Friday, June 04, 2004

Intentional ambiguity

Over at Times & Seasons, Kevin Barney suggested that one could take advantage of ambiguity in official statements to one's advantage, and Melissa asked about whether this ambiguity might be intentional. I think one of the things Church leaders have learned by experience over the years is to make use of ambiguity. Compare, for example, recent Church statements on birth control, the quick retraction during the Kimball presidency of a policy statement on oral sex, teachings about mothers staying at home, and so forth, with earlier statements on those same subjects.

Ambiguity has a number of advantages: it allows Church leaders to maintain a continuity between their teachings and earlier teachings even while modifying the official position of the Church, without having to repudiate earlier teachings. It also allows for leeway in exceptional cases while still maintaining a general rule of thumb (and I think for most of the above, there is a general rule of thumb). It likely better reflects the (lack of) clarity of revelation. Of course, there is risk involved in ambiguity, but I think it is not coincidental that scripture is frequently ambiguous.

So, from the perspective of being on the receiving end, what's not to like about ambiguity? Are we hard-wired to want clarity and certainty? (I know I often have an inclination in that direction.) Or do we dislike having to be responsible for our own choices?

Maybe ambiguity is also “built in” to reality. Maybe when we try to define things clearly, we cannot avoid misrepresenting to some degree, as we generalize. Maybe a thorough and precise account of reality can only be reality -- and maybe reality itself is ambiguous (deliberately so)? Are there evolutionary advantages to ambiguity?


  1. Politicians are the masters of ambiguity, certainly in campaign statements (and most things they say are, in a general sense, part of the campaign) and even in legislation. They want to keep most people happy (so they get reelected) and make as few people as possible upset (so nobody parades around your speech events with placards reading "throw the bum out"). The best way to do that is to make nothing but general, Mom-and-apple-pie statements that most people like and few could possibly object to. There are, I think, religious equivalents to Mom-and-apple-pie speeches.

  2. Policy statements from the church that at first appear to be ambiguous may, in fact, give greater direction than explicit, detailed instructions. For example, when the Passion of the Christ was released, a popular topic on many Mormon blogs was whether mormons should go see it with its R rating. Many cited a President Benson talk from the mid-80's which said, in essence, "Don't go see rated-R movies." Others cited the subsequent statement in For the Strength of Youth which says, to paraphrase, "Don't see movies that are violent or sexual in any way." To some, the For the Strength of Youth statement is more ambiguous, because it doesn't explicitly prohibit Rated R movies. I think that church leaders must have learned, however, that being more explicit ("no rated-R movies") resulted in many taking the position that if it's not rated R, its OK to see it. This is a position that was reflected over and over in the blog entries and comments I read. Hence, when For the Strength of Youth came out, it gave more generalized counsel, which, if followed, would now proscribe many (if not most) PG and PG-13 movies in addition to the rated-R movies. The bottom line is, if you believe the GA's and other church leaders are giving inspired counsel, then it doesn't really matter if its specific or ambiguous, because it will end up being what we need to hear.

  3. Clear statements draw boundaries, and clear boundaries exclude as well as include. Even if there is one right answer on everything, very few of us are ready to accept it in its entirety [indeed, the history of the Church can be considered as one long struggle by the prophets to get the Saints ready to accept the next step]. Thus, the Church seems to carefully decide which boundaries are worth unambiguously drawing, and which are not yet necessary to maximize the number of people saved. Making unambigous statements about the necessity of authoritative baptism or the dangers of certain sins strikes me as necessary even if some people never join or leave the Church because of it, while making statements about more trivial things [obscure doctrines, cultural tendencies, or, heaven forbid, which politician to support in his quest for public office] seems likely to result in more people being alienated than are saved by such statements [again, even if there is one right answer, which is hardly a given].

    The interesting question thus seems to be whether the line between the two classes ever moves in one direction or the other. A Zion people, in theory, could probably take a lot more specific direction than we can handle just yet [whether they would need to, or whether personal revelation would take care of it is arguable, I suppose, though]. Thus, if my tentative impression that the Church tends to give less specific direction about many things in our generation than in some earlier generations is true, it could indicate that the aggregate righteousness/faithfulness/humility of the Saints has declined [which could say more about the quality/quantity of new members than about any individual's state]. On the other hand, it could simply be that the Brethren themselves have gotten better at the delicate cost/benefit analysis required in making official statements with the proper degree of ambiguity. Institutional memory/competence could be something of a factor here.

  4. This brings to mind the 'letter of the law' vs. the 'spirit of the law' sermons given by Christ. People are too quick to make rules absolute, the R-rated movie counsel is a good example. Once the counsel becomes an absolute rule then the purpose of the counsel is subsumed by the practice of the rule itself, done purely out of obedience. If GA counsel is more ambiguous, leaving the parameters open to the members to interpret, then we are less likely to glom onto obsessive limitations thus missing the point of the counsel itself. I think the previous commenter was right. The ratings of movies are often arbitrary, to the point that an R-rated movie might be less violent and sexual than a PG-13 one. So, if we act as wise servents and decide for ourselves how to apply general principles then we are more likely to stick to the spirit of the principle. Such as, 'don't purposely poison your mind with vulgarity', rather than an absolute 'don't ever see an r-rate movie'. I think the ambiguity is intentional and wise.

  5. Is there a difference between "don't see a vulgar movie" and "don't see an R-rated movie," assuming both terms are clearly defined? I don't think ambiguity is necessarily the distiction between the two examples--more which unambiguous rule will yield better results (of course, one rule might also be easier to follow than the other, but that too is a different issue).

    The ambiguity in "don't see a vulgar movie" seems more likely to come from the subjective nature of vulgarity. However, if a term can be clearly understood (even if not completely objectively defined), ambiguity is reduced or eliminated. Thus, concepts such as consecration, chastity, etc, can be clear, if subjective in application to a degree. Genuine ambiguity in the sense that I think the Church is very good at seems more to come when the Church declines to take any sort of official position on a matter (or perhaps one that is simply broad enough to avoid offending anyone except the most vehement antis).

  6. Ambiguity also helps leaders in a worldo-wide setting to make statement that can be put into place in differing situations. Example: "Wear your best clothes to Church on Sunday" works world-wide where "Wear white shirts and ties" does not. With the church becoming more and more international, ambiguity may become more and more the rule.

  7. Grasshopper,

    I think that ambiguity is often intentional, and I can think of situations in which the Church has utilized what in contractual negotiations is sometimes referred to as a "studied ambiguity," where all concerned in putting together the language recognize the ambiguous nature of it precisely because if they were to be more explicit, they would not reach the agreement that they all desire to have. One response to such a situation is to object and ask why anyone would want, at the outset of a contract, to be building into the structure a flaw that will doubtless spawn litigation when it comes up down the road. Another response, however, is that each "side" of the studied ambiguity believes that time and future developments may eliminate the potential disagreement.

    I would imagine that in an organization that acts not on majority decisions, but rather one that requires unanimity, the need for studied ambiguities may be significantly greater.

    One other thought: some ambiguities exist not as a function of intention, but rather as a function of the mismatch between language and existence. The complexity of life defies the simple application of rules without engaging our subjective judgment. Indeed, pretending otherwise seems as capable of causing error as pretending that there are no rules at all.

    Which raises one more reason for intentional ambiguity: to prevent the hearer from concluding that it is ok to turn off the hearer's own conscience in evaluating a particular course of conduct. The movie rating system in the US seems to spawn as much discussion in Mormon thought as almost any other precept of the gospel perhaps because of this dynamic.

  8. politically & legally, I 'hate' ambiguity with a passion. While it is often described as the "negative space" or "grease" within which deals, compromise, decisions, etc. can be made...I dislike such.

    For example, the SUpreme Court often reaches one result, but under 2-3 different theories that have to be somehow, cobbled together.

    Worse, Congress says something "vague" & then leaves it to bureacrats, lobbyists & lawyers to define. I'm of the opinion that laws should be 'clear' so that they can be 'known.' otherwise...the rule of law fails.

    -meme lyle