The Vagaries of Vagueness

I would hazard to say, standing in my media-saturated 21st century Western society, that being ‘vague’ is worse than being ‘wrong’. Today, you can be concisely misleading yet never be taken to task by your peers, whereas if you are perceived (even falsely) of ‘waffling’, it is presumed that you are a lower life form and a drag on the sail of civilisation.

Ask John Kerry, the gentleman who ran against the incumbent president of the United States in 2004. Although a confident public speaker, arguably his great shortcoming was an inability to distill his ideas (and, as the campaign wound-down, his reactions) in a precise way. Although he performed well in the presidential debates, off-stage he was generally unable to articulate a clear message at crucial junctures to a large population, many of whom were shopping for a new president. It didn’t help of course that his competitor’s well-funded propaganda machine (abetted by a democratically impotent news media) raised as many distracting peripheral issues as they could. Arguably, by the time Kerry could get back to the task of getting elected, he’d wasted much of his steam as well as the hopes and patience of the US public.

On the other side, the incumbent succeeded in spite of the fact that his administration was clearly contemptuous of journalists, artists, and anyone else who dared to posit difficult questions (being hallmarks of democracy the last time we checked). In other words, in spite of the fact that the administration treated the very people whose job it is to articulate the world around them like rubes, they won. They won a majority. But damn was he clear. Unlike his rival, George W. Bush was firm: cut-and-run, bait-and-switch, flip-flopper. These hyphenated accusations clearly, if inaccurately, conveyed moral and ethical failures within his opponent’s character and ideals. Whether or not his policies were realistic, they were precisely worded: we will not abandon our cause. If you asked what the cause was – easy: democracy.

What I’m saying is that we increasingly reward firmly-stated obfuscations over less impermeable truths.

I often wonder why there is so little true debate in our society, outside of academia. I’ve found that it’s because truth is neither precise, nor is it unyielding. Knowledge is inherently vague – and by knowledge, I don’t mean the concept of knowledge, but rather its practical application in society. Truth is messy; it’s neither red, nor blue, nor grey. Truth is moderated by the lack of absolute answers. The problem of course is that this doesn’t make for nicely-packaged media clips, so what we end up with are endless volleys of increasingly intolerant hyperbole.

When foisted truths are painted in the absolute (some would say fascist) colours of rhetoric the middle-ground of debate is sufficiently suffocated; the public is the loser. And when society’s moderators, the media, are complicit, debate is a moot point altogether. Even a cursory glance at the major news networks (in particular Fox and MSNBC) reveals this partisan implication. Not only is there a lack of interest in debate, but I would dare say that debate is increasingly synonymous with treason. For the last few years, treason has been the word often levelled at anyone questioning America’s involvement in Iraq. Recently, in Canada, the Prime Minister’s office has refused Parliamentary debate of our involvement in Afghanistan, citing ‘security reasons’. We are given the Bush administration’s long-standing argument: we will not cut-and-run. However, I can’t recall anyone initially stating: “Hey, let’s cut and run.”.

There are people, however, who indeed ask necessary questions: the whys, the hows, the whats, etc.. Contrary to the muffling rhetoric from government spokespeople, these necessary questions are not preludes to surrender, nor are they indicative of moral ‘waffling’. They are hallmarks of the very democracy our soldiers are trying (and dying) to instill. When questions that would necessarily draw out a less-than precise response are posited, they are either ignored or condemned. In doing so, our society continues to favour the impermanent solidity of rhetoric. The less solid but more applicable truths wait to be acknowledged, and I fear they will only be addressed in retrospect.


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