Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Nuance (and the lack of)

There's something about people -- or about Americans in general -- or about people in my geographic area, in particular -- that betrays a total lack of nuance. People seem to lack an ability to see the gray areas in all matters; to these non-nuanced simpletons, life is a series of black and white observations and decisions, which is not at all what life is really like.

A few examples are warranted.

First, let it be known that I drive a fast car. It's an Audi S4 convertible and if you know anything about cars (and even if you don't), you realize that the big 4.2 liter V8 engine tucked under its unassuming little hood delivers a lot of power. When the average person realizes what this is all about, the very first question I get -- the question I always get -- is, "how fast does it go?" Now, this is a pretty stupid question, worth of a snappy answer such as "as fast as it needs to." That's because even a base Honda Accord can get up to 120 mph or so with little difficulty, which is for all practical purposes as fast as you're going to go on most roads. In addition, no matter how fast the Audi could go, it won't go past 130 or so because it has an automatic speed limiter, as most fast cars do today. So how fast it can go is an irrelevant question, and belies the questioner's lack of nuance. Lots of horses under the hood isn't important for speed, but rather for power and handling. It's not that I can go 130 mph, but rather that I can accelerate from 0 to 60 in five seconds flat. The power under the hood lets me pass other cars more quickly and safely, and gives me all sorts of options that a less-powerful car doesn't have. But the average American only cares about speed, not about driving subtlety, which misses the point entirely.

Along similar lines, one has the issue of amplifier power in a home theater system. My new home theater system is built around a B&K power amplifier that delivers 200 watts per channel. Of course, the question I get is always "how loud can it go?" I don't even try to answer this, and not just because the questioner probably doesn't know squat about sound pressure levels and decibels. No, it's because the system, in normal usage, doesn't sound any "louder" than a much less expensive system. What it sounds is better -- with a smoother sound quality, less noise and distortion, and enough reserve power to deliver shimmering highs and thundering lows without distorting or having the sound break up. But, again, the average American doesn't know from the subtleties of sound reproduction; all they care about is how loud it can go. It's the audio equivalent of the big engine problem.

I ran into this lack of gray thinking in my professional life last week. A website I write for came to me with a change in status dictated by their human resources department (and no doubt influenced by their legal beagles, as well). They wanted to convert all their freelance work-for-hire contractors into part-time employees. Forget the fact that I work for companies other than theirs, that I have no running contract with them, that I don't use their facilities, and that I only work a few hours every two weeks on their projects -- to the jokers in HR, I needed to be converted to part-time employee status. Now, would I benefit from this? Of course not; it would actually involve more work (filling in time sheets, for God's sake!) without any additional pay or benefits. And, truth to tell, I don't really want to be an employee of this or any other company; that's why I joined the ranks of the self-employed, several years ago. But this new rule is one that the company is applying to all their freelancers, whether they work 1 hour or 40 hours a week, so I got caught in the net.

The company's decision to fold in their freelancers stems from pressure applied by some state governments, who see many companies firing an employee one day and then hiring the employee back as a "consultant" the next, to do the exact same work. The company saves by not having to provide benefits to the newly freelanced employee; the state, however, is more concerned that about the employment taxes that are no longer automatically collected by the employer. (Of course, by law the self-employed freelancer has to declare and pay the exact same employment taxes, but I guess the state just assumes that individuals are more likely to cheat on their taxes than companies are; don't get me started on why I strive to behave honestly when the state assumes I'll be cheating...) In any case, I understand the logic of making so-called full-time freelancers actual employees of the company, but it doesn't make sense to do the same for those real freelancers who don't meet any reasonable standards of employeenocity. The problem is that this particular institution doesn't see the nuance; they have a new rule, and it's going to apply to everyone they deal with, no exceptions. They don't take the time to discern between a freelancer doing the same amount of work as a legitimate employee and a freelancer who does a little bit of this and a little bit of that for lots of different clients. It's black-and-white thinking at its worst, an extreme form of corporate laziness that's emblematic of the lack of nuance evident throughout our society.

My question is, just where does this lack of nuance come from? Is it simple human nature, a form of mental laziness? Is it a Western or American thing, symptomatic of our mentally undisciplined society? Or is it a symptom of our poor educational system, a large-scale variation on the old true/false test (no essays required)? I don't know, and to some degree I don't care. It doesn't take that much extra mental effort to think things through and look at each situation individually, not really. All I want is for people to use their best judgment, and not prejudge in black and white terms. A little nuance goes a long way.

But that's just my opinion; reasonable minds may disagree.

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