We live in a time of unrelenting ambiguity, in which the meaning of important words have changed, or at least it appears they are rapidly changing, such as what it means “to know,” “what is moral,” “what is real,” and “what does evidence mean.” We ponder the world map and wonder if people living in that area of the world over there, are still our friends, or as some say, they are now our enemies, and those other people over there, the ones in that other irregularly shaped piece of the earth with a Google Map line around it are now our friends, even though we used to have our nuclear missels pointed at them. We hear a politician say he plans to “save” Medicare by eliminating it and “increase the financial well being” of unemployed and working people by giving our tax money to the wealthiest people who will spend it on yachts and more mansions. Some politicians and their partisan followers don’t realize it, but they are paraphrasing George Orwell’s Animal Farm: “All animals are equal but some are more equal than others.” They probably aren’t aware of it since few of them seem to read. If you find this all confusing, welcome to Ambiguity in America.
These trends have invited anxiety among some and rejoicing among others who have elected to use such words in any way they choose, like Humpty Dumpty: “"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less." "The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."
Apparently in 2011 in America, one can do just that, or at least some people attempt to do that, and are no longer questioned by members of the press, who seem to have forgotten Orwell’s warning in 1984 about the complicity of the press and official propaganda. I suppose most of the press knows on which side their bread is buttered.
The philosopher Theodore Adorno remarked, “Intolerance of ambiguity is the mark of the authoritarian personality,” which is most apparent in the flourishing of far Right Wing ideologies. They seek refuge in the absolute certainty of absurd, autocratic, repressive policies they hope, pray and believe will set everything right, each in its own moral box, falling within straight, tightly circumscribed undemocratic lines, excluding all views that make them the least uncomfortable, like those of poor people, people of color, or older Americans, immigrants, people with disabilities or college students. They might be willing to consider the views of some white non-union working class Americans.
The tradition within the sciences has been to attempt to cut the world’s unwieldy ambiguity down to size by observing, specifying, measuring, abstracting and simplifying, such as dating the age of the earth, tracking the course of evolution and climate change, the causes of cancer and heart disease, and the consequences of pouring billions of gallons of toxins into the Gulf of Mexico. This process is called scientific explanation, and actually works quite well for many things, a great many things actually, and has clearly made the world a better place and is the basis for much of our economy, though some of those seeking power don’t seem to understand that.
There are some things, like moral judgments that can’t be entirely resolved this way, which requires a combined approach. Using the information provided by science in conjunction with a generally agreed upon “ought’ value system, such as that provided by the United States Constitution. If one wants, she or he could look to the 282 stipulations in Hammurabi’s Code for additional specificity, but that would probably not be necessary for most of us who have similar codes of our own. This approach draws upon traditions from the arts and humanities, in which, according to Joyce Carol Oates, “The ideal art, the noblest of art: working with the complexities of life, refusing to simplify, to "overcome" doubt." Inability to tolerate doubt or ambiguity is the hallmark of neurosis, according to Sigmund Freud, i.e. we face the worst of too worlds in America…. neurotic authoritarianism.
The citizens of the United States are going to have to address these issues directly without guidance from the three branches of our government, which are clearly in a severe political crisis driven by unbridled greed. At one time, the Supreme Court could be counted on as the last resort in such matters, but five of the nine members are now directly controlled by the same financial constituencies that determine the election of the majority of members of the House of Representatives and the Senate due to failure of electoral reform. Mechanisms to begin creating forums for democratically resolving these issues need to be developed as part of civil society.