The most offensive academic pose, in my opinion, is the “embrace of ambiguity.” Many scholars try to pass themselves off as ambivalent to the very real moral dilemmas they present in their work. The question “Isn’t that an interesting idea?” may be a useful pedagogical tool, but as epistemology it is dangerous and cowardly. Such ambiguity may make some academics and public figures popular as intellectuals, but it’s intellectually dishonest and, all too often, morally repugnant.
This summer, for instance, The Journal of Medical Ethics published Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva’s “After-birth abortion: why should the baby live?” in which they justify infanticide with the euphemism “after-birth abortion,” which is horrendous enough on its own terms. Obviously following in Peter Singer’s pathological footsteps, Giubilini and Minerva try to obscure the line between “abortion” and “infanticide” by a confusion of terminology. Though in most cases precision of language is a virtue that academics laud, in this case obfuscation is praised (from one side at least) as “nuanced” or “subtle” when it is anything but.
Likewise, scholars from feminist Donna Haraway to transhumanist Ronald Bailey have theorized about—and then celebrated—the increasing disappearance of a line separating “human” from “machine,” seeking liberation from society/culture/history’s, they think, restrictive terminology and categories. The cyborg is their emblem. If you think these developments don’t touch you, gentle reader, make sure to question what you’re doing next time you get into a conversation with a call robot.
Our culture encourages the eradication of these distinctions as well as many others. Where would our popular visual culture be without Photoshop, which with a few mouse clicks distorts our perception of beauty? Where would the music industry be without Auto-Tune? For that matter, why impose such “societally structured” paradigms as “gender” on children? Do we any longer know what a human being looks like or sounds like? From whence do our models for being human derive? As machines become more human, is the corollary that humans become more like machines?
Let’s not kid ourselves, brothers and sisters. These developments have even less to do with “nuance” and “subtlety” than they have to do with Truth, Beauty, and Goodness. They have to do with sales. Popular academics, of course, don’t sell lots and lots of books (though Giubilini and Minerva’s article must have set records for JME) —but they do sell their ideas and themselves. The ideas of academics often trickle down into popular culture (as happened so tragically with the misapplication of Deconstruction when it arrived in the public square as a high-vocab version of teenage angst). And, as in popular culture, novelty and shock sell much better in the academic milieu than modesty and morality.
Ambiguity was first held up as a virtue by a group of literary critics (known as the New Critics) who rose to prominence in the 1930s. These theorists preferred to read literature in which meaning proved problematic—or at least in problematizing the reading of literature. They liked complexity in their characters, antiheroes, and moral dilemmas seemingly unresolvable. Theirs is, I admit, an often exciting way to look at literature. But dwelling in ambiguity, and, because it cannot be resolved, celebrating it as a virtue, is tantamount to encouraging an alcoholic to drink. There’s no escape.
Ambiguity’s permeation of our culture may, finally, be symptomatic of a much greater malaise: a lack of will. Such a diagnosis renders ambiguity, then, unambiguous. Giving up is the coward’s way out. Dwelling in ambiguity is the madman’s. Do we want to find out what it is to be human? Do Truth, Beauty, and Goodness exist? Is a fetus a human being? Is a newborn? Perhaps finding answers to such questions asks too much of us. In that case, have a drink.
Spero columnist Michael Martin teaches English at Marygrove College in Michigan.