The Case for Ambiguity

These days it seems imperative to have an opinion — one that is clear, informed, and impassioned. Silence can be deafening, especially when you have platform and privilege. Pick your side wisely.

With more free time than usual this summer, I’ve posted regularly on social media about the current state of affairs, sharing resources and unsolicited opinions.

I write declaratively, post black squares in solidarity, and happily engage in discussion to defend whatever stance I’ve taken.  

Recently, I’ve begun to question my motives and wonder if anything I’m saying is actually helpful. Friends have remarked on my conviction in advocating for Black Lives Matter, police abolition, and voting rights. These comments make me a bit squeamish, not because I disagree with their observations, but because I know I haven’t done much more than talk. I try not to be dogmatic or forceful in my opinions; in person, I actually speak quite tentatively with many disclaimers. Online, though, everything comes across more definitively. I do support Black Lives Matter and significant reforms within our criminal justice system, but I’m far from knowing enough to rest my case on it.

This gradual blurring between perception (an algorithmic consistency that becomes affiliated with one’s identity) and reality (a more inconsistent, messier version of its virtual counterpart) is concerning but expected. Our lives in the public sphere, increasingly mediated by technology, train us to subconsciously project a more ideal version of ourselves. Being inherently more indecisive and meandering, I’ve curated my ideal self as a neater, more solid identity, one that is quick to have a “take” on things.

Given that the Internet tends to select for people with an opinion that magnifies opposition, this naturally creates an environment where we are quick to make assumptions about others based on cherry-picked statements. You’re either anti-racist or racist. You take COVID seriously or you don’t. You’re voting for Donald Trump or you’re not. Life presented in these binary terms is deceivingly simple, gratifying, and… misleading.

To be clear, none of this really matters. What I or what 99% of people post about does not actually change anything. I’m embarrassed by the amount of time I’ve spent crafting foolproof statements to demonstrate that I am on the “right” side of history. Who am I really convincing here? Empowering at best, performative at worst, the process of expressing anguish while people in power continue to make decisions in real life that we have little control over is more of a therapeutic, personal mind-clearing exercise than anything truly movement-building —  much like this post. At the end of a riveting speech, most people have not changed their minds and we’re still in the same predicament.

(Side note: this is not a piece about voting but one could argue that the real key to change is to vote the right people into power who make good decisions on our behalf! Are you registered?)

Not all this talk is for ill. I marvel at the range of topics we’re exposed to because of social commentary and engaged media consumption. Race relations. Anti-racism. Police budgets. The full history of slavery and emancipation. Healthcare disparity. Awareness can breed responsibility and these are important topics that deserve our full attention. But it’s precisely because these topics deserve more, and we have a limited ability to provide that attention, that so much is left to be desired.

Currently I’m reading Jenny Odell’s “How To Do Nothing”, a book about resisting the attention economy. It’s got me thinking about our obsession with efficiency, productivity, and connectivity. The ways in which we’re assaulted with information, news, texts, Slack messages, food deliveries etc. and the speed with which we get it all is a bit like drinking from a fire hose, pummeled by an enormous wave of information with no way to swallow / integrate it into our tiny frames of existence. We’re simply not equipped to calibrate such magnification. And yet we mistake this magnification for engagement.

“We know that we live in complex times that demand complex thoughts and conversations – and those, in turn, demand the very time and space that is nowhere to be found. The convenience of limitless connectivity has neatly paved over the nuances of in-person conversation, cutting away so much information and context in the process. In an endless cycle where communication is stunted and time is money, there are few moments to slip away and fewer ways to find each other.”

– Jenny Odell 

Indeed, it’s harder to solve the world’s complex problems when our attention span is directly correlated with the speed at which we’re accustomed to receiving information. In fact, it seems that the conditions for change in the real world are antithetical to Internet culture — slow, unpredictable, very physical —  requiring mundane, less disruptive mechanisms for change like compromise, difficult conversations, and routine maintenance.

So if the Internet is not the answer, what is? My instinct says it’s investment in people, long-term movement building, and institutional change, the mechanics of which mostly lie beyond me. In this groundless moment, I’ve taken great solace in Pema Chodron’s “When Things Fall Apart” which is a beautiful primer on Buddhist philosophy and resisting the need to grasp for certainty. Since we’re mostly accustomed to finding the answers to everything in a matter of minutes, this concept can be anxiety-inducing. But even science doesn’t know the answer definitively to most things today. So I’ll start by being okay with not knowing.

“If we begin to live like this, we’ll find that we actually can’t make things completely right or wrong anymore because things are a lot more slippery and playful than that. Everything is always ambiguous, everything is always shifting and changing, and there are as many different takes on any given situation as there are people involved.

Trying to find absolute rights and wrongs is a trick we play on ourselves to feel secure and comfortable… Could our minds and our hearts be big enough just to hang out in that space where we’re not entirely certain about who’s right and who’s wrong?”

– Pema Chodron

For me, writing has always been a process of discovering, or convincing myself, what I think. (It’s also an extremely regenerative and therapeutic process that burns through the fog in my mind.) Because of this, what is posted here often displays a greater sense of certainty than what I actually feel. I don’t want to grow too attached to this addictive thrill of finding resolution through pruned essays and words. One of the greatest distortions of the Internet, like writing, is that our beliefs over time are flattened into something overly consistent for the purpose of fulfilling an argument or identity, which then strips us of the context we get when we’re alive and interacting with a more dynamic, ever-changing physical world.

This doesn’t mean I’m rejecting the Internet and its orb-flattening effect. Having a public platform to figure things out in real-time with others is actually a beautiful thing. But if there’s anything I’ve learned during this summer of quarantine, behind the looking glass, is to resist the need to put a dot on everything. The work is to create an environment out in the world and within ourselves that accepts and embraces the uncertainty of not knowing. Perhaps then we’ll have a space that is safe enough to engage in real dialogue — not just projection and ego-flexing — with greater compassion, discernment, and nuance.

“We’ve got nothing except our small attempts to retain our humanity, to act on a model of actual selfhood, one that embraces culpability, inconsistency, and insignificance.”

– Jia Tolentino

I miss being a person in the outside world, a place no less chaotic than the Internet, but at least not experienced through a screen. Being in quarantine for the last 5 months with minimal in-person interaction has certainly left me a bit deluded by the ‘looking glass’, slightly confused about the nature of reality and one’s self-importance behind an avatar. But who can blame us? Times are difficult, our neurons are frayed, and we’re buried alive in digital noise. 

I’d be remiss to conclude without recommending three phenomenal books that have shaped my thinking for this piece:

How to Do Nothing, Resisting the Attention Economy, by Jenny Odell 
Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self Delusion, by Jia Tolentino
When Things Fall Apart, by Pema Chodron

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