In praise of ambiguity

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 20 April, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 20 April, 2006, 12:00am

It is often very useful to appear non-committal, and thus keep one's options open. This applies to everyday commerce and office politics, to government policy and even international politics.

I have often wondered why we do not teach our children how to maintain an ambiguous stand as a matter of moral principle and education. Instead, we train them - or try to, anyway - to be moral absolutists. We want them to develop moral clarity in knowing right from wrong, as if that were as clear cut as telling right from left. We seem to have an instinctive moral urge to say: 'Never do this, always do that.'

I was led to think about this while reading about a controversy surrounding the cover story of National Geographic on the lost Gospel of Judas.

With much fanfare, it ran the story on the manuscript and its US$2 million project to restore and translate this 1,700-year-old text. But the organisation came under heavy criticism from some antiquities scholars, who said it should never have dealt with the long-secret gospel because of its questionable provenance. Doing so would encourage an underground - possibly illegal - trade in such antiques, they claimed.

The gospel's authenticity does not seem to be in serious doubt, although the issue of who owns it may be open to question. Because antiques dealers have been trading the ancient Gnostic text back and forth over several decades, it is deteriorating rapidly.

This prompts some questions: shouldn't National Geographic try to save it from permanent damage - and ask questions later? Does it make sense to say we must never, ever, deal with antiques of unclear provenance?

Groups and governments often declare absolutist, 'never' positions as the cornerstone of policies. Many governments have adopted the policy of never negotiating with terrorists, in the belief that doing so would encourage more terrorism. This is all very well, until their own citizens are kidnapped or greater geopolitical stakes are involved. Then you will see negotiations.

Free-market fanatics like to say that governments must never intervene in the market. They castigated the Hong Kong government for intervening in the stock market in 1998. Citing the 'moral hazard' argument, such critics argue against having a so-called lender of last resort involved in a financial crisis. Any government or institutional bailout, they claim, would encourage recklessness among investors and speculators, thus guaranteeing more serious future crises.

It is a valid argument except - as many economic historians have pointed out - for the fact that every major financial crisis since the second world war has found a last-resort lender. True, some governments or institutions had to be dragged into playing that role, with much reluctance.

The Taiwan Strait has remained relatively peaceful, despite periodic threats from one side and provocation from the other. It is terribly unpatriotic to say this, but peace has been preserved because the United States has adopted a clever stand of refusing to say it would 'always', or 'never', intervene under such-and-such conditions. So both sides are left guessing how it will act.

The White House under US President George W. Bush - a man of moral clarity - came close to undermining this decades-old policy built on ambiguity in its first term. Then, several wise men of American diplomacy rushed in to explain its rationale.

With good reason, governments and organisations speak in the language of absolute morality - while being completely flexible most of the time. They declare they would never deal with antique treasures of questionable provenance - until they lay hands on a truly valuable one. They say they may or may not intervene when markets collapse, so speculators and investors can never be sure of a bailout. They may be willing to fight a war, but then they may not be.

We should be thankful for their flexibility.

Alex Lo is a columnist and senior reporter at the Post