Saturday, November 08, 2003

Thought of the Day: The purpose of ambivalence
"I'm ambivalent about everything," I told a friend a few weeks ago. I meant that lately, in my thinking about my faith, my marriage, and my political views, I find myself saying, "On the one hand, there's x, on the other hand, there's y, and I guess the truth lies somewhere between or beyond them." The tagline to this weblog says "ideological ambivalence." I've noticed how "ambivalence" is often used as a synonym for "ambiguous" and even "apathetic." If you say someone is ambivalent about something, you may mean she doesn't really know what to think, or she doesn't care. I tend to wince when I hear the word this way. To me, ambivalence is a powerful, profound human emotion. Experiencing tension in life, seeing the merit in two conflicting attitudes and points of view, is healthy and underrated in a culture that makes Ann Coulter and Michael Moore bestselling authors. So when I use "ambivalence" in my tagline, I mean that, unlike the majority of blogs, I try not to just rant from a predetermined point of view in a predictable way--I'm looking for merit promiscuously. I believe conservatives are capable of having some good ideas (well, at least a few), and so are liberals. This previous sentence is all but un-uttered in public life today. I called my news column in my high school paper "The Radical Moderate," because I disagree that one's enthusiasm and emotions about politics are reduced the closer you get to the middle and increase the farther away you go. I want to be outspoken, and yet not boxed in. So when I say "ideological ambivalence," I don't mean that nobody's perfect and why bother with arguments and issues--I mean instead, life is complicated, and why pretend that it's simple?

But then I looked "ambivalence" up this morning. The first definition is the one I like: "simultaneous and contradictory attitudes or feelings (as attraction and repulsion) toward an object, person, or action." The second one, though, validates the usage I don't like: "continual fluctuation (as between one thing and its opposite)" and "uncertainty as to which approach to follow." This is not a desirable state. Indeed, the objections I draw on a listserv of college friends tend to be along the lines of: it's nice to appreciate different points of view, but you can sit around deliberating until you're old and gray while other less conflicted people are out there getting things done. I'm sympathetic to that view (uh oh, does that make me ambivalent?). I guess the middle ground between what I would call "strong" ambivalence (active pursuit of truth through the exploration and appreciation of differing perspectives) and "weak" ambivalence (a limp mind and disillusioned or apathetic withdrawal from the search for truth) is being confident about your beliefs while respecting others' (although that sounds a little hokey).

I was thinking about this question of "strong" ambivalence on my trip to Washington D.C. this week, where my wife and I plunked down in the gallery of the House of Representatives. There, some Congressman was unburdening himself of his displeasure that a bill they just passed (increasing funding for veterans' benefits) hadn't been passed sooner. And I'm thinking: your job is to make laws, buddy, not waste our time complaining about a bill that just passed which you support anyway. But the real question is this, and this gets at the guts of the problem with political rhetoric: if your case is as patriotic and sensible and noble as your rhetoric suggests (and this guy's speech was gooped in patriotic slogans), then, unless you acknowledge the merit of your opposition, don't you leave it implicit that the only cause for opposition is the lack of patriotism and sense and nobility? Don't you imply that you are not just right, but you are righteous, since, if your case is as plain and grand as you say, only a dunce or a devil could thwart it? Would your opponents say, Yes, we agree our veterans have provided our nation a valuable sacrifice, but we have a different view about budget priorities or amendments tacked on to the bill or the administration of the funds it calls for--or would they not? I was sitting there feeling disheartened about just how boring and pointless this was to listen to; there was almost no chance of hearing anything meaningful. There was no suspense. And so almost no one in the mostly empty chamber was listening. Even the presiding officer was staring at the ceiling for much of this guy's speech.

This is my problem with 99 percent of rhetoric by politicians and columnists. They don't help us understand what the two (or three or five) sides are and how they compare with each other. Instead, they make it sound like the side they're promoting is so obvious that their opponents are either foolish or manipulative in opposing them. Every time I read an op-ed by Peggy Noonan or Kathleen Parker or Paul Krugman (and I seldom do anymore), I wish it were legally required for them to spend one paragraph on why people disagree with their position. They may just think it's because people are dumb, or they may see a better reason for disagreement, but either way, they should say it if they want an audience of anyone but the choir they preach to (and I see no indication that they do). This polemic thinking lies at the root of our culture wars: the pious Right says, those godless liberals wouldn't know goodness if it bit them in their fornicating behinds; the snooty Left says, how can we trust country bumpkins and this monosyllabic cowboy president they voted for to know anything? My pie-in-the-sky idea is that if politicians and pundits spent less time parading and more time helping us actually understand issues and options, people would be more engaged with politics. If independent swing voters really are becoming the majority in this country, it would seem this approach would be as effective as it is good.

- Related: the problem with issue-empty campaign coverage, from my B&C blog
- Previous thought: babies and idealism

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