making becomes easier. We favour user-friendly devices because we don’t want to waste time figuring out how they work.
It isn’t surprising that any person or organisation that seeks to gain our trust, support or attention will try to keep things simple with their messages. And there are always a lot of people and organisations trying to get us onside. From big brands to politicians and from pressure groups to the media, we are constantly bombarded with information. Simplicity is attractive because it helps us to make sense of everything, or at least to make sense of it quickly.
With children, pets, chores, jobs and social lives to juggle, we are all incredibly busy. We don’t have the time for 20-page treatises explaining the finer details of the matter at hand. We want the definitive answer, and all the better if it’s a short and unequivocal one. But life isn’t really like that. When is any issue or anything truly black or white? There are always shades of grey. We just might be losing our ability to see those nuances and that could mean that we are also losing our ability to define them.
Nuance and the modern world
Everything about the modern world almost forces us to position ourselves on one side of the fence or the other. We are either to the left or to the right politically, we are guilty or innocent in the eyes of the law, we are right or wrong, good or bad, tall or short.
Everyone else is trying to get us to migrate to their side of the fence and to do that, they keep things simple. Nobody seeking to exert influence wants to promote freedom of thought or to wander into nuanced territory. Information is presented in a way that attracts our attention to the headlines and positively encourages us to scan the content or skip it altogether. We have become so used to scanning content that we have become impatient. We are losing our ability to focus for long periods. To make matters worse, social media feeds into our desire for simplicity and brevity. Tweets are short and Facebook posts deliver impact via images.
A warped sense of the world
The trouble is that our ever-increasing need for immediacy could be warping our worldview. We are being corralled into seeing almost everything in terms of broad and opposing categories. Simplicity is breeding division. It is also depleting our linguistic skills. If we have no interest in nuance, we don’t learn, or we quickly forget, much of the vocabulary at our disposal. The world has arrived at a time when everything is calculated to encourage us to read less and to think less. Little wonder that conspiracy theories gain such traction and so quickly.
The loss of linguistic skills is important because, thanks to a great deal of research on the subject, we now know that our grasp of language greatly influences our understanding of the world. We develop words to define nuances that become important in life and we need those words in order to fully understand the nuances they describe. Is experience driving the development of language or is language driving a greater understanding of our experience?
How nuance is lost in translation
It could be that this impact on language is also influencing the way we learn and use new languages. We may not seek to learn certain vocabulary because we no longer use it in our native language. But what appears to be a relatively meaningless distinction to us could be a crucial one in other languages and cultures. Nuance is being eroded by modern life and it is certainly being lost in translation.
Translators are faced with many challenges when it comes to the nuances of language. Words may have no precise equivalents in other languages. Some languages have multiple words for similar concepts when others have only one much broader term. Promotional materials and articles must retain their impact in target languages and so the unwritten rules regarding immediacy and simplicity still apply. How does a translator keep things brief and faithful to the original text when there isn’t an equivalent word in the target language?
Keeping things simple in a connected world
We live in a connected world and one in which almost everything is geared up to keep things simple and unequivocal. How do we resist the urge to simplify and save time? How do we push ourselves to explore ideas, beliefs and experiences in detail, rather than reading the headlines and moving on? Could we stop polarising in favour of finding common ground?
Nuance matters and we seem to be losing our interest in fine distinctions. This means that our linguistic powers are diminishing along with our understanding.
The good news is that language doesn’t have to be verbose to be nuanced. The finest use of language is that which is carefully considered rather than lengthy. Careful consideration takes time. Perhaps we all need to take a little time to understand ideas and to discover that there is usually truth on both sides of any argument. Maybe we would all be better off if we stopped reading the headlines and started reading the entire articles – and then all available literature on the subject! Not only would we better understand the nuances of the subject, we would also learn the words that enable us to better present our thoughts on it.
There are always shades of grey if we could only be bothered to look. In looking, we will discover the words to define them.