The perils of nuance

The idea that if you’re not for something you’re against it has deep historical roots. It’s often intentionally used as a polarising device, offered as a choice imbued with urgency, one to which we should have an instant response because we know which side we’re on. We’re friend or foe. It’s not an invitation to enter into correspondence, and no place for the neutral.

Wikipedia traces the idea back to the Book of Jericho in the Old Testament: “It happened, when Joshua was by Jericho, that he lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, a man stood in front of him with his sword drawn in his hand. Joshua went to him, and said to him, ‘Are you for us, or for our adversaries?’” I’m not sure what happened next.

So to the modern day, we can imagine it being levelled at us with all seriousness and for all its terrible implications: The office — are you for it or against it?

Holding either of the views is an incredibly simple and powerful convenience. In each case it’s one drum to bang, which when thumped vigorously and repeatedly obviates the need for even a rudimentary scrap of evidence. The message enjoys the benefit of requiring no reference to context as it’s universally true. No-one is ever in any doubt as to which side you’re on, and there’s no chance of being mis-understood when operating in so narrow a channel.

Proponents are presented with any number of media on which to freely broadcast and which support the brevity their arguments demand. The mere habit of showing up is enough to gather pitchfork-wielding followers ready to cheer in unconditional support or pile in when anyone dare offer as much as a qualification. All of which is fantastic when your position supports the commercial venture you’re associated with; marketing by frenzy.

The tendency can also somewhat unfortunately swallow those who’ve long held such a view for good reason, who live and have invested in their advocacy, and have gathered evidence in support of the argument. Occasionally they’re held up as reluctant poster-children when they’d rather be left to quietly and purposefully continue. The cluster can be difficult to escape.

Once it was the extreme that was considered dangerous, now it’s anywhere in between. Nuance has become perilous. If we take such a position it’s deemed weak, hesitant. Even devious. We must be one or the other, so we’ll be dragged to the camp that we appear to most resemble anyway. Evidence is challenged or denied as it will be by nature inconclusive — and a conclusion is demanded in a binary play-off. It’s a position that sets us up as the common enemy, derided by both extremes, a symptom of pandemic-induced malaise.

Nuance is by its very nature quieter, more cerebral and considered. It doesn’t involve shouting or banging drums about complexity and the need for patience. It requires longer form arguments, deliberation of pro and con, balance. It doesn’t naturally gather social media shock-likers to its cause. We can hear the refrain on the streets:

What do we want?

- Rational, fair and balanced reasoned enquiry!

When do we want it?

- When we’ve completed a literature review and weighed up the evidence!

I’m sure that’s been done before. Probably Horrible Histories.

The office debate (should we say debacle?) is characterised by two odd coalitions at the extremes. In common, both sides of the divide are entirely convinced of the supremacy of their position and the historical inevitability of their championed outcome. Both see the opposition as the last desperate flailing of a defunct idea. Their MO is identical.

The arguments wholly for the office as the natural and normal place of work are generally deemed the ‘traditional’ establishment view, as that what we always used to do pre-pandemic. It’s proposed most vocally by a coalition of right-wing politicians and their backers in industry, some of the press and a clutch of ‘out-of-touch’ bosses, to the extent that the issue has now been drawn into a broader ‘culture war’ in which the dinosaur emoji has replaced the customary four feathers. It’s not as neatly honed a pack as we’d imagine, but those not in the preceding shortlist who might believe in the prolonged viability of the office as a primary place of work are keeping their head down in the wake of the spittled harumphing of the economically privileged.

The arguments wholly against the office are therefore generally considered (by its proponents) as visionary, radical and progressive, the voice of the downtrodden (office-based) employee, a collective revolt against authority and oppression. But it’s hardly a working class rebellion when a manifesto bullet point is the right to spend the Summer working from the parental second (or third) home a hundred yards from the beach. By no means exclusively, of course, it’s a coalition of the professionally privileged.

There’s a whiff of the English Civil Wars about the whole thing, or indeed ‘the Anarchy’ several hundred years before it when Stephen and Matilda fought over the crown: two groups led by factions of the nobility in which the dangerous work was done by their charges, rampaging across the countryside with no idea where the front was, generally causing mayhem for its own sake because somewhere along the line everyone forgot what it was actually all about, if they ever really knew, and there were opportunities to be had. Sound familiar?

What came about after the madness in both cases was driven by nuance. Those who notionally won didn’t turn out to have won at all, but neither did those who notionally lost lose either. Bringing it up to date, for a few, five days a week at the office will either work or be mandated. For a few, no real estate at all will either work or be mandated. Employees will need to decide if it’s for them, and there will be many who decide it is, some who decide it’s not. Which is the natural course of things, anyway.

For most, the office — as whatever it transpires to be as a variant of what we see today — will have a role to play. People will spend some of their working time there, some not. As they did in many instances, to a significant degree, pre-pandemic. One day, we’ll recall when two overly-caffeinated groups denied this outcome could ever settle, until they eventually fizzled into dense and weighty nubs on opposite sides of the universe, like dying stars. Nuance may be a perilous place at present, but as history tells us, it’ll always prevail.

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Neil Usher

work & workplace protagonist | #ElementalWorkplace and #ElementalChange originator | rumoured to create human environments | known to blog