Confronting Ambiguity

This is the time of year when I envy colleagues who teach math and science—courses where final examinations are filled with questions to which there are clear right and wrong answers. Students are comfortable with the certainties of such subjects; they have far more difficulty dealing with questions that are often answered—at least in part—with “it depends.”   


When undergraduates are told that the “right” answer consists of identifying and analyzing the issue—and not just choosing the correct outcome—they can find it positively disorienting. They tend to want clarity and bright lines–rules that can be memorized and regurgitated. That works when the question is two plus two; it’s dicier for most areas of real life.   


Despite all the rhetoric that gets thrown around these days about the differences between conservatives and liberals (whatever meaning those abused terms currently retain), I think it is this discomfort with the ambiguities of reality that best defines the contemporary political divide. Conservatives and liberals may be guided by different philosophies of government and different views of virtue, but most recognize the inherent messiness of life and acknowledge the dangers of too-rigid, too-doctrinaire approaches to our common civic life.


There are people of all political persuasions, however, who find the absence of moral certainty unbearable. We all know folks who began their civic life as passionate believers in one “ism” or another, and who reacted to disillusionment by embracing an opposing, equally extreme philosophy. Talk radio and shout television programs are filled with ex-communists who have fervently embraced right-wing dogma. Bookstore shelves display manifestos by former right-wing activists now devoted to unmasking the agendas of their erstwhile culture-war colleagues.


These are people who find the inevitable ambiguities of real life not just distasteful, but terrifying. Much like those ex-cons who can’t cope with life outside the predictability of prison structure and who purposely re-offend in order to be sent back, they need the psychic comfort that comes with imposed discipline—no matter how confining.


For better or worse, however, political and civic life requires compromise. Thoughtful conservatives, libertarians and liberals can generally find some common ground that makes governing possible. They understand that no one gets his own way all the time, and that an acceptable middle-ground is no small achievement in a society as diverse as ours. Zealots, however, find compromise not just distasteful, but evil. They don’t acknowledge the ambiguities; they not only don’t see shades of gray or moral complexity, they believe that people who do are the “real” enemy.


This dynamic plays out on both sides of the political spectrum, but in Indiana it has been most notable in the Republican primaries of recent years, where moderately conservative lawmakers have been defeated by people campaigning on the proposition that moderation itself is evil. Larry Borst and Bob Garton were not defeated by opponents debating the nuances of policy. They were victims of holy wars.


And even undergraduates understand that holy wars will ultimately victimize us all.