In Praise of Nuance, Doubt and Qualification
I usually qualify what I say.
There we go! I’ve just done it again.
I add possibly or probably to many of my statements. I frequently say something might happen. I rarely say anything is inevitable. I often say often. I rarely say always or never. I include caveats and I’m happy to acknowledge exceptions.
In including so many qualifications in my writing, however, I’m well aware that some writing style guides say not to do this. They may even say it makes for bad writing. But I disagree.
I’m not as ‘direct’ as these writing guides urge me to be. But I think that’s OK. In urging me to be more ‘direct,’ I suspect what they’re really urging me to do is to pretend to be more certain than I really am. They’re urging me to delete the caveats and pretend they don’t exist. They’re urging me to put on a show, exaggerate and make my arguments more extreme, whilst ignoring doubts and unknowns and glossing over exceptions. They’re urging me to be more sensational, less reasonable, less accurate and less honest.
But I think caveats matter. I think we should be honest about our doubts. It doesn’t make your case weaker if you acknowledge uncertainties and exceptions. It shows you’re facing up to reality, rather than wallowing in fantasy. And I don’t believe it shows superior style to feign certainty. I think it’s more stylish to be open, accurate and honest.
And I also think there’s a bigger picture to appreciate.
Our societies pay a heavy price for our collective adulation of certainty and absolutes.
Across the internet, there are a huge number of articles, videos, tweets and other posts, all competing for attention. And the people who gain the most attention tend to be people who are very definite about something.
You can love Trump or hate him, but you probably won’t get much attention on the internet for being anywhere in-between those extremes. You can be Lily Allen or Jordan Peterson. You can be easily offended and uber politically-correct, or you can be hyper-provocative and rabidly politically-incorrect. But if you want to be noticed, pick a side and make sure that whatever you say, you say it very firmly, with absolute certainty. Be extremely sure about what you don’t like and very definite about how appallingly bad it is. Have those passionate rants ready to roll at all times. Be adamant that you’re absolutely right and your opponents are absolutely wrong.
I’m not denying that rants of utter certainty can be entertaining. But if we consistently reward exaggeration and false certainty with our likes, views, claps and attention, we ought to know what we’ll be encouraging: Fake news, extremism and moronic tribalism.
Having too much certainty on both sides of an argument leads to an exchange of slogans and insults, rather than an intelligent debate.
And we’re desperately, desperately short of intelligent debate in so many areas of public discourse.
So this is why I’m happy to stick with my writing style, with its caveats and qualifications. It is perhaps less ‘direct’ — yes. But I think it’s more honest. It’s a style that makes room for conjecture. And, very importantly, in an age of fake news, it doesn’t try to present conjecture as fact.
So please, as a reader or editor or curator or critic, don’t be harsh on writers who qualify what they say. Few things and few people are all good or all bad. Life is complicated, many things are unknown and the future is uncertain. Please don’t push writers to pretend otherwise. Reward open-mindedness, honesty and solid argument, not exaggeration and arrogance.
And, if you’re a writer, please don’t apologise for sharing doubts and adding qualifications. They’re not weaknesses. They’re indicators of intelligence, open-mindedness, honesty and integrity.
Update: Medium’s curators have decided not to distribute this story in topics. This makes me doubt whether the quality of a story really is their main consideration when deciding which stories are distributed and which aren’t. Oh well! Another doubt for my list!