Innate Characteristics vs Ambiguity

story © Michael Betancourt, March 18, 2010 all rights reserved.


Looking at the political and other divisions in the United States, more and more I am struck by a minor issue that came up while researching The State of Information: the idea of ambiguity. It didn’t seem like a particularly significant issue at the time, but more and more it’s becoming obvious that how someone responds to ambiguity determines much of their outlook on the world around them.

Ambiguity in itself is simple. Basically it is a state where there are multiple, equivalent interpretations that coexist at the same moment, each being roughly as good as the others. These are the ‘grey areas’ in interpretation—most of our experience and values fall into this realm, less a matter of absolute definition and application than one of nuance and argument. As a result, ambiguity tends to be problematic, and doesn’t work well with generalizations or a priori statements.

The ability to eliminate or minimize ambiguity is essential to any decision making process; the procedures we use to achieve this generally function by a polarization of options into a limited number of exclusive positions. (When this process breaks down into pathology, it is one of the most obvious characteristics of schizophrenia, and is the reason schizophrenic interpretations closely resemble typical thought: both rely on the same underlying thought processes.) The problem arises when the polarizations become so rigid as to eliminate nuance in favor of predecision: at this point, the interpretations can become pathological. In fact, this kind of limiting factor on thought was one of the historical identifiers for schizophrenia (or dementia praecox).

The issue of a belief in “innate characteristics” becomes significant for our thinking precisely because this belief serves to predecide ambiguity in very specific, rigid ways—and with very disturbing results once you start recognizing it in the world around you. . . . What is a belief in “innate characteristics”? It’s the idea, for example, that people are innately good or evil. While this sounds plausible, it actually has some very unpleasant ramifications. If people are innately good, then anything they do is also good—no matter what that action happens to be. So if an innately good person steals a lot of money, it’s OK, because they’re good, and no action that they do can change that valuation; in contrast, someone believed to be innately evil, no matter what they do, remains evil; thus, even if they act to save hundreds of lives at great personal cost to themselves, they remain evil and all their actions are thus evil—even the saving of lives.

The belief in innate characteristics plays out very clearly in the politics of the United States. Say a politician spends time molesting and *^#*@%!ually harassing his staff. If that politician is viewed as being innately good, these actions (all criminal) are irrelevant and ignored or forgiven; in contrast, if he were viewed as innately evil, these actions would be seen as proof of his vileness, and would simply be confirmation of that belief.

What makes this belief in an innate character so troubling is that it is being applied to our politicians as a way of excusing reprehensible conduct, or as confirmation and excuse for continuous attacks by opposing parties. It is not confined to one political persuasion or another, but at the moment is most visible from the “right” of American politics; this relationship does change over time.

Copyright © Michael Betancourt  March 18, 2010  all rights reserved.

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