The War on Nuance

Nothing is more vital to serious thinking than the ability to make distinctions between superficially similar things. The gas pedal and the brake pedal look awfully similar, but if you can’t distinguish between them, good luck getting out of the driveway safely. 

Distinctions don’t just matter among similar-but-different things. They’re just as crucial when discussing degrees of a single thing. I think there’s more wisdom contained in the phrase (usually attributed to the Swiss philosopher-scientist Paracelsus) “The dose makes the poison” than in most books. It’s a bedrock rule of toxicology: Everything is toxic if taken to an extreme. A little alcohol, aspirin or water is good, and sometimes essential, but too much can kill you. 

The wisdom extends beyond the medical. A healthy interest in something—sex, sports, politics, whatever—is usually fine or even desirable. But obsessions are dangerous. I’ve long argued that nationalism is like salt. A pinch brings out the flavors in a dish and helps combine them. Too much ruins the meal. Way too much is literally lethal. A little nationalism binds citizens to their country in healthy ways. Too much sets citizens against each other and crowds out other priorities such as individual rights, economic freedom and cultural diversity. Way too much can lead to horrible wars and oppression.

It seems to me that many of our worst problems today stem from the inability to make meaningful distinctions of both kinds—i.e., between different things and degrees of the same thing. 

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