Strategic Ambiguities: Essays on Communication, Organization, and Identity
Publication Year: 2007
Strategic Ambiguities: Essays on Communication, Organization, and Identity is a provocative journey through the development of a new aesthetics of communication that rejects all fundamentalisms and embraces a contingent world-view. Author Eric M. Eisenberg both collects and reflects on over two decades of his writing to provide important personal, historical, and theoretical context.
- Front Matter
- Back Matter
- Subject Index
- Chapter 1: Ambiguity as Strategy in Organizational Communication (1984)
- Chapter 2: Meaning and Interpretation in Organizations (1986)
- Chapter 3: Conflict at Disneyland: A Root-Metaphor Analysis (1987)
- Chapter 4: Reconsidering Openness in Organizational Communication (1987)
- Chapter 5: Jamming: Transcendence Through Organizing (1990)
- Chapter 6: Miscommunication in Organizations (1991)
- Chapter 7: Dialogue as Democratic Discourse (1994)
- Chapter 8: A Communication Perspective on Interorganizational Cooperation and Inner-City Education (1995)
- Chapter 9: From Anxiety to Possibility: Poems 1987–1997 (1998)
- Chapter 10: Openness and Decision Making in the Search for a University Provost (1998)
- Chapter 11: Transforming Organizations Through Communication (1999)
- Chapter 12: Flirting with Meaning (1998)
- Chapter 13: The Kindness of Strangers: Hospitality in Organizational Communication Scholarship (2000)
- Chapter 14: Building a Mystery: Communication and the Development of Identity (2001)
- Chapter 15: Creating Clearings for Communication (2005)
- Chapter 16: Karl Weick and the Aesthetics of Contingency (2006)
[Page ii]What we want is not terms that avoid ambiguity, but terms that clearly reveal the strategic spots at which ambiguities necessarily arise. … Hence, instead of considering it our task to “dispose of” any ambiguity, we rather consider it our task to study and clarify the resources of ambiguity … it is in these areas of ambiguity that transformation takes place: in fact, without such areas, transformation would be impossible.—Kenneth Burke, A Grammar of Motives (1962, pp. xx–xxi)
Inspirations have I none just to touch the flaming dove.—David Bowie, Soul Love (1972)
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Strategic ambiguities: essays on communication, organization, and identity / Eric M. Eisenberg.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 1-4129-2687-4 or 978-1-4129-2687-4 (cloth)
ISBN 1-4129-2688-2 or 978-1-4129-2688-1 (pbk.)
1. Communication in organizations.
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Introduction: Laying down a Path in Walking[Page vii]
Joy itself is a form of wisdom. … If people were nimble enough to move freely between different perceptions of reality and if they maintained a relaxed, playful attitude well-seasoned with laughter, then they would live in harmony with the universe; they would connect with all matter, organic and inorganic, at its purest, most basic level.—Tom Robbins (2001)
When my son Joel was 7 years old, we visited an indoor climbing gym after school. There were 20-foot walls for climbing, each dotted with irregularly placed steps and handholds. I wrapped one end of a long, thick rope around my waist while my son slipped into a safety harness at the other. The first few ascents came easily, but as he struggled to complete the harder courses, I became frustrated and advised him on what looked to me to be the best route to the top. From my perspective on the ground, the optimal path along the rock face was clear. Nonetheless, as I tried to convey this information to my son, he cut me off. “It's not like that,” he said from 20 feet in the air. “Until you take a step, you don't know where the next step should be.”
Explanations and accounts provided outside of or following a stream of action can be wrong, misleading, and even harmful. This point has been made before through contrasting metaphors for leadership: the map and the compass (Weick, 2001). Using a map to lead presumes a deep level of prospective knowledge about the terrain one will encounter and a sure sense of the best route to take. In comparison, using a compass as one's guide suggests both [Page viii]a certainty about one's general direction and an openness toward alternative paths along the way. As much as the “logical next step” looks obvious in retrospect, it may not appear so in the ongoing stream of action. The urgent need to appreciate the “certain ambiguity” that characterizes contemporary human societies is both the alpha and the omega of this book.
Put more plainly, the specific impetus behind the essays in this collection—and indeed, the decision to collect them—is my frank desire to promote a more contingent style of living, one in which people are serious about their attachments but not seriously attached (Phillips, 1996). Making this case requires your indulgence for a brief recap of the nature of human being, focusing specifically on our species' trademark qualities, language and reflexive consciousness.
People emerge from worlds not of their making but, unlike other living creatures, are not content merely to participate in the ebb and flow of life. Instead, language and reflexive consciousness (the ability to think about our thinking) goad us to construct an überworld, an elaborate system of meanings in which (unlike the real world) all things appear possible. Much has been made of the essential link between language and civilization, yet considerably less attention has been paid to what is lost in learning to communicate, most notably the ability to live more simply in a world of signs (Phillips, 1999).
But as humans, we have no choice. We face the predicament of immortal souls trapped in mortal bodies (Becker, 1997). We are marked by an uneasy duality that both differentiates us from angels and evokes a host of expectations and desires. If there is a Creator, she is a co(s)mic tailor who carefully takes our measure and consistently produces suits that never quite fit. The secular version of this insight is not much different—even if we believe that reality is “socially constructed,” it is so only in an ironic sense. We rarely get the reality we favor or set out to create (Ortner, 1984).
Human beings are unique among animals in their tendency to organize experience into plots (Bruner, 1990). These plots sprout from the gaps we perceive between our lived experience and our expectations (Ochs & Capps, 1996). The difference between the way things are—and how they could be—continually cries out for explanation. Language lures us out of the present tense into ornate images of the past and future, into talk of aspirations and traditions, dreams and regret. But it is the strength of our belief in these constructions—our degree of attachment to these beliefs—that has an overwhelming impact on how we live our lives, through its influence on our thoughts, actions, and relationships.
The call of language intoxicates even the sober. Although everyone is aware to some degree that we are subject to the hazards that affect all animals, we also imagine ourselves a breed apart, a species uniquely qualified to be stewards of the world, if not the universe. In our efforts to achieve [Page ix]dominion over the Earth, we come to believe that evolution ends with our species (Quinn, 1993). Sadly, this could turn out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. There is a cruel irony to a species that can speak with such certainty but inhabits a world so ambiguous and unmanageable (Lennie, 1999).
The desire for certainty permeates every human psyche born of the West. We long to replace our internal conflicts and anxieties with “something clearer, simpler, and ultimately more permissive” (Edmunson, 2006, p. 16). As each individual soul struggles to make sense of his or her existence through identification with a transcendent set of institutions or beliefs (Taylor, 2000), however, the identities that emerge from this struggle diverge considerably in degree of certainty and attachment. On the one hand, some individuals declare adherence to what might be called “dominion narratives,” characterized by single meaning, heroic individuals, and the importance of centralized and singular control. Fundamentalisms of every kind can be understood as dominion narratives, rigid responses to a perceived gap between one's ideals and the state of the world. Examples include certain extreme religious sects and corrupt governments that require the blind loyalty of their followers.
Others seek to live in accord with what might be called “engagement narratives,” characterized by multiple meanings, vulnerability, participation, and inclusion. New organizational forms and network organizations use technology to open up lines of communication and encourage participation. Many local schools and communities promote the value of diversity and of holding space for difference. And certain religious sects are known for their commitment to inclusion (e.g., Quakers, Jesuits).
Problems invariably arise when people with differing narratives and attachments to their beliefs seek to live together. The central challenge in human relations is communicating with people who hold radically different worldviews from us and who are passionately attached to the veracity of their perspectives. The source of the difficulty, however, is less in the fact of the difference and more in the strength of the attachment, in one's certainty about certainty. Although we should encourage a wide diversity of beliefs among people, we must also make a fundamental commitment to oppose fundamentalism of any kind, a refusal to tolerate the intolerant (Popper, 1971).
Although this may seem like a logical contradiction (similar, for example, to promoting “serious play”), it is in fact a starting point for cultivating a new kind of systems logic. Consider this: In the Judeo-Christian tradition, it is not money per se but the “love of money” that is claimed to be the root of all evil. The central problem is not belief but attachment. For this reason, we should encourage the promulgation of beliefs worldwide but actively discourage fanatical attachment to any of them. There are distinct parallels to the call for ecological systems thinking; any overemphasis on [Page x]the needs of the individual always impacts others and may over time destroy the whole. A more peaceful world begins with heightened systems consciousness (Lifton, 1993; Senge et al., 2005).
This collection of essays was assembled with this new story of identity and communication in mind. People are seeking new ways of coming together across differences, discovering commonalities, and learning to live and work together. To the extent that we cling to dominion narratives, we resemble the computer operator who seeks to make changes in an electronic document by dabbing Liquid Paper on the screen; the change is illusory, and the world rolls on. A certain degree of nonattachment and vulnerability with regard to one's identity and beliefs is essential to the survival of our planet and our species.
What follows is a series of essays organized chronologically, charting the development of a set of related ideas about communication, organization, and identity. Part I, “Embracing Ambiguity,” includes four essays that seek to shift attention away from a focus on clarity and openness toward a very different definition of effective communication. Specifically, the notion of “strategic ambiguities” refers to the human capacity to use the resources of language to communicate in ways that are both inclusive and preserve important differences. Written in the 1980s, this work appeared at a time when interpretive research and qualitative methods were just gaining legitimacy in organizational studies. In this spirit, these essays attempt to shine a brighter light on questions and problems of meaning in organizations.
Part II, “Transcendence and Transformation,” includes a broad range of work aimed at exploring the consequences of this expanded definition of communication. Many of the pieces are expressly counter-rational, celebrating miscommunication and interpretive diversity as sources of organizational and relational strength. Recalling Burke's quote from the beginning of this book, I seek to connect ambiguity with the potential for meaningful change while at the same time debunking attempts to “fix” meaning through communication.
The third part of the book, “A New Communication Aesthetic,” takes this expanded definition of communication and develops it into an aesthetic for experiencing organization and identity. Bringing together work from numerous disciplines, I attempt to articulate an aesthetics of contingency that both edifies the value of nonattachment and has significant implications for individual identity and interpersonal relationships. To the extent that this aesthetic can be realized in communication, we stand a good chance of developing new models for human relationships that will sustain us in a complex, interdependent, and diverse world.[Page xi]Acknowledgments
The theme of this book comes straight from my life, born out of the overflowing possibilities afforded to me by the people I love. Specifically, I am thankful for the inspiration I get from my family—Lori, Evan, and Joel—and from my dear friends, Patti Riley, Steve Burch, Buddy Goodall, Art Bochner and Carolyn Ellis. In recent years, I have also learned a great deal about reinvention and renewal from two other close relatives I love dearly, Lucille Roscoe and Florence Millon. Finally, I am grateful to Todd Armstrong for having the considerable wisdom and insight to appreciate the value of this collection, and to Sarah Quesenbery, Astrid Virding, and April Wells-Hayes for making it a reality.
SAGE Publications gratefully acknowledges the following reviewers: Gail T. Fairhurst, University of Cincinnati; H. L. (Bud) Goodall, Jr., The Hugh Downs School of Human Communication, Arizona State University; Steve May, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; Linda L. Putnam, Texas A&M University; Paaige K. Turner, Saint Louis University; and Pam Shockley-Zalabak, University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.References1997). The denial of death. New York: Free Press.(1972). Soul love. Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. London, UK: Virgin.(1980). Under five in Britain (Oxford Preschool Research Project, vol. 1). Ypsilanti, MI: High/Scope Press.(1962). A grammar of motives. Berkeley: University of California Press.(2006, April 30). Freud and the fundamentalist urge. New York Times Magazine, pp. 15–18.(1999). Beyond management. London; Sage. http://dx.doi.org/10.4135/9781446218952(1993). The protean self. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.(1996). Narrating the self. Annual Review of Anthropology, 25, 19–43. http://dx.doi.org/10.1146/annurev.anthro.25.1.19, & (1984). Theory in anthropology since the sixties. Comparative Studies in Society and History, 26, 126–167. http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0010417500010811(1996). Terrors and experts. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.(1999). The beast in the nursery. New York: Vintage Books.(1971). The open society and its enemies. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.([Page xii]1993). Ishmael. New York: Bantam Books.(2001). Fierce invalids home from hot climates. New York: Bantam Books.(2005). Presence. New York: Currency., , , & (2005). The ethics of authenticity ((Rev. ed.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.2001). Leadership as the legitimation of doubt. In W.Bennis, G.Spreitzer, & T.Cummings (Eds.), The future of leadership (pp. 91–102). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.(
Conclusion: Beyond Fundamentalism[Page 289]
[Page 290]We are born of the world as flesh, straining for connection. Language appears to wrest us from this world, to construct humans-as-beings. We are called to name, to approach being through naming. We also seek the spaces around the names, an experience of life that is meaningless but resonant.
Wherever we turn as human beings, language has gotten there first. Language seeks to define us through two kinds of names: subject/object and past/present/future. Subject/object constructs “self” and “other” and the possibility of theories about “other people and things.” Past/present/future constructs history and the future. Theory and history are constructed through communication.
Communication, theory, and history are efforts to develop a deeper understanding of our positionality in the world, the very positionality made both possible and problematic by communication. Theory and history are attempts through communication to heal the wounds of separation torn open by communication.
Communication is both sentence and salvation. The material manifestation of reflexive consciousness, communication both creates the possibility of theory and history and harbors the seeds of something beyond them.
Although we have created these ideas to access “there and then,” theory and history are conversations that we have right here, right now. Theory is a conversation about how things work here and there, but it always happens here. History is a conversation about how things worked before, but it always happens now. Talking about theory and history as if they were actually “there and then” wrongly reinforces the power and univocality of these categories.
The houses we construct with theory and history (our theories and histories) may be well-furnished, but they are lonely and windowless.
They are fine for the occasional visit but not as permanent residences.
Sometimes we try to escape theory and history through communication. We aim toward the experience of larger being, of transcending our paltry stories and identities and feeling at one with the Earth. In these moments, we readily offer our theories, histories, and identities in exchange for a world that needs none of these things.
When we are lucky, we find such a world in music. We find it in love.
We find it in nature.
We find it in God.
We find it whenever we finally stop looking.
[Page 291]A common failing of books such as this one is that, while they provide a thorough critique of all that is wrong with the current state of affairs, they are less useful in helping to imagine what to do next. In this concluding chapter, I pick up on clues and suggestions from throughout these readings that seek to evoke a new and different way of seeing and being in the world. My goal is to provide as explicit a description as possible of the kind of world I envision and the forms of communication, organization, and identity that would make up such a a world.
The essays in Part I of this volume make a strong argument for the organizing value of strategic ambiguity. In their zeal to create “optimal” interpersonal relationships, fundamentalists and progressives alike have embraced a radically ideological view of the “authentic” self that has some conceptual appeal but negative practical consequences for real people and real communication (Bochner, 1982; Taylor, 2005). If nothing else, experience teaches us that the twin goals of total clarity and complete openness are both chimerical and naïve. Both are impossible to achieve, impossible to measure if they have been achieved, and often not even desirable. So let us call off the search, halt the “flight from ambiguity” (Levine, 1988), and recognize once and for all that uncertainty has “the advantage of keeping the imagination open and thereby protecting one from emotions that are monolithic, suffocating, [and] inauthentic” (Lifton, 1993, p. 102). Instead, we should take Burke's (1962) sage advice that appears at the front of this book, and seek to “clarify the resources of ambiguity” (p. xxi) available to support both individual and social transformation.
Written with this in mind, Part II of this collection includes essays that examine the practical implications of embracing ambiguity. Through a diverse set of examples, multiple interpretations of reality are shown to be productive for organizing, providing a broader universe of perceptions upon which to draw. At the most extreme, one of these essays (“Jamming”) explores the possibility of self-transcendence through noninterpersonal means, via loosely coordinated activities in the absence of shared meaning. Insistence on shared meaning as a standard for effective communication works against our ability to collaborate across significant differences. Our future depends to a large degree on our capacity to navigate precisely those relationships in which shared meaning is least likely to be realized.
Of course, not all perceptions have equal standing. Although there will always be narrative asymmetries in social systems, lessening our reliance on shared meaning as a goal makes a big difference in how we approach these relationships. The importance of shared meaning has been overstated in communication studies, and these essays help shift the emphasis toward effectively coordinated action among individuals who hold widely varying [Page 292]attitudes and interpretations. Strategic ambiguity is useful in promoting these relationships.
Finally, Part III of this volume argues that, taken together, these ideas constitute a new “aesthetics of contingency” for communication. In pursuing such a conclusion, I find myself in good company; writers from various fields are calling for new ways to gauge the success of human relationships and the integrity of human identities (e.g., Appiah, 2005; Pearce, 1989). Rather than treat ambiguity and shifting meanings as signs of failure, as a group these authors suggest instead that they may be the cornerstones of a new definition of human being, one better suited to the demands of a globalizing yet persistently diverse and fragmented world.The Problem: Narrative Attachment and Projective Identification
Being just contaminates the void. (Hitchcock, 1999)
In the next few pages, I summarize a modest proposal for a new version of human identity, one with a unique relationship to language and communication. In the most definitive statement to date on the subject, Lifton (1993) made a persuasive case for refiguring the self as “protean,” thereby reframing its persistent changeability as a desirable feature rather than a flaw. As each of us is driven to differentiate as a recognizable being, we can do so only in relationship to particular institutions, belief systems, and existing social narratives (Taylor, 1991). These narratives are versions of reality (Ochs & Capp, 1996) that are born from and give meaning to experience.
The reason why these various contexts and the stories they inspire are important can be found in our species' lifelong hunger for meaning, a seemingly unavoidable adjunct to reflexive consciousness. The human animal has been characterized as social and symbolizing; our lack of strong instincts requires us to enact meaningful worlds to inhabit. Whereas other animals rely more on unambiguous signs, language leads us to construct a symbolic universe of ideas, stories, and plots, all of which we use as resources for composing our lives.
From the moment of birth, we are engaged in an autopoetic process of self-development against a shifting background. The only way we can know who we are is by orienting ourselves to one or more of the various social systems in which we are participants—our relationships, families, organizations, societies. Philosopher Charles Taylor (2005) calls these orientation points “horizons of significance.” But none of these identifications is stable [Page 293]or uncontested. Instead, with identification comes expectations of how our lives can be lived, and with expectations come attachments to how we—and others—should live. We see this every day as people struggle to position themselves successfully in marriages, jobs, and communities. But the sense that is made each moment is also always in the process of coming apart.
Although identification with such narratives is essential to personal development, no single story can encompass the entirety of one's life experience. The stories we tell about what we value in relationships, institutions, and society overlap and often conflict. Consequently, we are challenged to somehow make sense of those situations in which our ready explanations conflict or fall short, and in which the application of our avowed beliefs presents problems or inconsistencies. This dilemma tends to produce two types of outcomes:
Faced with such a challenge, narrators alternate between two fundamental tendencies—either to cultivate a dialogue between diverse understandings or to lay down one coherent, correct solution to the problem. The first tendency is associated with relativistic and the second with fundamentalistic perspectives. (Ochs & Capp, 1996, p. 29)
Although it is inevitable that individual identity develops through apprehension of and identification with select social narratives, the stance one takes in the identification process is highly variable. The challenge, then, is not interpretation as much as interpretation of our interpretations, the beliefs we have about the relative standing of our beliefs in the life of the world. To the extent that one engages a fundamentalist style of thinking, one becomes deeply attached to a single narrative as the sole, unassailable truth. Summarizing Sigmund Freud's view of this tendency, Edmundson (2006) says, “We want a strong man with a simple doctrine that accounts for our sufferings, identifies our enemies, focuses our energies and gives us, more enduringly than wine or even love, a sense of being whole” (p. 18). This recalls the dark side of Buber's (1971) “I-it” relationship, wherein we see ourselves as enlightened subjects and regard those who do not share our worldview as misguided, disposable objects. Humans are spiritual beings capable of great love, of cultivating the sacred connections that unite us all despite our apparent differences. But it is also true that, when poked with a sharp stick, we poke back, and then set out for a bigger stick, and when assaulted, we invariably become defensive.
This defensiveness leads us to the further objectification of others as disposable, inferior, and deserving to die. Black, white, gay, straight, Christian, Jew, Hutu, Tutsi, German, Israeli, Iraqi, Serb—these are all arbitrary [Page 294]categories created by humans to shore up identity and distinguish ourselves from others. But these increasingly inaccurate and imprecise linguistic characterizations are too often brandished along with real blades that tear through the human family and leave deep scars. Moreover, we cannot keep thinking and acting this same way and expect to see different results. The hope of establishing a complex peace rooted in unified diversity (Eisenberg, 1984) is barely visible from where we sit today, at the bottom of a deep, dark, and bloody well. Wrapped in our present darkness, we are dimly aware of the light above, reminding us of the possibility of a single human family and the call of species, if not planetary, identity. Moving in this direction is incredibly hard; despite breathtaking advances in technology, we remain beginners at human relationships.
Hate is a relationship. Adopting a relational worldview leads us to recognize that no identity ever develops in a vacuum. Attaining a particular position in a system or culture simultaneously requires constructing the “other” who is outside of the identified group. This has much to do with the polarizing power of language (e.g., to be normal, I must create deviance; to become holy, I must invent the infidel). I alluded to this process in Chapter 8 in my discussion of projective identification, an unconscious process by which we identify disliked aspects of ourselves, break them off, and locate them in an “other” who can then carry these negative qualities for us and serve as an object of our hatred and disgust (there are similarities here to Burke's notions of scapegoating and purification, which he also links to the hierarchical nature of language). Put another way, projective identification turns a vital internal struggle into a false external one between individuals and groups whose knowledge of each others' characters, cultures, and motivations is minimal.
To be even more direct, I connect our species' latest flirtation with world war and annihilation squarely to our conception of human identity and the impact of this conception on human relationships. Drawn as we are by language to see ourselves as isolated egos perched nervously inside bags of skin (Watts, 1989), there is a sad sense of inevitability to our situation. Our efforts at self-definition and self-protection only serve to increase our anxiety and vulnerability. The more rigidly I identify with the concepts I choose to describe myself and my life—e.g., male, American, Democrat, Jew—the more vulnerable I become to feelings of fear, anger, and alienation from society as a whole. By contrast, the more open I am in conceiving of my self and my life, the more resilient I can be, the more readily I can adapt to new people and new situations. Fixity of belief impedes the health of the human organism just as surely as blocked arteries stop the flow of blood.
[Page 295]Conceiving of ourselves as isolated individuals (or groups of individuals) in a hostile world, our situation is far worse than having taken a wrong turn onto the wrong road. A more apt metaphor adds the fact that we are in the wrong car with the wrong map. Philosopher Hannah Arendt (1994) famously described the banality of evil; along the same lines, fundamentalism is perhaps best seen as a failure of imagination, a desperate retreat to unworkable historical scripts that no longer function in a globalizing world. The invention of new scripts and notions of individual and cultural identity are key to the development of healthy, sustainable relationships and societies.A New Vision: Laying down a Path in Walking
Just because a thing can never be finished doesn't mean it can't be done. (Young, 2002)
So we at last come to the hardest question, one that became urgent for Americans after 9/11: How can we remain open to the world, to embrace others who hold different worldviews, while at the same time standing firm in our values and beliefs? How can we respond to a violent fundamentalism without becoming violent fundamentalists ourselves?
The usual response to adversity of this kind is to seek a deeper or stronger level of grounding or foundation. The problem is that there isn't any, and to the extent that we act as if there were, we deepen our sense of alienation and the divisions among us. But let me be clear about what I am saying about the value of faith, spirituality, or religion. I see all of these as historically valuable and personally powerful modes of experience, facilitating as they do the transcendence of self and material reality. The difference is that I see these as modes of experience, not knowledge. The moment we seek to bring this experience into the world of language, to translate the truth of our experience into the “Truth” about the world, we turn religion on its head. Whereas the etymology of the word religion reflects the act of “binding into one,” extending the religious experience into the realm of literal meaning leads ironically only to division.
An interesting example of how one might live with a multiplicity of possible truths can be found in different perspectives toward hurricane preparedness. Like much else in life, the path of a hurricane is ultimately unpredictable—the best we can do is to identify a “cone” that encompasses a range of possible paths and assigns probabilities to different paths within the range. In choosing how to describe their predictions in forecasts, meteorologists favor reports that show only the cone of probabilities, arguing that this does [Page 296]the best job of reflecting the actual level of uncertainty and does not encourage a false sense of either urgency or complacency. The general population, of course, seems desperate for forecasters to identify a likely path. But even though the identification of a single path can reduce anxiety for some in the short term (“At least we know whether to evacuate or not,” etc.) it can be disastrous in the long term (as was the case when a storm whose path ran due north made a sudden turn to the east, devastating a largely unprepared community). Reliable ambiguities are, in the long run, preferable to false certainties; in the world of human relations, there is much to be said for cultivating ambivalence and doubt (Weick, 1979, 1995). They are the cornerstones, for example, in creating a culture of safety in high-reliability organizations (cf. Tompkins, 2006; Weick & Sutcliffe, 2001).
Fortunately, there is some precedent for thinking this way in American culture, although one would hardly know it from today's headlines and political debates. We continue to live in the long shadows of Watergate and Vietnam and in the backlash toward liberalism that seeks to cast all attempts at authentic dialogue as invitations to moral relativism. When Ronald Reagan first became president, he famously announced, “The era of self-doubt is over.” Although at the time this seemed to many like America finding its way again, the consequences of this kind of thinking have now come home to roost.
The alternative to this misguided sense of certainty was articulated in the 1940s and 1950s by such intellectuals as Reinhold Niebuhr, cofounder of Americans for Democratic Action. “Americans,” Niebuhr argued, “should not emulate the absolute self-confidence of their enemies. They should not pretend that a country that countenanced McCarthyism and segregation was morally pure. Rather, they should cultivate enough self-doubt to ensure that, unlike the Communists', their idealism never degenerated into fanaticism” (Beinhart, 2006, p. 42). Open-mindedness, Niebuhr maintained, is not “a virtue of people who don't believe anything. It is a virtue of people who know … that their beliefs are not absolutely true.” Our ability to bring freedom and democracy to the world is inseparable from our commitment to encourage these same ideals closer to home. Contrary to fundamentalist thinking, the moral high ground rests on a foundation of ambiguity and humility.
We must reject the objectivism that underlies both nihilism and fundamentalism, and learn to accept that (1) there is no single Truth, and (2) all things and all people lack an intrinsic nature (Varela, Thompson, & Rosch, 1991). Meaning exists only in relationship; the only reason my keyboard feels hard is that the skin on my fingers is relatively soft. Beautiful sunsets [Page 297]rely on species capable of certain kinds of vision. There is no meaning beyond meaning; the human experience occurs on the narrow ridge between self and other, in the navigation of the in-between (Arnett, 1986).
Astute readers will see a clear connection between the approach to life I favor and what has been described as a cosmopolitan form of communication (Pearce, 1989). Pearce identified four forms of communication, each of which acts to bring into being a particular kind of social world. The four forms are monocultural, ethnocentric, modernistic, and cosmopolitan, and Pearce argues that “[t]he primary differences among them are whether they are prepared to put their resources (stories that make the world coherent) at risk in any new encounter and whether they treat others as natives (that is, hold them accountable to the same interpretive and evaluative criteria that they would apply to their own behavior)” (Pearce, 2005, p. 13). Cosmopolitan communicators view difference in perspective as an opportunity to learn and expand one's practical repertoire for living in the world, and not as an occasion to either synthesize or choose between differing worldviews (Brown, 2005).
Along these same lines, Appiah (2005) argues for a new form of “rooted cosmopolitanism” that both values interaction across world views and recognizes that sometimes it is “the differences we bring to the table that make it rewarding to interact at all” (p. 271). In globalization, he sees the positive side of what others call cultural contamination, and resonates with Salman Rushdie's celebration of hybridity, impurity, and intermingling as the main way that newness enters the world. If the golden rule of cosmopolitanism is that “I am human: nothing human is alien to me” (Appiah, 2006, p. 37), the practical implications of this revelation are both mundane and profound. Appiah urges us to learn about people in other places, to seek understanding and get used to one another, without expecting to agree. “Understanding one another may be hard; it can certainly be interesting. But it doesn't require that we come to agreement” (Appiah, 2006, p. 37).
But if not agreement, then what? I believe that we should conceive of life as “laying down a path in walking” (Varela et al., 1991), which is not a life without narratives or boundaries but one in which these provisional truths are not reified as transcendent or supernatural. David Reynolds, a brief therapist in the Japanese tradition, calls this style of being “playing ball on running water,” the ability to engage in the world and at the same time see it as transient and void of ultimate truth. Such a life is passionate but not polarized, engaged but not fanatical, committed but capable of holding space for differences. By doing so, we are well on our way toward inventing new ways to live in a diverse, and increasingly interdependent world.[Page 298]References2005). The ethics of identity. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.(2006, January 1). The case for contamination. New York Times Magazine, pp. 30–37, 52.(1994). Eichmann in Jerusalem: A report on the banality of evil. New York: Penguin Classics.(1986). Communication and community. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.(2006, April 30). The rehabilitation of the cold-war liberal. New York Times Magazine, pp. 41–45.(1982). On the efficacy of openness in close relationships. In M.Burgoon (Ed.), Communication Yearbook 5. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books.(2005). Corporate integrity: Rethinking organizational ethics and leadership. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press. http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511753718(1971). I and thou. New York: Free Press.(1962). A grammar of motives. Berkeley: University of California Press.(1991). The power of myth. New York: Anchor., & (2006, April 30). Freud and the fundamentalist urge. New York Times Magazine, pp. 15–18.(1984). Ambiguity as strategy in organizational communication. Communication Monographs, 51, 227–242. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03637758409390197(1999). Antwoman. Jewels for Sofia (Track 8). Los Angeles: Warner Brothers.(1988). The flight from ambiguity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.(1993). The protean self. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.(1996). Narrating the self. Annual Review of Anthropology, 25, 19–43. http://dx.doi.org/10.1146/annurev.anthro.25.1.19, & (1989). Communication and the human condition. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.(2005, April). Toward communicative virtuosity. Paper presented at “Modernity as a Communication Process (Is Modernity ‘On Time”?)” seminar sponsored by the Department of Communications and Social and Political Theories, Russian State University for Humanities, Moscow.(1997). On flirtation. Cambridge, MA: Oxford University Press.(1998). The beast in the nursery. New York: Pantheon.(2005). The ethics of authenticity ((Rev. ed.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.1991). The embodied mind. Cambridge: MIT Press., , & (1989). The book: On the taboo against knowing who you really are. New York: Vintage.(2002). Skid. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press.(
About the Author[Page 312]
Eric M. Eisenberg is Professor of Communication at the University of South Florida. Dr. Eisenberg received his doctorate in Organizational Communication from Michigan State University in 1982. After leaving MSU, he directed the Master's program in Applied Communication at Temple University before moving to the University of Southern California. Over a ten-year period at USC, Dr. Eisenberg twice received the National Communication Association award for the outstanding research publication in organizational communication, as well as the Burlington Foundation award for excellence in teaching. In 1994, Eisenberg joined the faculty of the University of South Florida, honoring a lifelong pledge always to live within driving distance of a Disney park. He is recipient of the 2000 Ohio University Elizabeth Andersch Award for lifetime contributions to the field of Communication.
Eisenberg is the author of more than 60 articles, chapters, and books on the subjects of organizational communication, health communication, and communication theory. His most recent work focuses on handoffs in health care and how improved communication can reduce the likelihood of medical error. Dr. Eisenberg is an internationally recognized researcher, teacher, facilitator, and consultant specializing in the strategic use of communication to promote positive organizational change.