Talking about serious issues takes more than a black and white approach

Long before I had any signs of wrinkles on my face, I had pretty deep furrows on my forehead. I call them my “WTF wrinkles,” and I’ve called them that since before there was such a thing as text-speak. I remember putting my oldest to bed one night when he was maybe 6 or 7, and he traced them with his finger and asked why I have them.

I said, “you know those times when you look at the things people do and say and you think, ‘what the heck?’ (at the time I used the G-rated version of WTF) and your face scrunches up to match the ‘what the heck?'” He knew exactly what I meant. He’d been having a tough time acclimating to elementary school and had come home wearing that face more than once.

I told him the wrinkles came from thinking that too many times over many years.

Nothing scrunches up my forehead like the utter lack of nuance in our public discourse, which I think is caused partly by our over-polarized political climate, with the extreme ends in both wings dictating the discourse. But I also think the proliferation of digital communication is playing a role.

After all, it’s hard to work nuance into 140 characters.

Pick a topic, any topic — and most likely you can find it being discussed or argued publicly in oversimplified, black-and-white terms. Some of the worst examples happen in the wake of horrific tragedies, like the recent shooting at a Planned Parenthood in Colorado.

There are two children in Colorado still in shock over losing their police officer dad, and already supporters and opponents of abortion are arguing about whose rhetoric is more inflammatory. They argue as if abortion were a cut-and-dried issue.

As I’ve written before, it’s not. Further a nuanced thinker might want to think beyond debating abortion in oversimplified terms and the inevitable gun-control battles that follow these shootings. What about questions like:

What is going wrong for so many boys and young men in our culture. Why are they shooting up medical facilities, churches, movie theaters and schools? Do we have our own youth radicalization problem?

Answering those questions takes nuanced thought.

Another issue in need of a little nuance is welfare reform. In an email exchange with a reader following a recent post on a junk food waiver request, I explained that this issue is being driven by what reformers “see.” The news, the proposed policies, and public discourse are full of examples of people seeing unhealthy looking people buying junk food with Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits.

The problem with drafting policies based on what people see is that there’s a lot they’re not seeing. There’s something like 200,000 recipients of SNAP benefits in Maine. Unless someone has personally witnessed or studied the buying habits of all these individuals, the crap about seeing an overweight person buying chips and soda with a SNAP card needs to stop.

Here’s what those folks don’t see. They don’t see the life stories or mental health issues behind the poor health or judgment of the chip purchasers. They don’t see the failure of service providers that allow poor health or judgment.

They don’t see that a bag of chips is a heck of a lot more filling that its value equivalent in fresh produce, regardless of nutritional comparison. They don’t see empty bellies that hurt. They don’t see young families and single moms who are not at all responsible for decades of economic policies that have let wages stagnate and left their families behind long before their families were formed.

Because they are busy watching the purchases of the people in front of them, these reformers don’t see they are surrounded by candy, chips and soda as they wait in the checkout line. If they did, they’d have to take into consideration marketing strategies designed to increase impulse purchases. Or they might have noticed me when I was a working mom on SNAP, skinny as a rail in that checkout line, stretching our food budget by going hungry and trying not to cry.

Or they might notice that lots of Mainers and Americans buy crap at the grocery store, and that problem transcends purchase transactions. There are people who eat crap that pay with cash, credit cards, and EBT cards. Where is the judgment of the unhealthy person buying chips and soda with cash?

Are their purchases no less costly to society in the long run? Do their purchases somehow not impact rising medical costs? Do the circumstances that keep them from needing public assistance also protect them from being judged?

Answering those questions takes nuanced thinking, too, even if it leads to the development of a few “WTF wrinkles.”


Update:  A previous version of this post included text that was intended to be cut for brevity.  Apologies to all.

Patricia Callahan

About Patricia Callahan

Trish is a writer who lives in Augusta. She has worked professionally in education and social services.