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,
America would defend Taiwan? Or that
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.
One of the most important dialogues in all of literature, all of history is the so-called “Melian dialogue.” Its subject is power.
Its author was Thucydides, whom I’ve introduced before. He was a contemporary of Socrates, a general in the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, and of course the preeminent historian of that war. He is also considered the world’s first Realist.
I’m using that word in the context of International Relations and Political Science, as distinct from Idealism. All later Realists, from Thomas Hobbes to Machiavelli and Henry Kissinger, owe an intellectual debt to Thucydides.
The dialogue is supposed to have taken place in 416 BCE, roughly in the middle of the long war between Athens and its allies (mostly the islands and ports around the Aegean) and Sparta and its allies (mostly the land-locked cities of the Peloponnese).
One life time earlier, the Athenians, Spartans and other Greeks together had kicked out several huge Persian invasion armies. This was the beginning of Athens as a superpower. Democratic and idealistic at first, Athens quickly became nakedly self-interested and arrogant and dominated its allies as though they were vassals. That alliance was called the Delian League, but it was really an Athenian Empire. Here is a map of it, before the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War:
If you click through to enlarge the map, you will see the tiny island of Melos in the southern Aegean, just outside the line demarcating the Athenian Empire. Melos was a Spartan colony but otherwise neutral. It was sort of a tiny Switzerland. It wanted to stay out of the troubles.
The premise of the dialogue is simple: The Athenians send a fleet to Melos and flatly demand that Melos bow to Athenian power and become a vassal or else be ethnically cleansed.
The Melians appeal to higher ideals (hence Idealism) such as justice.
In the course of the dialogue, excerpts of which I am about to give you, the Athenians and Melians use all the arguments that Realists and Idealists have been using ever since.
And then, Thucydides ends with one of the most abrupt–but, I believe, intentional and genius–codas in literature. But let’s wait till we get to that.
2) The dialogue
You can read the full version here, but I have cut it for ease of use
Glossary: Lacedaemon = Sparta. (Laconia is the area around Sparta, whence “laconic”, since the Spartans didn’t apparently say more than necessary.)
Athenians: … we shall not trouble you with specious pretences … and in return we hope that you, instead of thinking to influence us by saying … that you have done us no wrong, will aim at what is feasible, holding in view the real sentiments of us both; since you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.
Melians: … you should not destroy what is our common protection, the privilege of being allowed in danger to invoke what is fair and right….
Athenians: … We will now proceed to show you that we are come here in the interest of our empire, and that we shall say what we are now going to say, for the preservation of your country; as we would fain exercise that empire over you without trouble, and see you preserved for the good of us both.
Melians: And how, pray, could it turn out as good for us to serve as for you to rule?
Athenians: Because you would have the advantage of submitting before suffering the worst, and we should gain by not destroying you.
Melians: So that you would not consent to our being neutral, friends instead of enemies, but allies of neither side.
Athenians: No; for your hostility cannot so much hurt us as your friendship will be an argument to our subjects of our weakness, and your enmity of our power.
Melians: Is that your subjects’ idea of equity, to put those who have nothing to do with you in the same category with peoples that are most of them your own colonists, and some conquered rebels?
Athenians: As far as right goes they think one has as much of it as the other, and that if any maintain their independence it is because they are strong, and that if we do not molest them it is because we are afraid; so that besides extending our empire we should gain in security by your subjection…
Melians: … if you debar us from talking about justice and invite us to obey your interest, we also must explain ours, and try to persuade you, if the two happen to coincide. How can you avoid making enemies of all existing neutrals who shall look at case from it that one day or another you will attack them? …
Athenians: … it is rather islanders like yourselves, outside our empire, and subjects smarting under the yoke, who would be the most likely to take a rash step and lead themselves and us into obvious danger.
Melians: … it were surely great baseness and cowardice in us who are still free not to try everything that can be tried, before submitting to your yoke.
Athenians: Not if you are well advised, the contest not being an equal one, with honour as the prize and shame as the penalty, but a question of self-preservation and of not resisting those who are far stronger than you are.
Melians: … to submit is to give ourselves over to despair, while action still preserves for us a hope…
Athenians:Hope, danger’s comforter, may be indulged in by those who have abundant resources … [But] you, who are weak … hang on a single turn of the scale…
Melians: You may be sure that we are as well aware as you of the difficulty of contending against your power and fortune, unless the terms be equal. But we trust that the gods may grant us fortune as good as yours, since we are just men fighting against unjust…
Athenians: When you speak of the favour of the gods, we may as fairly hope for that as yourselves; neither our pretensions nor our conduct being in any way contrary to what men believe of the gods, or practise among themselves. Of the gods we believe, and of men we know, that by a necessary law of their nature they rule wherever they can. And it is not as if we were the first to make this law, or to act upon it when made: we found it existing before us, and shall leave it to exist for ever after us; all we do is to make use of it, knowing that you and everybody else, having the same power as we have, would do the same as we do…
Melians: … we now trust to [the Lacedaemonians’] respect for expediency to prevent them from betraying the Melians, their colonists, and thereby losing the confidence of their friends in Hellas and helping their enemies.
Athenians: Then you do not adopt the view that expediency goes with security, while justice and honour cannot be followed without danger; and danger the Lacedaemonians generally court as little as possible.
Melians: But we believe that they would be more likely to face even danger for our sake … as our nearness to Peloponnese makes it easier for them to act, and our common blood ensures our fidelity.
Athenians: Yes, but what an intending ally trusts to is not the goodwill of those who ask his aid, but a decided superiority of power for action; and the Lacedaemonians look to this even more than others. … now is it likely that while we are masters of the sea they will cross over to an island?
Melians: But they would have others to send…
Athenians: … we are struck by the fact that, after saying you would consult for the safety of your country, in all this discussion you have mentioned nothing which men might trust in and think to be saved by. Your strongest arguments depend upon hope and the future, and your actual resources are too scanty, as compared with those arrayed against you, for you to come out victorious. … Think over the matter, therefore, after our withdrawal, and reflect once and again that it is for your country that you are consulting, that you have not more than one, and that upon this one deliberation depends its prosperity or ruin.
With that the Athenians left the Melians to make their decision. Let’s just summarize the dialogue briefly:
A: Cut through the crap: might makes right. Don’t waste our time. M: We have a right to invoke justice!
A: We would prefer to let you live, so submit! M: How exactly would submitting be in our interest?
A: Were you not listening? Because you would live!M: Why can’t we be neutral? We would not bother you.
A: Somebody somewhere might think we are weak. M: If you exterminate us, all other neutrals will hate you.
A: Let us worry about that. M: We are not cowards and we want to stay free.
A: For you it’s not about freedom but survival. M: We still have hope.
A: Hope is for the powerful. And you are not. M: The gods are on our side because our cause is just.
A: The gods are just like you and us: They do what power lets them. M: The Spartans will come to our aid.
A: No, they won’t. They know they would lose at sea. M: We think they would send somebody.
A: Enough of this silly nonsense. You make up your mind. Submit or die.
The Melians decided not to submit and to fight. Thucydides then describes at some length the Athenian siege. Eventually, the Athenians overpower the Melians.
And then, in perhaps the most abrupt final sentence in literature, Thucydides simply informs us that the Athenians
put to death all the grown men whom they took, and sold the women and children for slaves, and subsequently sent out five hundred colonists and inhabited the place themselves.
Style: Thucydides writes the dialogue (admittedly, with my cutting I have accentuated this) a bit as Hemingway does: This is a staccato back-and-forth, not a treatise. We are not teasing out a subtlety of argumentation here. We simply have two sides who are talking past each other, and one side has power whereas the other does not.
Style: Any modern editor would have forced Thucydides to provide more “color” at the end, to make the true horror of the extermination more vivid. Thucydides has none of that. He wants the atrocity to be a mere afterthought. This is the way the world is, he is saying.
Content: Does Thucydides approve of the Athenians? We have no idea. Probably not. Who cares?, he is saying. This is reality.