The necessity of nuance

Ryan Cohen; Missouri—

If you’ve been on Twitter any time in the last month or so, you may know that a recording of Hamilton, the musical phenomenon that tells the story of the ten-dollar Founding Father through rap and hip hop, was released on Disney+ on July 3. The recording, which spliced together footage from three June 2016 performances of the show and a number of close-up shots taken exclusively for Disney+, was met with acclaim from nearly everyone, myself included. 

I’ve been a devout fan of the show since I first listened to the original cast recording in 2017 in an attempt to figure out what about this musical had all my friends buzzing. When I heard I would get the chance to watch the show for the first time through Disney+, I found myself bursting with excitement. I was ready to be enthralled by the show’s electric choreography and captivating set design. Watching the show was truly a delight.

But, in the aftermath of the show’s release, I couldn’t help but realize just how peculiar the timing of Hamilton’s re-entry into mainstream discourse was. 

In the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, the Black Lives Matter movement has reignited the national conversation about race, pushing for us to rethink how our society views American history and culture. The legacy of the Founding Fathers, most of whom owned slaves and all of whom built a system of government that knowingly deprived Black people of equality, is among the subjects of this much-needed national conversation. 

In the eyes of many, it seems both insensitive and inconsiderate for such a large spotlight to be placed on a show that falsely portrays Hamilton as an abolitionist and neglects to mention his own messy history of buying and selling slaves. Many have (rightly) taken advantage of the show’s renewed popularity to criticize its historical inaccuracies. The criticism certainly isn’t new—dating back to the show’s 2015 debut and subsequent explosion into mainstream culture, historians from Yale professor Joanne B. Freeman to Rutgers professor Lyra Monteiro have criticized the show for its supposed erasure of black people via its questionable interpretation of history. Toni Morrison disliked the show so much that she made a sizable contribution to a campaign by noted novelist Ishmael Reed (another critic of the show) to fund a stage production of Reed’s play The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda, which denounces the show for its shoddy portrayal of history.

The debate over Hamilton’s merit is complicated, but very necessary. However, there’s a quieter cultural movement fueling this debate that warrants even larger focus, a movement that people of color have worked tirelessly to bring into the national conversation: the growing demand for nuance in society’s depiction of human beings. During adolescence, many of us develop a belief that people can be easily sorted into one of two categories: “good” or “bad.” This belief then goes on to fuel the ways we interact with people during our adult lives. For instance, we might consider a politician whose views align with ours to be a warrior for justice and peace and a politician whose views differ from ours as an enemy of the people who ought to be booted out of office. Similarly, some religious people view their peers through a moral dichotomy that categorizes those who subscribe to the same faith as “good” and nonbelievers as universally “bad.” This likely stems from our natural human desire for simplicity—it’s so much more convenient for our brains to be able to slap a simple “good” or “bad” label on a person and move along with our day.

However, that generalized view of humankind does a disservice to the messy intricacies of being human. People make mistakes. “Good” people have off days and “bad” people have redeeming characteristics. It’s incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to use the “good-bad” dichotomy to classify beings with whom such complexity is the norm. There are few better examples of this than with the Founding Fathers. 

George Washington was a crucial figure in the liberation of the colonies and set many precedents that helped shape our government for centuries to come. But he also had an active role in forming institutions that were rooted in the oppression of Black people, and he took part in the slave trade, one of America’s most shameful atrocities. How could one possibly classify Washington as either “good” or “bad” in the wake of that track record? One could certainly say that he was more good than bad, or vice versa. But to say that he is merely “good” or “bad” would do a disservice to a significant portion of his past, no matter which classification you would choose to assign him. A person’s moral character can’t simply be described with a single word.

This principle applies to more historical titans than just the Founding Fathers. Mother Teresa, a woman renowned for her countless acts of charity, allegedly withheld funding for her orphanages and hospitals despite their dire hygienic conditions and had close ties to a number of unsavory figures. Mahatma Gandhi, a nonviolent revolutionary who has since gained a near-infallible reputation, exploited numerous young women (including his grandniece) by sleeping naked with them in an effort to “test his celibacy” and allegedly defended India’s oppressive caste system. Even Martin Luther King, Jr., one of the most famous civil rights leaders in American history, had a lengthy history of extramarital affairs, including one case of alleged sexual assault (although there is good reason to doubt the validity of the sexual assault allegation—the source is J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, who had a well documented hatred for King and his teachings). 

None of these heroes of history fall easily into the “good-bad” dichotomy—their flaws do not negate their accomplishments, but their accomplishments do not erase their flaws. Nuance is therefore a necessary facet of any depiction of most historical figures, particularly those of widely celebrated heroes with noted skeletons in their closet. 

This is not to say that certain historical figures may not have been as good or bad as we consider them to be today. Given his track record, it’s impossible to consider Adolf Hitler as anything other than a bad person (unless you’re a bigot). Similarly, Fred Rogers’s reputation as a good person has been reinforced countless times in many different ways. But people like Hitler or Mr. Rogers, the rare breed of person whose actions push them quite decisively in one categorization, are exceptions to the rule. There are a handful of people whose moral quality or lack thereof is obvious, but nearly everyone else is subject to the same necessary disclaimer of complexity. 

This brings us back to Hamilton, a show whose protagonist himself necessitates a thoughtful and complex discussion about his moral quality. Society’s debate over whether the show deserves scrutiny for its shortcomings is undeniably compelling. But the growing desire for nuance in societal portrayals of humans is far more worthy of our attention. We need to get comfortable with describing most people, particularly historical figures, in phrases instead of single words—“generally good, but…” or “primarily bad, although…” To neglect to do so is to neglect acknowledging that a person’s character is based on far more than just their most well-known accomplishment or mistake.

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