When a male seeks for a relationship, it is inevitable that he must engage in some kind of conversation with the female he is interested in. This conversation will, for many, prove to be challenging, or even at times downright terrifying. Here he seeks for common ground, make her laugh, make agreeable statements, and woo her by his wit, charm, or whatever. Its potentially terrifying for a host of reasons – maybe he will find that the girl he’s so admired really doesn’t have any of the same interests as himself, or maybe he will find that her character isn’t exactly the same as that which he had in his mind when he first met her – but primarily, its terrifying because in every single one of these initial conversations rejection is surely just around the corner, or so he feels. Rejection is scary because it is painful, and this is because rejection forces us to re-evaluate our sense of self-worth – what’s wrong with me? Why did this happen?
So males come up with dozens of strategies in their heads to avoid rejection as much as possible. One obvious strategy that males use (whether we admit it or not) is the power of ambiguity. A statement or question is ambiguous when it can be appropriately interpreted in two different (and often opposing) ways. Take the statement “he’s passed the bar” – this statement can be taken, depending on the context, in many different ways – perhaps it means that a particular person has just walked passed his favorite bar, or a student has just passed the exam requirements, or whatever.
This power can be a useful tool for the insecure male who wants no rejection, and who wants to appear to be in control. The strategy is quite simple: say something to the girl that, if she responds negatively, you can say you mean the opposite, and that, if she responds positively, you can say she has grasped exactly what you meant. Often this can come in the form of the most mundane of expressions – such as saying a flirty “joke” – if she takes it as a joke, you can laugh it off – if she took you seriously, but reacts negatively, you can say it was just a joke, but if she took you seriously, and reacts positively, you can move forward. Either way, the male has won the manipulation game.
As I survey the kinds of articles or PhD theses being written, its seems to me that ambiguous thinkers create serious debates – take Karl Barth, for example, tomes have been written and most of those tomes were written debating “what Karl Barth really meant” when he said x, y, or z. But clear authors, say, Francis Turretin, or Plantinga, produce students who write papers that try to compare their thoughts with others, defend it from objections, or apply it to new matters. There isn’t much debate on what he meant. But this ambiguity is often part of the “charm.” Be ambiguous enough in scholarship and you can get away with anything, and people will often mistake ambiguity with profundity. Clears statements don’t create controversy, nor do they create sensational whispers. Clear statements demand rejection or acceptance. Ambiguous authors can wiggle out of a corner by demanding that they’ve been misread. Not so with clear authors.
This has some parallels with Confucianism, too. One of the virtues instilled in a Confucian philosophy is meditation – but not an act of emptying of the mind, but of meditating on the words of the “Great Teacher” – to understand, and listen, and to submit one’s thoughts to this master. The Great Teacher will often say one thing that can be interpreted in two different ways – and students will then think about what he has said for days. Then, the students will come back, and if their interpretation went one way, and they react negatively, the “master” will rebuke them for not understanding what he truly meant, but if they reacted positively, the master can extol them for their wisdom in being able to penetrate what he really said.
Other than simply being a bad teacher, this Confucian strategy can often mask insecurity and in the form of weightiness, unclarity in the form of profundity, and shallow manipulation in the form of depth. It creates factions within the students, as individual disciples vie for the favor of the teacher, potentially nurturing an unhealthy sense of envy, suspicion, and political back-biting. In this personality-driven situation, favor determines position and a lack thereof fosters termination and social alienation. Clear processes are seen as suspect because it curbs the direct say so of the great teacher, as pragmatic leaders are given the opportunity and space to manipulate situations for their own gains while debates are constantly had on the intentions of the leader, often thought to be indicated by subtle and implied subtexts. Here and elsewhere, the downfalls of ambiguity are clear.
But this “power” of ambiguity is not altogether to be avoided. It is interesting that Jesus himself utilizes it, not as a form of positive pedagogy, but rather as a useful tool for rebuking those who sought to challenge him. Ambiguous stories are told to stumble the prideful Pharisees and self-interested individuals – he hides and conceals to the wise and reveals to the humble. To his own disciples he told them plainly what he meant by parables and other forms of teaching, and thus made clear that any failure to understand what he meant was the responsibility of his disciples. However, Jesus was unequivocal about the virtues of letting our yes’s and no’s to be words that reflect exactly what we mean. These virtues are further reinforced by Paul as he encourages elders to be men of great repute, testable by the church and by the public and to be submitted under verifiable means of assessment, and to be gifted teachers of a form of sound words. James, too, extols the man who is not double-minded, who is clear headed, and, like Peter, commands us to fear no suffering for saying and doing that which is clearly right. Persecution and challenge does not come when one is ambiguous – it comes because one is clear on where one stands.