I was catching up on one of my online bookclubs this morning...and during a discussion of history...and "who writes it" "what is real or true"...one of the participants said the following and I thought it was something I had thought myself but never knew how to word it...
We've fallen in love with ambiguity. And part of the reason for that is simple, but damnable -- it permits laziness of thought. It allows people to retain their prejudices, and dismiss evidence that might contradict them. It is, all too often, a convenient dodge that vitiates the necessity to learn, to think, to analyze, and to judge.
It is possible that this attraction to ambiguity is a trickle down of theories adopted by philosophy from quantum mechanic theories. In quantum physics, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle states that certain pairs of physical properties, like position and momentum, cannot both be known to arbitrary precision. That is, the more precisely one property is known, the less precisely the other can be known. It is impossible to measure simultaneously both position and velocity of a microscopic particle with any degree of accuracy or certainty. This is not only a statement about the limitations of a researcher's ability to measure particular quantities of a system, following the tenets of logical positivism, it is a statement about the nature of the system itself.
Most of us don't walk around thinking about the history of physics and philosophy...but these ideas and attitudes do pass into our popular culture and consciousness. The uncertainty principle is valuable for unseen quantum particles but we live in the observable world. Not every thing nor every feeling is intangible.
I was trying to think...what is a good example of ambiguity being used in say...tv commercials? And of course I thought of the abundance of tv commericals in the United States for pharmaceuticals. (Canada doesn't make so many of these kinds of ads...the idea I suppose that medicine and health care is universal not commercial?)
So...thinking of these ads I began to search "the googles". Ah, here is a bit on a study regarding ambiguity in drug commercials. The study used discourse analysis to break down the commericals studied and here is from the study abstract This study was intended to illustrate how discourse analysis, a methodology for microanalysis of texts in context, can elucidate the workings and interplay of promotional, informational, and other functions of direct-to-consumer drug advertising, anticipating threats to “fair balance” and pinpointing textual phenomena and issues suited to empirical study.
The linguistic and rhetorical features include an intense switching and fusion of styles and modalities: the traditional advertising distinction between personal and impersonal, “company” and “consumer”, was ostentatiously flouted. The role of spokesperson was assigned to characters in a real or virtual narrative. The narrative portion of the text and images often struck an ironic or postmodern note, eg, by mixing science with science fiction. The overall functions of the commercials (promotional, informational, and aesthetic) were themselves frequently blended. The text deployed several linguistic or rhetorical strategies to send a double message for promotional advantage, including syntactic-semantic ambiguity, voice-over risk messages at odds with upbeat visuals, and a vagueness of certain words in particular contexts.
According to Daniel Gilbert, who wrote Stumbling On Happiness, he suggests that one of the defining differences between human and other animals is our ability to imagine the future.
Gilbert's central thesis is that, through perception and cognitive biases, people imagine the future poorly, in particular what will make them happy. He argues that imagination fails in three ways:
1) Imagination tends to add and remove details, but people do not realize that key details may be fabricated or missing from the imagined scenario.
2) Imagined futures (and pasts) are more like the present than they actually will be (or were).
3) Imagination fails to realize that things will feel differently once they actually happen -- most notably, the psychological immune system will make bad things feel not so bad as they are imagined to feel.
The advice Gilbert offers is to use other people's experiences to predict the future, instead of imagining it. It is surprising how similar people are in much of their experiences, he says. He does not expect too many people to heed this advice, as our culture, accompanied by various thinking tendencies, is against this method of decision making.
Also, Gilbert covers the topic of 'filling in' or the frequent use of patterns, by the mind, to connect events which we do actually recall with other events we expect or anticipate fit into the expected experience. This 'filling in' is also used by our eyes and optic nerves to remove our blind spot or scotoma, and instead substitute what our mind expects to be present in the blind spot.
We are addicted to ambiguity and see it all around us in discussion web boards, in television commercials, in contemporary visual arts, in corporate mangement (no job security...where in aboriginal societies we had apprenticeships and longevity in our handy-works) because it is a form of escapism every bit as powerful as heroin and carbs.
We are addicted to ambiguity because part of our ego extorts power over our spirit to stop us from living happy lives. We are afraid to give up and take a risk of not seeking happiness through material goods and behaviours. Part of our brain believes we can control our futures and can control our levels of happiness. But when most of us had have experienced peace of mind and happiness...it was in situations where power and control were forgotten. Like mystical experiences or as Maslow would say peak experiences...perhaps at the beach, at a very funny movie, falling in love, doing something physically satisfying, like outdoor sports, hiking, like reading a book that suspended our disbelief.
Ambiguity can be a wonderful release from pre-conceptions...an altered state even. Ambiguity can give one a sense of a paradigm shift even without substance. Meaninglessness is the new black. It is the drug of choice for nihlism. When I hear someone say something truly ambiguious or using ambiguity as an excuse to dismiss feelings or ideas...I think to myself "Ah what we have here is a depressed person." or, if you will, person with a depressive worldview. It's a seductive mindframe that ol' ambiguity. And like any altered state it may become a device for avoidance and for co-option by governments and commercial venues, or for controlling behaviour. In some ways ambiguity is the opposite of prejudice, so at first glance, it seems "cool". It attracts those who are afraid of being bigots like their parents or older generations. It seems hip to be "mysterious." Ambiguity also helps us come to grips with people doing terrible things. We believe human nature might be unknowable or mysterious. Ambiguity helps us say "The Lord works in mysterious ways" when something wonderful happens and when something horrible happens. The adage "the lord works in mysterious ways" is coined from a poet who suffered with depression.
Happiness is tangible. Wanting the best for our families and friends and communities is part of the human condition and a huge part of it's survival. So much of human history can leave us cynical, so many news stories can break our spirit that ambiguity allows us to keep dreaming and imagining a future where we'll be happy. Ambiguity helps us justify our doubts, helps us hide our lack of knowledge and helps us keep imagining a future rather than doing what it takes now to achieve peace of mind.
It's time to ask ourselves, elders we respect and other economic cultures what makes us happy...and use knowledge of real tangible feelings to help us wean from our addiction to ambiguity.