Saturday, August 16, 2014

A defence of ambiguity in a world that worships dogmatic certainties

It was David Brooks, on PBS last night, who provided a clear picture of what he called the substantive differences between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama on foreign  policy. Clinton, according to Brooks, is more of a "Kennedy-Truman" Democrat, preferring to use more muscle, or hard power, in more situations, whereas Obama has to be dragged kicking and screaming into any use of military force, to fulfil the goals of America's 'national interest' in the world.
The evidence of the last few days, especially following the Clinton interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic, would seem to support Brooks, especially focusing on what Clinton sees as a failure to arm the rebels in Syria in the early stages of that civil war, a failure that Clinton seems to lay squarely at Obama's feet, and that she speculates led to the rise of ISIS, ISIL, the latest iteration of what began as AlQaeda, and many believe to be much more virulent than the original version.
On the macro level, Obama is following the red-neck Dubya who attempted to impose a wild west mentality of shoot first and ask questions later. Consequently, Obama may have begun his first term convinced that the world needed less of American guns, missiles and hardened will. However, on a more intimate, personal and perhaps even more important level, Obama may well have a different level of tolerance of what some would call "ambiguity".
Ambiguity is a word that has fallen into serious disrepute as the world pursues "all the facts-all the time and everywhere" through all of the means available, including 24-7 news channels, social media and the original establishment news outlets. Ambiguity is the perception that inherently includes uncertainty, even confusion, unknowing and the capacity to hold two opposite positions on the same issue at the same time.
Google defines Ambiguity as a noun meaning: uncertainty or inexactness of meaning in language.
vagueness, obscurity, abstruseness, doubtfulness, uncertainty;
ambivalence, equivocation, double meaning: these are some of the synonyms of the word.
"the ambiguity of the rule made it impossible to follow"
One of the more odious connotations of ambiguity is indecisiveness, a failure to choose between two options, in short a serious weakness, especially in a culture dominated by the pursuit and acquisition of power. Ambiguity could then almost be an antonym of power.
Our voracious appetite for immediate certainty speaks volumes about our deep and profound uncertainty, insecurity, fear and apprehension. We expect our leaders, unfortunately, to have thirty-second, black-and-white, unequivocal and unambiguous positions on the most complex and intractable problems, and to articulate those positions in the immediacy of the highest moment of the crisis that looms in the latest headline.
In tandem with that demand, (and it is clearly a demand because even in the feeding of our appetites, we are unrelenting in our pursuit of their fulfilment) there is a level of stature, respect and political influence afforded to those who can and do articulate black and white positions.
"We will decriminalize marijuana"....says Justin Trudeau, in a blatant bribe of the large segment of the population who has and continues to use the weed.
"White men are not permitted to live on the reserve" is a current dispute on a Canadian First Nation reserve.
"Black men have a target on their back" is a perception among many in Ferguson, Missouri.
"The white police force in Ferguson is racist" is another of the unambiguous perceptions in Ferguson.
Attempting to calm the storm, President Obama utters another "unequivocal" statement: There is no excuse for violence against law enforcement!" Also, there is no excuse for law enforcement to use excessive  force to achieve public security.....
And yet, for many it is not an excuse for the black people of Ferguson to protest the actions of a white policeman who shot and killed a black youth. It is normal, natural and a reasonable expression of both anger and apprehension that they or their son could be next. Venting  violently is what Obama is calling on the people of Ferguson to stop. Violence, as the unequivocal epithet goes, begats violence.
So what is it about Hillary's position to deploy American military power that evokes the American 'conservative' spirit, and about Obama's restraint in invoking that military power that evokes contempt from that same American conservative spirit? Is it possible that the American spirit is so dependent on action and action so dependent on clarity and the groundwork of that clarity is defining both the nature of the enemy and the nature of a clear, unequivocal response that will evoke public support, that the public discourse around all issues is limited by this dependence on action.
Many will argue that not taking action is also decisive, unambiguous, and clear. Refusing to act for reasons that are  based on a long-term assessment of a situation, both in the midst of the situation and also upon reflection (as was Hillary's critique of Obama's Syrian default) is nevertheless unambiguous. It is, however, for many in the American political class, the wrong kind of decisiveness, the wrong kind of clarity, the wrong kind of leadership.
And here is the place at which action comes into direct conflict with passivity....and for most Americans, these two are irreconcilable bedmates. Action and passivity....seemingly mutually exclusive, unless one is able and willing to include a tolerance of ambiguity in one's perception of the situation.
If the situation is deemed to be so fragile that intervention of hard power would only exacerbate the dilemma, then most reasonable and responsible people would choose to refrain from intervening. If the situation is so complex that it might be impossible to discern the enemy from the allies, then taking action by military intervention could and likely would rebound on the intervening power.
However, one of the dangers of ambiguity is that it can be easily deployed as a method of convincing oneself, or an administration, or a public, not to take action, for reasons unrelated to the situation, such as political survival. If the public has no stomach for military action (as does the American public after Iraq and Afghanistan) then political survival could well be deemed to be "inaction" or a kind of ambiguity with which the American public, as well as it history, is unfamiliar, uncomfortable and even in some quarters contemptuous.
It was Dubya who proudly proclaimed, "I do not do nuance!"
Obama, on the other hand, could be dubbed "the king of ambiguity and nuance" so capable is he of holding two opposing positions on an issue in a tolerant balance, while discerning the precise and appropriate and long-standing response that is in the best interest of the nation. And all the while is he restraining his response to any of the many complex and entangled situations boiling on the many stove elements around the world, he is inflaming his political foes, and to some extent emboldening them as well. For her part, Hillary could be forging a position midway between her two predecessors, should she chose to run for the White House and win the presidential election in 2016. Ambiguity, however, is not a political quality that warrants much public endorsement.
And yet, ambiguity could well be the foundation of a national maturity and even a personal or organisational maturity, that is quite distinct from "burying the head in the sand," in order to avoid facing responsibility.
There is much evidence to support the restoration of ambiguity to a position of respectability, especially given the forces ranged against it in their obsessive pursuit of political power. And while America, Russia, and ISIS are all engaged in their own version of excessive ambition, for their political ideologies, (no the American pursuit is not identical with either the Russian or the ISIS ambitions, yet has witnessed similar examples of the abuse of power throughout history) the binary aspect of technology is not as supportive of ambiguity, nor are the testing devices used to determine intellectual acuity, nor are the demands of political leadership, nor are the expectations of medical patients of their doctors, nor, unfortunately are the expectations of religious organizations on their flock. In our headlong abandonment, even destruction, of the value and importance of ambiguity, uncertainty, and the capacity to hold two equally valid and opposing positions on the same issue, we are in danger of a kind of scorched-earth policy against our intellectual capacity and complexity, as well as against our capacity to imagine a variety of situations that can and would readily inhabit the same universe engaging each other in new sparks of creativity and insight, from which some light could be introduced into previously dark corners of our consciousness.



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