Can we afford nuance right now?

Shortly following last November’s election, a trend popped up to wear a safety pin to show you were a “safe” person for people who were degraded (and possibly endangered) by Donald Trump’s rhetoric. The idea stemmed from a similar movement in the UK  following the largely anti-immigrant “Brexit” vote to leave the European Union.

I never did end up wearing one, but I was touched by the idea. I had a safety pin as my facebook photo for awhile. No sooner had I become aware of the safety pin movement that I also became aware of the people who decried it. I wasn’t surprised by the Trump supporters who made fun of the pins, but I didn’t expect it to be an issue for people who are part of and/or support disenfranchised groups. Reasoning ranged from it being a way for white people to assuage their guilt, a way for privileged people to show they didn’t like the results of the election, to something Trump supporters might do to detach themselves from the implications of their vote.

Some or all of the above may be true (with the exception of the one about Trump supporters wearing them–that seems pretty out there). At the same time, it frustrated me that a symbol that came from a well-meaning place in an extremely disheartening time had been knocked down so quickly. I also knew (mostly from stories on the facebook group, Pantsuit Nation) that there were specific instances where people in need sought out people wearing safety pins. Why did we have to attack people for wanting to say, “You are welcome here, and I’m here to help if and when you need it?”

I experienced a similar frustration with my participation in the Women’s March on Washington. There was a larger controversy there, based in actual events this time rather than supposition. In the days leading up to the march, the organizers ejected pro-life organizations from being official participants. Despite that misstep by the march organizers (and my mostly disagreeing with it), I decided the overall issue of women’s equality and respectful treatment was larger than that one issue. I wrote more about that decision here, and I continue to stand by it. But I was frustrated by those who discounted the entire movement based on that one issue. And they weren’t the only ones complaining. Other complaints ranged from the presence of the celebrities who spoke at the march, to the way the march supported Hillary Clinton, to the march not mentioning Hillary Clinton enough. (Good. Grief.)

And then scientists–and people who support science–wanted to march. Much of the scientific community felt cast off and demonized not only by years of politicians disregarding climate change research, but also by the Trump administration’s efforts to block the sharing of (if not get rid of) current scientific research and to defund future research of all kinds (not just climate research). Add to that the Trump administration’s constant misinformation and refusal to acknowledge basic fact, and you have an undeniably solid basis for a movement.

What’s wrong with marching for truth, reason, and the importance of scientific process and discovery? Where’s the controversy in acknowledging that science is an integral part of our life and society, at times literally keeping us alive?

According to this article from The New York Times, there’s plenty of things people can find wrong in supporting those principles and ideas. The main argument against the march was that scientists should stay away from activism in order to maintain objectivity in their work. Others asserted that a large statement like a march did not allow for diversity of thought and did not make enough of an explicit attempt to address institutions of science’s past (and present?) issues with racism and sexism.

I get both of those arguments, although I’m not sure where a supposed pure state of unbias leaves you when you lose funding for your work because you didn’t advocate for it. I am also strongly in favor of acknowledging complexity in life rather than making blunt generalizations. Really, much of my blog is about questioning the assumptions we take for granted.

But isn’t there a point where principles are so threatened that we need to step up and say “This is not ok” without tempering that statement? Doesn’t the time come when discussing fine points is a luxury in the face of an imminent threat?

Maybe it’s because we have the internet and social media that every single point or criticism has a platform. And most of the time, that’s a really good thing, and a situation my own writing benefits from.

But I cannot shake the feeling that we are not living in a time in our country when we can afford the luxury of nuance when it comes to standing up for what we believe in. Like the scientist who may have to step into the realm of activism to advocate for their own work in order to be able to step back into their impartial research again, we may have to give up our privilege of dwelling on nuances in order to advocate for a return to a time when we can safely take up the practice of being nuanced again.

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Let the Little Children Be.
Seeking Gentleness

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