Nuanced

On NPR’s Morning Edition on Thursday (August 27), reporter Steve Inskeep mixed it up with Michael Steele, the Republican Party Chairman, on health care. Here’s an excerpt from the middle of the transcript:

INSKEEP: You said that’s something that should be looked into. Who is it that should look into that?
Mr. STEELE: I’m talking about those who – well, who regulates the insurance markets?
INSKEEP: That would be the government, I believe.
Mr. STEELE: Well, and so it – wait a minute, hold up. You know, you’re doing a wonderful little dance here and you’re trying to be cute, but the reality of this is very simple. I’m not saying the government doesn’t have a role to play. I’ve never said that. The government does have a role to play. The government has a very limited role to play.
INSKEEP: Mr. Chairman, I respect that you feel that I’m doing a dance here. I just want you to know that as a citizen, I’m a little confused by the positions you take because you’re giving me a very nice nuanced position here.
Mr. STEELE: It’s not nice and nuanced. I’m being very clear.
INSKEEP: You’re giving me, nevertheless, a nuanced position, a careful…
Mr. STEELE: What’s nuanced? What don’t you understand?
INSKEEP: What nuance means is you’re not doing it absolutely black and white. You’re saying you recognize the government has a role to play here, but when you…
Mr. STEELE: Wait a minute. But that is the – is that a…
INSKEEP: …and your party…
Mr. STEELE: …not reality?
INSKEEP: Come to the actual rhetoric, it seems more along the lines of absolutes. It’s between the patient and the doctor.
Mr. STEELE: I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I don’t accept your premise. And, you know, you have your view and you can see it as nuanced all you want. But the reality of it is I’m being…
INSKEEP: I’m not saying nuanced is a bad thing, sir.
Mr. STEELE: I’m being very clear. I want to have an open debate. I want to put ideas out there. I want the people to understand what this is going to look like when it’s all said and done. And I’m not – you know, seriously, I’m not trying to be nuanced. I’m not trying to be cute. I’m trying to be very clear. I’m not saying the government doesn’t have a role to play here. It does. It’s managing a Medicare program, so it has a role to play.
INSKEEP: Maybe we’re getting hung up on the word nuance. Maybe I should say complicated. Do you find it challenging to get into this complicated debate and explain things to people in a way that it’s honest to the facts and still very clear and doesn’t just kind of scare people with soundbites?
Mr. STEELE: That’s a good point, then. Well no. Look, no one’s trying to scare people with soundbites. I mean, you know, I’ve not done that, and I don’t know any of the leaders in the House and Senate that have done that. And so, yeah, it’s complicated, and you want to break it down.

Steele seems to think that nuanced means something like ‘unclear’ or ‘obfuscated’ and so conveys a negative judgment. This as against the OED‘s definition (draft revision December 2003) — ‘Possessing or exhibiting delicate gradations in tone, expression, meaning, etc.’ — which is certainly positive.

But you can see how someone might come to Steele’s understanding of nuanced, from contexts in which some position is expressed with provisos, limitations, exceptions, and the like, which some might see as obfuscating a point that should be clear. That is, the negative understanding of nuanced is a “private meaning” (see Language Log discussion here).

One Response to “Nuanced”

  1. mollymooly Says:

    Apparently, “finesse” is considered insulting when describing American football teams. This reminds me of that.

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