The Courage of Nuance offers an ode to nuance, which Jean Birnbaum erects as the only solution in the face of the radicalization of opinions.
“We’re suffocating among people who think they’re absolutely right”. It is on this quote from Albert Camus that theincipit by Jean Birnbaum, journalist and essayist, in his manifesto-titled book: The Courage of Nuance.
In his essay, the author calls for emancipation from Manichaeism and the polarization of opinions which have transformed public debate into a veritable arena of clashes. At a time of buzz and tweets, controversies and clashes follow one another at an infernal pace on social networks. The debate is nothing more, it seems, than confrontation. In order to explore the different facets constituting this “nuance”, Birnbaum summons an impressive pantheon of philosophers of thought. These intellectual thinkers would be linked by the same will and intention, they step aside, step out of line and learn the lessons of an often misleading radicalism: seven thinkers who have in common a taste for nuance.
Nuance imposes the acceptance that there is no single truth
Of the authors mentioned by Birnbaum, Camus and Aron are both proponents of critical thinking and reason. These two philosophers with very similar ideals argued for a nuanced and moderate understanding of social, political and philosophical phenomena, refusing to conform to simplistic ideologies or extreme positions. They thus shared a commitment to individual freedom, democracy and critical thinking. Both advocate uncompromising ethics with nuance (like the Greeks).
In general, Camus’ philosophy can be seen as nuanced, reflecting life’s paradoxes and ambiguities, rather than providing simple, definitive answers to complex questions. This nuanced approach can then be applicable to marketing as it encourages companies to consider the different perspectives and nuances of their target audiences. This is where the strategic planner comes into play. For example, after analyzing the insights, a company targeting seniors could then use a nuanced approach; recognize that seniors do not form a homogeneous group, with similar interests and needs, but that there are many distinct subgroups with unique characteristics and motivations.
Thus, for Camus and Aron, the observation was simple: it is the diversity of opinions that allows the debate because there is not ONE general truth. They have made moderation an essential ethic to reconcile indignation and lucidity. However, in an era that does not tolerate critical minds, nuance becomes essential to the expression of truths.
“Telling the whole truth, however bitter it may be”
“Our era does not tolerate critical minds, all those who still value their contemporaries enough to say things to their face.”
This quote from Raymond Aron takes on its full meaning when Birnbaum explains that even the most intellectual are now reluctant to express criticism of the works of their peers. According to them, the simple fact of making a negative remark about the work of others is a “dangerous, too violent” gesture. The mere fact of communicating a divergent point of view, whether it is justified or not, is perceived as an insult.
Two philosophers mentioned in the book, Bernanos and Orwell, two men of letters who are however opposed, were able to make a bitter observation, especially during the Spanish Civil War.
The nuance is born from the frankness of the things said after the courage to have seen
On the one hand, Bernanos, a monarchist from Action Française, fierce Catholic, anti-Republican. This writer, who initially was enthusiastic about the idea of Franco’s coming to power, finally realized the atrocity of the massacres caused against the Republicans. Horrors he refused to deny. For him, the nuance is to accept to see. The nuance is this refusal to conceal reality, even if it means alienating its allies. He who refused to be blinded by his opinions and his dogmas wrote: “Obviously, it costs you to read. It also costs me to write it. It cost me even more to see.”
This lightning lucidity, he shares it with his colleague from the enemy camp George Orwell. When Bernanos encourages us to see, Orwell invites us to say. “One of the saddest effects of this war has been to teach me that the left-wing press is just as deceitful and dishonest as the right-wing press,” he declared bluntly. This idea of franchise, of knowing how to recognize one’s weaknesses can then be found in the field of marketing.
Indeed, many brands have done this work of questioning their practices, and even their products. This taking a step back will manifest itself in others through emotional implications.
Emotions as tools for nuanced discourse
Friendship is a strong emotional bond but also a space for confrontation of ideas
The heroism of thought merges with “the genius of friendship.” Hannah Arendt says: “It is only because I can talk with others that I can also talk with myself, that is, think”. It is therefore necessary to communicate with others to develop and improve our way of thinking, of expressing ourselves. Sincere friendship, for her, is the only place where the plurality that defines us can flourish, where there is a real desire for confrontation. Thus, it is more interesting to have various positions, sometimes uncertain and doubtful, rather than assertions devoid of prior discussions. In this sense, communication plays a big role. There is no definite answer, opinions and ways of doing things vary: everything is subject to debate and bias.
It is also an area that uses emotions as a means of conveying a message. Indeed, emotional marketing attempts to create an emotional connection between a brand and its consumers. Here, the principle of friendship translates into a relationship based on trust, loyalty, alliance or the defense of common ideas. We then speak of customer ambassadors. This is the transition from a communication model based on notoriety to a communication model based on relationships that certain brands like Coca-Cola will exploit. With its long history of creating happy memories for its consumers, this company has been able to develop an emotional connection with them. For example, it can be found in their “Share a coke” campaign where Coca-Cola invited consumers to share their personalized cans with a friend.
Humor allows the nuance of committed speeches
Emotions are then sources of nuance and this can also go through humor. A veritable bulwark against intellectual hardening, “humor shakes speech that is too sure of itself, it breaks in advance the rigid divisions that stifle thought”. Thus, Germaine Tillion, a former Jewish deportee, believed that humor could be a powerful means of promoting change and criticizing oppressive systems. His nuanced approach to social and political issues reflected his belief that change could not be achieved through oversimplification or by ignoring the complexities of human experience. “Humour, she said, is a huge distancing.” It brings people and ideas together and brings a more nuanced and human perspective to the various issues addressed. “Humor introduces play where thought stifles, it puts language back in motion”.
It is for example Monoprix which took the side of humor to express strong ideas with nuance during its marketing campaign in the Covid period. It ridiculed the government restrictions that caused the closure of certain departments considered non-essential.
Whether it is for Arendt or Tillion, humor makes discourses that are too sure of themselves falter, it undermines in advance the rigid divisions where thought is stifled. The latter requires independence of judgment, and this independence is first experienced in the ability to be humorous. Despite all these keys to mastering nuance, Roland Barthes will finally confide that only literature is really master of nuances.
Literature, mistress of nuances and inspiration for brands
“Literature is best able to subvert binary logics; it alone can thwart the Manichaean reasonings which divide humanity between friends and enemies.” Barthes considers literature as “guardian of the infinite plurality” that distinguishes our condition: this is a conviction shared by the authors present in this book.
Literature can present itself as the master of nuance in brands by using cultural references, stories and characters to add an emotional and artistic dimension to commercial communication. The latter use literature to reinforce their brand identity, by associating their product with a particular narrative universe that reinforces their image. Literature can also help brands stand out and get noticed in a crowded advertising landscape. How not to talk about Apple with its quote “Think Different” – Penses differently, used to reinforce this innovative and creative brand image; or Barnes & Noble, which regularly uses quotes from books to reinforce its brand image.
In these examples, brands use literature to accentuate their brand identity and add an emotional dimension to their marketing communication. The stories and characters they create allow consumers to identify with the brand and remember its image in a positive way. Ultimately, the use of literature in marketing communication gives brands a feeling and an aspect of depth, in other words, a certain nuance.
In conclusion, The courage of nuance gives the feeling of an in-between, of an “at the same time”, of a chiaroscuro without consistency. Admittedly, for the author, it is a question of denouncing the misdeeds of Manichean debates, of the simplistic dualisms which describe reality in black and white; but the author does not substitute for them the innumerable shades of gray which the mixture of these two extreme colors can produce. The word nuance here covers the complexity of things that can lead to contradictory interpretations being equally true. The nuance for the author is not gray, it is the coexistence of white and black.
After having drawn up the intellectual journey of the great figures of thought, the author, through his book, brings comfort, he relearns certain values and allows us to become aware of the nuance as: “intractable freedom, an ethic of truth, awareness of our limits, a sense of humor, a relationship with the unconscious, a morality of language, a taste for frankness, an art of friendship”.
Authors: Johanna Ahoyo, Pauline Gautier, Camellia Messaadia, Jennifer Regulat, Sonia Ze Abougou
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