Studied Ambiguities

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Ambiguity or Opportunity? photo by ArtistIvanChew (CC BY-SA 2.0) via Flickr

Have you ever been in a situation where two parties who differ on some important matter (and you may have been one of them, or trying to mediate between the two) are trying to find their way to agreement so as to collaborate and live more charitably with each other, or outright join forces. Often, it is important to articulate this agreement verbally and in writing, and this, perhaps is where things are most difficult.

Words matter. And words don’t always mean the same things to different people. Often, the attempt to find the right words to delineate an agreement surfaces the places where disagreement still exists.

I came across this recently in a critical discussion of an effort between a group of Evangelicals, and a group of Catholics during the 1990’s to articulate an agreement that expressed their unity around Christ and his gospel. (This is in R. C. Sproul’s Getting the Gospel Right; review forthcoming)

The writer noted a number of areas that he felt were “studied ambiguities.” On the face of it, these were statements both parties could agree upon, and yet were capable of interpretations that would reflect the historic differences between the parties. Elsewhere in the document, some of these differences were acknowledged, but he felt that the document purported a greater degree of agreement, and even unity than the author thought warranted.

I’ve been thinking about this phenomenon. What is “studied ambiguity?” A sentence may be ambiguous in different ways. Sometimes it is lexically ambiguous (“I went down to the bank” could mean I went down by the riverside, or to my local financial institution). Sometimes, it may simply be syntactically ambiguous. (What, for example does “I ate the cookies on the couch” mean?) At other times, the meaning of the words may be clear and there may be a particular understanding that the person uttering the statement intends, and yet it is capable of more than one meaning. What differentiates “studied ambiguity” from these others types of ambiguity is that the person or persons uttering or writing the statement intend the possibility of multiple interpretations and realize their words are capable of these interpretations.

Why do we use “studied ambiguity”? The main reason I can come up with is that parties who retain significant differences feel compelled to mute these to arrive at some semblance of agreement. I suspect, for example that there was much “studied ambiguity” that could be found in the statements of Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin at Yalta about their vision of a post-war world.

It seems that the aim of “studied ambiguity” is preserving tenuous alliances and coalitions, and the veneer of good feelings toward one another. In cultures where communication is indirect, it strikes me that this allows people to avoid outright confrontation over differences while working in indirect, and often behind-the-scenes ways, to reach a greater sense of agreement than could be achieved publicly. What seems important in this instance is that the parties are aware that they are farther apart than they seem and they are employing discreet mechanisms to address these differences.

What can be more troubling about this kind of communication is when people are intentionally misled to believe that a greater degree of agreement exists than is actually the case, because the words sound good, even though they mean something different to each party.

In the instance I mention above, it is interesting that those who participated in writing the agreement claim not to have consciously done this. They saw themselves as articulating areas of common agreement, some of which they saw as real breakthroughs, as well as areas where they still differed, some of which were substantial, as individuals in both parties acknowledged. Yet the tone of their final document conveyed a degree of agreement and even “unity” that others questioned in light of the substantive remaining differences and the multiple interpretations that could be drawn from the language.

And that leads me to wonder if there is another kind of ambiguity, what one might call unconscious ambiguity, where in a spirit of good will, people convey a sense of agreement, while being aware of difference, that nevertheless affirms the agreement of spirit the parties feel.

I’m having a hard time thinking of examples where ambiguous agreements turned out well–maybe someone else can help me think of one. More often, it seems, they result either in falling-out between parties, or compromises on deeply held values, practices, and beliefs to preserve “unity.” Yet I can see the temptation, particularly in our deeply divided society to try to come to these kinds agreements for fear of the alternative.

I wonder instead whether, on important things, we are talking about far longer processes than we ordinarily envision. Perhaps honest discussions that recognize common ground for limited collaborations while addressing honest differences that take longer times to change, because these involve changes in belief, and personal and institutional practice.

Getting to shared understandings on important things is genuinely hard work. Perhaps this is why Jesus blessed the peacemakers. It seems so urgent in a divided society. Studied or even unconscious ambiguity is a real temptation. Sometimes it doesn’t look that different from common ground. Yet agreements not rooted in truth engender suspicion and not trust, and unravel, or they relativize “truth.”

What do you think?

2 thoughts on “Studied Ambiguities

  1. Bob, it’s been a very long time, but in grad school or seminary my prof helped us understand the work of one of the early church councils as a suitable ambiguity. In short, it was a time when the church and its theologians were shifting between Greek and Latin, and those theologians who had written most elehantly to the issue, wrote in Greek. The Latin phrase they settled on was admittedly more ambiguous that either of the conflicting positions as you would describe them in Greek. Selecting that phrase meant each side could have the comfort of their particular understanding, and more importantly, allowed the group to agree on the larger issue, which most likely was the divinity and humanity of Christ. They went in, perhaps expecting to disagree about the lesser matter and came out with a success on the greater. What we disagree about right now is not always the most important issue for us to create consensus when we have the privilege to listen and learn from each other. When a topic like Jesus is on the table, one where we must be continually learning and language can lock us in so we aren’t curious or explore, ambiguity is helpful.

    • Interesting. It seems you are pointing out the reality of the limits of language at a given point to express all we would wish to say as well as the temptation to try to say more than we understand, which may be where some differences arise.

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