We are the Ambivalents, unable not to see both sides of the argument, frozen in the no-man’s land between armies of true believers. We cannot speak our name, because there is no respectable way to confess that you believe two opposing propositions, no ballot that allows you to vote for competing candidates, no questionnaire in which you can tick the box, “I agree with both of these conflicting views.” So the Ambivalents avoid the question, or check “I don't know,” or grit their teeth and pick a side. Consequently, our ambivalence doesn’t leave a trace. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
I really like this piece by Ian Leslie in Slate about ambivalence – especially since I find myself to be ambivalent a lot of the time. This particular description of the pain of being in a situation where you're forced, or feeling forced to make a decision rings very true:
The participants were then told they would be asked to choose a position and were given a few minutes to think about it. All the while, electrodes attached to their heads measured the moisture in their skin. Van Harreveld found that the students in the ambivalent condition were deeply uncomfortable about settling on a view, and that this discomfort only increased once they had committed. They literally sweated over their decision. Van Harreveld explained to me that, for the ambivalent person, committing to a position, even though the decision has no consequence, is inevitably painful: “If you believe two things at once and you’re forced to give one up, then you will experience a sense of loss.”
That said, I am (inevitably), ambivalent about the need to understand and make room for ambivalence in political discourse, as expressed below…
Nowhere is our problem with ambivalence more evident than in contemporary political discourse, which ignores the possibility of ambivalence altogether. The stickiest and most divisive of today’s political issues are difficult not just because there are people on either side of the debate but because they divide individuals internally, bringing our core beliefs into conflict. But ambivalence is the dark matter of political debate: Our normal measuring instruments cannot detect it… If we are to find a way to break out of our current deadlocks, we need a little more respect for ambivalence… After all, an ambivalent sensibility is a creative one… When you are in a state of mind in which things aren’t resolved into their conventional categories, you are more likely to see new possibilities.
Isn’t it time we stood up for ambivalence as a valid and necessary mode of comprehending the world?
On the one hand, I agree utterly with the claim that current political discourse ignores ambivalence as a possible position (while at the same time, in the UK at least, there is very little discernible difference in the actual positions or policies of the two sides) and that a little – ok, a lot – more nuance and ambivalence in the debate would not go amiss.
That said, there does come a point where you have to make a decision, even if you don't believe that there are absolute truths in the universe – because choices have to be made and things have to get done, and sometimes you have to bite down on the pain and choose the lesser of two weevils (I'm sorry, that line from Master & Commander will never get old). So I'm reluctant to make an idol of ambivalence – while acknowledging that I'm generally tempted to regard my own as a virtue.
What we probably need, as well as more nuanced political discourse, is some reflection on how to make good decisions when we are ambivalent- and also how to accept that we have to do that and suck up the pain and consequences as a part of growing up and being a part of a community.
Ambivalence is, at its extreme, a way of keeping your options unlimited and open – and living life actually involves choosing between options and limiting yourself by making commitments to things and to people. I'm pretty ambivalent about that, too, to be honest – but while I might inevitable grieve the road not travelled, I do want to survive on the one I take. And enjoy it.