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Is Ambivalence Really So Bad?
On learning not to care about about the Trump indictment.
I have an unusual problem. I know that it may come as a shock, but I’m repeatedly finding that I have less and less to say about the issues of the day. Which isn’t a problem per se—at least not for Wisdom of Crowds, since we try our best to remain somewhat detached from the headlines. As an Evangelical friend once put it to me: “You only learn about the river when you try to swim against the flow.” Or, perhaps more pessimistically, “It’s a dead fish that goes with the flow.”
So I’m very much alive. But this courageous position of relative indifference comes at a high cost. For example, I was skiing in Vermont this past weekend with Damir and two other friends of the Crowd. The ostensibly saucy New Yorker profile of Agnes Callard came up about 6 times. This might sound pretentious to the untrained ear, but the piece is apparently fascinating and seems to involve an otherworldly philosopher living with her husband and ex-husband simultaneously, or some such. I hadn’t read it. And so I found myself frustrated, unable to opine on what Callard’s life choices implied for the grand questions of meaning, belonging, and love—all things I enjoy opining about.
Do I have enough time to spend an hour reading an extremely long New Yorker profile? If I spend an hour doing that, that means I’m spending an hour not doing something else. But what would that something else be? And who’s to say that it would be better?
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This is a long wind-up to say that I’ve been increasingly thinking about (and grappling with) how I consume news and information. I was on the phone with a reporter who was asking me about the Chinese-brokered Saudi-Iran rapprochement. He mentioned that tomorrow was probably going to be a busy day, because Donald Trump was going to be indicted. I found myself with nothing of interest to say in response to this observation. I had to fashion an “opinion” on the spot, but my heart wasn’t in it. At some basic level, I don’t really care whether or not Trump is indicted. This is not to say I’m “neutral” about it—there is no such thing as neutrality, after all—but I’m ambivalent. And maybe ambivalence is what we need more of.
I don’t mean to get too philosophical here, but as an exercise, ask yourself this right now: why (or how) would a Trump indictment actually matter to you? Most likely, you have no influence over the outcome or what the consequences of either decision will be. Like most things with Trump, you have no real way of predicting whether an indictment will help or hurt him. Admit it: for you, at this very moment, it doesn’t matter.
It is better to simply embrace ambivalence, rather than resist it.
The word ambivalence itself is both under-used and underappreciated. Here’s the Cambridge dictionary definition:
The state of having two opposing feelings at the same time, or being uncertain about how you feel.
I do see some wisdom in this sort of sentiment, itself a feeling composed of two feelings. From the little I know about music theory, a melody is heightened by a countermelody—one dominant, the other subtle, understated, and all the more striking because of it. Ambivalence implies an inner struggle without conclusion. And perhaps it’s not a struggle at all, because to struggle suggests a desire for resolution. Ambivalence, on the other hand, suggests a kind of good-natured acceptance that no resolution is likely to be found. But it also suggests—and this is the best part—that there is no need to find one in the first place.
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