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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