Deliberate ambiguity in writing

Strategically ambiguous

One of my points in the previous post was that a good writer should have

control over his words, the way a good rider should be able to rein in his horse,

so that the words evoke the intended response only.

This led Jim M. to an insightful addendum:

So much has been written about how ambiguity distorts communication, it is easy to miss how ambiguity aids communication…. [M]anaging ambiguity is not merely a matter of its reduction, but its proper exploitation.

This is a great point, and in fact completes (rather than refutes) my thesis on writerly control over words.

To make the distinction clearer: The goal of writing is always to evoke a particular response. But:

  • sometimes this means making the words so precise as to leave no room for ambiguity. (The Second Amendment in the U.S. Constitution fails to do this, which is why I cited it in the previous post as an example of “bad writing”);
  • other times it means making the words intentionally ambiguous to leave the reader in a vacuum of meaning precisely circumscribed by the writer. The writer thus has the reader not at a point but in a space, because that is the intention.

The best example that I could think of off the top of my head comes from International Relations. The so-called Taiwan Relations Act, signed by Jimmy Carter in 1979 (but really the result of deliberate policy since Nixon’s visit to China), has been a diplomatic success precisely because it includes a deliberate ambiguity.

It is found in various passages but most notably in Section 3301(b). There it is written that “the policy of the United States” is

to consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes, a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States…

Of great concern. Genius! Does that mean that if China were to attack Taiwan,

  1. America would defend Taiwan? Or that
  2. America would be “concerned” without defending Taiwan?

The point, of course, is that the writer had two audiences in mind: The mainland Chinese and the Chinese on Taiwan.

  • The mainland Chinese had to be able to interpret the phrase to mean that America would probably defend Taiwan, thus concluding that attacking the islands would be a really bad idea.

  • The Chinese on Taiwan had to be able to interpret the phrase to mean that American might not defend Taiwan, thus concluding that declaring formal independence (and thus provoking an attack) would be a really bad idea.

This deliberate ambiguity is one reason (I’m not saying it’s the only reason) why China’s cross-straits conflict has been one of the stablest hotspots in the world. Wouldst that all conflicts were like it.

To expand this concept of deliberate ambiguity to the other arts: The best analogy I can think of

  • in painting and sculpture is the so-called “negative space”, and
  • in music the pause.

So ambiguity definitely plays a role in good writing and art — as long as it produces the response the writer intended.

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23 thoughts on “Deliberate ambiguity in writing

  1. I’m not so sure the Second Amendment is merely an instance of bad writing rather than one of intentional ambiguity. After all, the divide between the mindsets which we today refer to as liberal and conservative was equally pronounced back then, so pumping it full of intentional ambiguity was the only way to get the U.S. Constitution passed at all, i.e., by affording each faction enough wiggle room to interpret hot button clauses their own way and thus ensuring their signature on the parchment. Without massive infusion of intentional ambiguity, the Philadelphia Convention would probably have dissolved within less than 48 hours.

    We call them the Founding Fathers as if we’re talking about a bunch of wise old man sitting there in a circle holding hands in enlightened agreement on all issues. In reality, these were delegations of various colonies with widely divergent interests threatening to walk out unless the language in whatever clause they felt might threaten their interests would be properly ambiguated.

    In consequence, to this day folks on opposite ends of the political spectrum point to the very same constitutional clause to justify utterly irreconcilable positions, all accusing their detractors of trampling all over the Constitution, so much so that the overall effect of this perpetual finger-pointing borders on the comical.

    Regarding their precision and room for interpretation, expressions like “cruel and unusual”, “common welfare”, “reasonable”, “speech,” or “well regulated” are no different in kind than the phrase “of grave concern.”

    • Ah, but examine the logic of your comment:

      You’re suggesting that the 2nd Amendement’s wording was a result of compromise (which it may well have been). That, however, would indeed make it an example of “bad writing”, because the Amendment purports to clear up a matter when instead it muddles it. The alternative, remember, was not to have an amendment on the topic at all, leaving the decision to future legislatures and their statutes.

      Phrases such as “cruel and unusual” are different. They are examples of deliberate ambiguity. The Founding Fathers understood that our notions of what is cruel and unusual vary over time (different in the Middle Ages and today, and different again in 100 years). So they did not want to be specific (highlighting “drawn-and-quartered”, eg) because they had to allow for new methods (“waterboarding,” eg) and new values. They deliberately put us and ever other generation into a circumscribed space, putting the onus on us to make sure that no punishment is cruel or unusual by our (contemporary) standards.

    • Deliberate ambiguity may very well be the result of compromise, so it doesn’t necessarily have to be one or the other.

      Interesting question whether waterboarding falls under “punishment.” I would say that intelligence gathering techniques, no matter how unpleasant for the subject, simply aren’t addressed in the Constitution.

    • I wonder if this is a variant of ambiguity–I jumped to conclusions based on your references to Brunnhilde, forgetting that she appears in places outside the Ring. Anyway, Valhalla is in ashes, almost everyone is dead but the chord is hopeful and forests have been felled writing about it. So I will desist.

  2. The TRA is not ambiguous; it is quite clear. It commits the US to nothing, mandating only that the President consult with Congress (nothing stops the President from taking no action), and was deliberately written with that in mind. Defending Taiwan is a political calculus, and in that political calculus lies the ambiguity you refer to. But the remainder of your analysis of that use of ambiguity in communication is great.


    • I think you’re saying that the wording is “clear about being ambiguous”, as it were. That sounds right. But that might be another definition of “strategic ambiguity”.

  3. Among your “Top Posts” (frequently, though not today) is a piece called “How Not to Burn Out Sexually: Nina Hartley”. Nina Hartley is not a familiar name to me, but the first part of the title does catch the eye, you must admit, so I click.

    Well, OK, an interview with a porn star, but I half-expected something more. And, then, within a moment, I’m laughing at myself: What exactly did I think I was going to find here?

    The “proper exploitation of ambiguity” in titles reels in an audience and, then, winks and says “Gotcha!”

    • Well, first of all, apologies about that post. I’m slightly embarrassed that it has become one of my top posts (hardly representative of the blog).
      But yes, the art of titling (a post, a book, anything) is often about double entendre and ambiguity.

      So, were you expecting a manual on how not to burn out? 😉

  4. My favorite use of “The Kluth Vacuum” occurs when Lt. Columbo, well into his investigation of a murder within a high-IQ group, confesses: 

    “Here I’ve been talking with the most intelligent people in the world, and I never even noticed!”

  5. The following video (which Jane Austen Fight Club fans Jenny & Cheri will not want to miss) probably belongs under the recent HB post whose comments touched on male versus female violence

    or the HB’s upcoming post on Alexander Hamilton, who fought a duel with Aaron Burr; but it also fits here — Is even more ambiguity needed in Taiwan?

    Jenny’s current post on workers who blow up and walk off their jobs is also relevant

    though the exploding Taiwanese legislators never seem to quit. 

    Admirable, in a way.

    • The youtube link isn’t working for me.

      Thank you, though, Jim M., for the mention. 🙂

      Now, do I have to remind you of the first rule of the Jane Austen Fight Club?

  6. Argument is best served ambiguous. I like to read an argument without knowing the author’s conclusion until the very end. That’s how you know the author understands the opposing arguments. This is why I can never take people like Rush Limbaugh and John C Goodman very seriously.

    • Hi Jacob. That’s the sort of ambiguity otherwise known as suspense. Crucial in writing.

      Combine it with “understanding the opposing arguments” and the writing surely has serious potential…

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