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Three Kinds Of Ambivalence

Hugo Schwyzer has a post up expressing concern about his own ambivalence about many issues (abortion is the example he focuses on). He worries that his ambivalence is a moral fault and an instance of privilege, since the fact that the issues in question don't directly affect him means he has the luxury of being undecided.

His commenters rush to reassure him that ambivalence can be a virtue, contrasting it favorably with blind dogmatism. But I think to really parse this question out, we need to distinguish between at least three types of ambivalence, which I'll call (with apologies for the alliteration) avoidant, affective, and active.

Avoidant ambivalence occurs when one declines to think about an issue enough to form an opinion. Both sides' arguments sound superficially plausible, so one shrugs one's shoulders and moves on to other things. This type of ambivalence is most clearly indicative of privilege, since only someone not immediately impacted by the consequences of an issue can so easily decline to think more about it. Avoidant ambivalence is often a defense mechanism for sloth -- after all, you can't feel compelled to take action on a contentious issue if you don't know which side you support.

Affective ambivalence is ambivalence maintained as a deliberate affectation. Because active ambivalence is often seen as a virtue, many people will put on a deliberate show of ambivalence to convince themselves and others of their open-mindedness. The affectively ambivalent person refuses to let one side's arguments convince him, deliberately seeking out contrary evidence so as not to become a hated partisan. This too is a privilege, since only when an issue's resolution is of minor importance can one sacrifice it in the quest to appear open-minded. And like avoidant ambivalence, it can be a refuge for those who don't want to do the hard work of taking action.

Active ambivalence is the type of ambivalence that Schwyzer and his commenters all believe that he has. Active ambivalence arises when, despite one's best efforts to figure things out, one is unable to come down for certain on one side or the other. This is a respectable intellectual position, but it brings with it a responsibility -- the responsibility to remain actively trying to move to committed open-mindedness, rather than giving up (avoidant ambivalence) or becoming too attached to your own ambivalence (affective ambivalence). Committed open-mindedness is the condition in which the weight of evidence and argument on one side of a question is definitely stronger, but one remains sympathetic to the way that others could find the alternative more convincing. Committed open-mindedness is a virtue because it allows one to take action, but avoids demonizing one's opponents or remaining closed to any new and better arguments they may put forth. Someone coming out of active ambivalence is in a good position to be committedly open-minded, having so recently felt the pull of the other side's arguments. But we should be careful of the lure of fanaticism -- to be so happy to have finally made up one's mind that one becomes dogmatic.


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