The ambivalence manifesto

We are the Ambivalents, unable not to see both sides of the argument, frozen in the no-man’s land between armies of true believers. We cannot speak our name, because there is no respectable way to confess that you believe two opposing propositions, no ballot that allows you to vote for competing candidates, no questionnaire in which you can tick the box, “I agree with both of these conflicting views.” So the Ambivalents avoid the question, or check “I don’t know,” or grit their teeth and pick a side. Consequently, our ambivalence doesn’t leave a trace. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

Ambivalence refers to the state of experiencing conflicting beliefs or feelings simultaneously. The prefix ambi means both; the suffix valence derives from the Latin for vigor and refers to the attraction or aversion felt toward something. Someone can feel a positive or negative valence. Or both.

Ambivalence is not the same as indifference, with which it is often confused. Someone in an ambivalent state of mind is experiencing an excess of opinion, not an absence of it. An ambivalent person may feel very strongly about the subject at hand without reaching anything like a coherent point of view on it.

That is from Ian Leslie, here is more.


Is this related to telling stories in terms of "good" and "bad" characters?

Most of the things people want most to argue about are topics on which the weight of evidence is fairly equal on both sides. In contrast, there are lots of potential questions that nobody wants to debate because everybody agrees.

For example, eople like to argue about whether Tom Brady or Peyton Manning is the better NFL quarterback because it's a genuinely interesting question with much to be said for either side.

Or, who's the worst quarterback: Tim Tebow or Mark Sanchez? That's less edifying, but you could make a strong case for either.

But, few are going to want to argue over whether Tom Brady is better than Tim Tebow, which probably helped Bill Belichik decide to sign Tebow, since New England is one of the few places where, unless Brady comes down with Lou Gehrig's Disease, Tebow's presence won't cause distracting arguments about who should start at quarterback.

And/or Belichik isn't a DA. Tebow obviously shouldn't start at QB, but if you don't try to use that guy somehow (hell, just let him lead the motivational cheer) then you are out-thinking yourself. Belichik may one of the guys smart enough not to out-think himself. What fascinated me about the process is with all the terrible QB play everyone wanted to argue about a guy who won playoff games in a period of grooming for other QBs where noone even knows who they are. How many colleges can you name of starting QBs? This guy isn't worth sitting on a bench somewhere? You, Mr. Football coach, can't tell the media to shove off? You geniuses who picked Tom Brady #199?

The Patriots may have an opening at tight end. The helicopters were outside my window watching young Mr. Hernandez visit his lawyers yesterday.

Probably too bad. I was looking forward to the first clueless non-local non-football reporter asking BB if there was any quarterback controversy brewing...

Tebow just needs to get over the whole QB thing, and maybe get a little better at catching, and then bam, everyone will just wonder "who was this Hernandez guy?"

I think with moderates a genuine ambivalence can easily creep into indifference. But if you HAVE to draw a conclusion imperatively, you will surely make some wrong ones but you will also be compelled to dig deeply. You will be suspect of, for example, off-topic, but in some ways the only topic, a President who equates a FISA court with every other court, when moderates might just take that claim at face value.

The problem for moderates might be that "drawing a conclusion" isn't really the endpoint. Often it isn't even on the map. The question in a polarized, two party, state is whether you can get riled enough to join one team or the other.

"I don't know" is behind Plato's dialogues.

I remember Tyler once saying something along the lines of "sometimes the best answer is I don't know". I thought that was interesting. I've noticed it bugs the hell out of Socrates's audiences and Tyler's commenters.

If you want to argue, you need something to argue against, after all.

“I DIS-agree with both of these conflicting views.”

I'm not sure I agree with this, though I don't really disagree, either.

What used to be called "values" or "principles" are what are supposed to guide one through apparently undecidable situations based on the available evidence. For example, without knowing anything about a candidate but their party affiliation, you can predict the gist of their positions. When policy proposals are offered that violate fundamental understandings of economic incentives, one can have a position without experimental data. It doesn't take a moral genius to understand that cheating on college exams is not OK.

These "values" or "principles" come from family, education, and potentially religion. These three drivers are all in recession. Ambivalence is a result of not having a framework to fall back on that is not based on evidence in every case.

When I'm ambivalent about some issue, I always assume a variant of Murphy's Law applies -- whichever decision I make will be wrong. When I'm indifferent, Murphy's Law might apply, but I don't care.

Calvin and Hobbes covered ambivalence quite nicely:

FWIW it seems to me this position was explored satirically in John Barth's "The Sot-Weed Factor", where the main character finds himself unable to make any decision because he can see the pros and cons of various alternatives ...

It's important to note the difference between ambivalence and the position (common for Tyler) that the world is quite complicated, and the right answer doesn't map neatly into the binary camps into which people (nearly always) sort themselves. I'm sure "it's complicated" is often used as a shield by those who don't want to just admit their ambivalence, since it seems more intellectually sophisticated and less indecisive. But sometimes "it's complicated" is the right answer! (And, as Hoover notes above, often "I don't know" is the best answer.)

But surely Leslie's etymology for "ambivalent" isn't correct. It's not from the same root as "vigor", but rather from "valere", from the same root as "value". Ambivalent means having both values, not feeling attraction both ways.

I was never ambivalent until I became an economist, and now I am. One because economics as a behavioral theory and normative theory touches on everything people have strong opinions about so its easy to approach everything "thinking like an economist", and that usually means starting with some positive theory that explains the phenomena, which immediately requires trying to fathom why this was reasonable from the decision makers point of view, and that therefore requires imagining they are human. It's usually when people are cartoonish non-humans that I find its easier to be anything other than dismissive. As george Bernard shaw said, everyone has their reasons. But then also econometrics and causal inference methodology tends to force observational evidence and anecdote through a very skeptical filter, and that only feeds the economists dispassionate somewhat skeptical approach.

I think it is better, but I do still wonder a lot if I am holding the revolution back.

Isn't this what Bayes is all about? I mean it is perfectly possible to have two contradictory views at 50% probability each. This isn't a paradox, it just reflects that there are two perfectly equal possibilities that both are correct. There is a paradox though in that when these probabilities are close, the more heat in the discussion.

My ex-girlfriend once angrily told me that my ambivalence on various hot-button political issues made her "feel bad for having an opinion". She seemed genuinely frustrated that I didn't get riled up by things but instead took it slow and calmly evaluated each side of the arguments.

Perhaps many people don't like to feel ambivalent because (a) taking a strong position provides a reassuring sense of certainty about the way the world works, and/or (b) ambivalence may be interpreted as a lack of knowledge or analytical capabilities.

Lack of emotion. You are supposed to react emotionally to all issues. The media depends on its skill at using hot-button words.

This is how I always describe myself on the issue of abortion. 100% ambivalent.

this one is on similar lines from Matt at the Telegraph

Although I might be tempted to identify as one, at times, these people sound dangerous. We should probably keep an eye on them.

Funny how decisive we can be about restaurants.

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