Power Of Ambiguity

The quest to become one or the other — the quest for closure — has destroyed many transpeople.

Somehow, we are led to believe that consistency equals purity (2013), so it is only by purging all our ambiguity, all the places where we are liminal, can we become real, credible, respected in the world.

We believe that if we just erase one more thing, make one more bit of our biology or history invisible, we will finally be happy in the world, even if we have never known anyone for whom purging ambiguity created bliss.

We learn one-or the-other behaviour very early as we go through the gauntlet of being gendered by our peers.

“My son came home from kindergarten believing that pink, which had been his favourite colour up until then, was only for girls.   We had to throw away his favourite pink shoes.”

This earnest pastor was lamenting how silly and sexist his school was.

Her son, though, knew a simpler truth.  If his peers held the meaning that pink was only for girls, then that was the meaning of pink in the tiny world he inhabited.

Failing the gender standards of the group would mean he would have to stand up to razzing for his gender inappropriateness.  That wasn’t worth the effort.   Better to go along to get along.

He was right.  Pink is only for girls, at least in his classroom.  Why should he care about what might be true in the wider world?   He knew where he has to survive.

In this culture, we let kids gender each others, teaching the gender standards that you disobey at your own risk. The rules for what boys get razzed for and for what girls get razzed for are set by the community, without any serious or deliberate planning.

We learn to obey those childish rules to avoid the penalty for breaking them, because once we become an outcast in our world, where can we go, how can we make connections?

In “Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing,” Jaime Holmes examines the challenges and costs of trying to purge ambiguity from the world.  His conclusion is simple: in a world of increasing information, it is the power to engage and use complex, nuanced and ambiguous information where humans add value that machines cannot.

Being able to navigate in a space where everything isn’t clear cut, binary and simple is a powerful gift, Holmes claims.

And it is a gift that trans shamans have always offered to their band, their tribe, their village, their world.

The “Need For Closure” scale was developed by psychologists to determine how much a person needs binary resolution in the world.   By agreement or disagreement with 40 statements, a profile can be created.  (A shorter, automated 15 statement version of the test is available here.)

Researchers have found out that context counts.  Stress tends to ramp up the perceived need for closure, pushing us to categorize and hold to those judgements.   What is more stressful than a lifetime of being stigmatized in the world for breaking the rules and being too ambiguous?

In my experience, the inner policeman, the enforcer we hold inside, is always much more driven to closure than our heart is.  We purge ambiguity not because we do not live in that liminal space but because we believe that purge will gain us standing and credibility with the people around us, just like it did when we knew exactly what wearing pink shoes would mean for us in kindergarten.

In this purging, we are playing to the perceived need for closure in people around us, those people who want to lash out and erase what they find ambiguous and challenging.   We want to believe that if we satisfy these binary loving loudmouths, our experience in the world will change.

Usually, of course, it doesn’t, because purging the outside doesn’t change the ambiguous and beautiful internal truth of our trans heart, our trans experience and our trans view of the world.    We will always be, on some level, what I call queer, even if we have learned to try and hide it to make others comfortable with us.

For many, the urge to political correctness is the urge to closure.   Putting our beliefs in the stressful context of a war, we want to be able to separate good from bad quickly, so we create litmus tests that others must pass before we grant them standing to contribute.   Yet, even racism isn’t just black and white.

In the media, ambiguity leads to complicated, nuanced, long and possibly boring answers, so the snap and crackle of closure is the often the goal for television producers.   They have learned to give viewers popping sound bytes, simple, easy and dramatic conflict, the kind of sensational moments which get clipped on YouTube rather than discussion which illuminates ambiguity and demands thoughtful viewer engagement.

When we have to live in a world where the shortcuts of pop political culture are all around us and nuanced discussion is dismissed as effete, intellectual and weak, the urge to purge, to create simple, binary, answers about who and why we are who we are becomes enormous.  We aren’t offered time and mind space to create new understandings, rather we just have to try and squeeze into the boxes in other people’s minds that they have already closed.

I know that my writing is way to ambiguous, way too queer for most to engage.   For those looking for ways to live in a world of closure, my opening of thought and feelings feels like the opposite of useful, just adding confusion rather than clarifying and elucidating the power of ambiguity.

Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing is a very valuable examination of the importance of standing for ambiguity, liminality in the world. The book “argues that we often manage ambiguity poorly and that we can do better,” using research and examples, rather than pontificating like I do.

“Along the way, I’ll hope to convince you of a simple claim: in an increasingly complex, unpredictable world, what matters most isn’t IQ, willpower, or confidence in what we know. It’s how we deal with what we don’t understand.”

You can listen to a podcast with the author, Jaime Holmes, here: