Category Archives: Models

Examples we can productively study

The Uses of Ambiguity

The usual response is to worry over any lack of clarity.  But it’s worth turning over this ordinary condition to see what the other side offers.

We often assume that language works best when it is stipulative: when words mean one thing and one thing only. This is the way mathematics functions. Ambiguity has been wrung out of most calculations and computer codes. In the not-so-distant past, the promise of mathematical precision was the firm hope of some linguists.  We usually have the same hope in mind when we attempt to “explain” a fact or attitude to another. We want to see our words as duplicates, more or less, of what is in our’s and others’ heads.

There is nothing wrong with this impulse.  An Alice-in-Wonderland world is not what most of us imagine as a functional environment.  We depend on predictable responses from others.  If a person says they are “feeling well,” we assume we know what they mean.

Slippery meanings have their functions.

Even so, meaning is almost never a matter of a one-to-one conversion.  We know this only too well when apparent certainties give way to the vicissitudes of real life. “I think she is coming,” “It’s not too spicy,” and “The computer glitch is fixed” are all statements from a very deep well of expressions that should come with a permanent asterisk of doubt. What we hear and what has been affirmed are almost never the same thing.

And yet, slippery meanings have many functions. Consider just a few of many:

A certain vagueness can trigger new insights. Breakthroughs in thinking sometimes happen by accident, or the near-accidents triggered by the use of analogies, poor word choice, metaphors, and on-the-fly comparisons.  These sideways glances into a problem can yield surprising new understandings.

Astrobiologist Caleb A. Scharf notes that “the simple truth is that scientists themselves constantly make use of analogies, metaphorical devices, and similes. Sometimes it’s the only way to build an intuition for a problem, by relating it to something else. Richard Feynman was perhaps one of the greatest players of this game, turning spinning plates into cutting-edge quantum physics and Nobel prizes.”  Notably, all of these rhetorical forms are significantly ambiguous.  Push them far enough and they break down into non-sequiturs.

A key advantage of ambiguity is perhaps what the poet John Keats meant in his often quoted letter to his brother in 1817. He said he admired Shakespeare for his “negative capability,” meaning that The Bard was “capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”  Literature and narratives open up to multiple perspectives, making them knowable only in the serendipitous ways they create rainbows of associations within us.

Ambiguity preserves options. We depend on a certain degree of verbal skill to protect ourselves and allow for generous reinterpretation. The calculated spaciousness of a statement gives us room to adjust as a situation requires. It’s an old joke that a politician’s favorite color is plaid. But we often exercise the same kind of linguistic sleight of hand.  The response “I’d love to come to the party if I can” preserves a range of options later on.  “I’m not sure I understand what you mean” uses a non-committal response to perhaps fend off an overt statement one disagrees with. It’s almost as good as “Maybe.”

Advertisements are strategically ambiguous about what they are selling.  An audience member often finds their own way to a message.  And a certain indirection can help.  A McDonald’s-France ad featuring a closeted gay youth sharing a meal with his dead ends with the tagline, “Come as you are.”  A second look suggests that the message is a bit hypocritical.  Why can’t the youth be out to the rest of his family? Perhaps a casual viewer only sees the ad’s pitch for inclusivity.

Ambiguity lets us in. Music, poetry, and unresolved third acts leave room for audiences to hear or see what they need. Music carries the possibilities of multiple meanings even further. What did Dmitri Shostakovich mean by the crude and blunt marches embedded in the First Movement of his Fifth Symphony? Just a modernist impulse?  A taunt to authorities who wanted a more “Soviet” style from him?  A garish state of his own bouts of despair?  Who knows?  Or try to identify the emotional thread in a A Chorus Line’s big anthem, “What I Did for Love.”  Is the Hamlisch/Kleban song a simple expression of commitment to the precarious life of a Broadway dancer?  A “no regrets” act of defiance over a committed relationship that failed?  Or a defiant affirmation of same sex love, when it carried a heavier social stigma?  We hear what we need to hear.

Music can be partly understood in terms of the mathematics of tonality. But the emotional results of it and all the arts take us in a totally different direction:  to myriad evocations of feeling made possible by their welcome ambiguities.

A Theory of the Depression Monsoon


It’s an old truism in rhetoric that we see what we can name.  If so, our national monsoon of concerns about the spreading darkness of depression is partly a function of its lexicon. We notice it because we can name it.

Mental health researchers tell us that rates of clinical depression in the United States have been steadily increasing.  One estimate from the Centers for Disease Control is that about 9 in 100 Americans carry that diagnosis, with 3 percent suffering from chronic depression.

What’s going on?

Anyone asking the question must be humble when proposing causes. Among other factors, our reporting is probably better than it has ever been. But it is obvious that the effects are especially stark among the young: a cause for some national soul-searching. To be sure, suicide is a rare consequence of depression. But it is the third most common cause of death in people aged 15 to 25. At some point in our lives most of us have been touched by concerns about the distress and safety of a young relative or family friend.

Every case is different. But it is probably fair to assume that teens lack the ballast of experience to ride out rough patches, which may include broken relationships, family tensions, and low self-esteem brought on by—among other things—the sometimes corrosive comparisons of self with others encouraged by social media.

It also seems as if there has been a sea change in the amount of mental health talk that is now part of the lives of younger Americans still in the pursuit of an education. For most Americans, the use of  institutional mental health services has come out from under a cloud of secrecy that was common in mid-twentieth century America. Over the last two decades counseling services have proliferated in schools and universities. And there can be no doubt they are helpful.  But with increased emphasis on coping with stress, there is also more discussion of anxiety and clinical depression. First year students in college are now asked to be aware of these issues in the midst of a whirlwind “Welcome Week.” And staff are asked to be more proactive if a student speaks about stress or anxiety. Meanwhile, our media culture is more bold in dwelling on depression episodes, abetted by direct-to-consumer ads for psychoactive drugs that go not just to patients, but sometimes to their friends. Consider as well that just a few years ago no mainstream provider of television content would have touched a series like 13 Reasons Why (2017), Netflix’s fictional account a of a teen’s descent into suicide. The effect is a culture that has normalized teen angst into something more ubiquitous.

It also seems evident that students living on a campus are rarely ‘on their own’ and out of contact in the ways their parents once were. For some, frequent text or phone contact with home keeps family problems in play at a time when, for prior generations, being away at school offered a kind of refuge.

Add in some linguistic determinism, and you have a perfect storm. It’s an old truism in linguistic and rhetorical theory that we see what we can name. This idea means that the name comes prior to perception. Building on this view, the monsoon described here may be abetted by the widespread use of a lexicon of depression terms. With its emergence out from under its former stigma, perhaps we have inadvertently over-represented its existence.* This kind of ‘clinicalization’ of our mental lives has now gone on for years, with frequent talk about others in terms of what were once understood as formal diagnostic categories.  We now talk casually about someone’s “anxiety,” “attention deficits” or “paranoia,” mixing subjective judgments with classification categories found in the bible of mental illness diagnoses, the DSM.

Merging of these labels into our everyday rhetoric has done its part to put what were once considered passing states of mind front and center.  Sometimes that can be good. But it also follows that such language gets formalized through diagnosis and treatment. Once a person self-identifies as a “victim” of a labeled condition, that awareness can lay the groundwork for recovery, or become a self-protective justification that delays it.


*I take a less extreme view than psychiatrist Thomas Szasz, who has written extensively about what he sees as the “Myth of Mental Illness.” (Harper Perennial, 2010). But I give Szasz credit for understanding the power of clinical labels to shape expectations.