This article is contributed by Ben Mathios, a senior at the University of Richmond where he is majoring in English, Leadership Studies, with a minor in Spanish.
I recently told a visiting lecturer that I was ambivalent about her theory that leaders should employ fear tactics to spur action on climate change. She didn’t take that well. And even delivered to me an impassioned argument about how ambivalence is akin to indifference, which can create passivity or even apathy among citizens.
I came away from this interaction disturbed by this professor’s characterization of ambivalence, but I have noticed that many in the academic sphere and the general public share her view. Ambivalence has a major PR problem. People often avoid using the word because of its ambiguous and even weak connotation. It seems to be the boogeyman of our opinion-driven society. Ambivalence is too often eschewed as indecision, timidity, or hesitancy. I, on the other hand, have readily adopted a mindset of ambivalence and think more people should.
First, let’s look into the etymology of ambivalence. It consists of two words that have telling roots: the prefix “ambi” means “both,” and “valence” ultimately derives from the Latin verb “valēre,” meaning “to be strong.” Not surprisingly, an ambivalent person is someone who has strong opinions on more than one side of an issue.
Why is that a bad thing? The questions and topics that are most central to life, the ones that great thinkers have deliberated, debated, and decodified for centuries have multiple answers that demand intense exploration in order to find a greater Truth. Questions like Who am I? What are my duties to others and this world? How should our society govern itself? Why am I here?
Complexity of this sort requires ambivalence. Perhaps the aforementioned professor has a view of a social scientist who intrinsically trusts data over instinct. And perhaps my perspective is one of a young man who doesn’t know what exactly he stands for yet, and why he sees the world the way he does. But I believe through an ambivalent mindset, we can bridge ideological gaps and begin to answer life’s greatest questions.
Let’s be clear, I am not advocating for endless deliberation with no actionable end goal. Ambivalence should act as a buffer to rash and irrational decisions. It should serve as an important precursor to calculated and open-minded approaches. And it should give greater context to why someone may disagree with you. That being said, it is important to keep in mind what Marcus Aurelius writes in book six of his Meditations, “You always own the option of having no opinion.” Ambivalence is a valuable tool when beginning to investigate a problem. It is for this reason that scientists are taught to be open-minded and devoid of opinions when writing their hypotheses.
Anyone, not just scientists, can adopt this mindset; ambivalence is a virtue and not a trait. Meaning, it is something to pursue and embody, not something you are born with. Aristotle and other ancient Greek philosophers embraced a similar mindset of balance. Ambivalence epitomizes this Greek ideal of striking the balance between two extremes.
Throughout the history of literature and philosophy, balanced opinions have touched the hearts of the masses. Consider Whitman’s ambivalent prose on race, gender, sexuality, capitalism, America, humans, and more in his groundbreaking poem “A Song of Myself” or Socrates claiming, “I know that I know nothing” in Plato’s “Republic.” Patient and balanced deliberation outlasts idealized fervor. Ambivalence requires people to think first before acting.
In a more practical way, ambivalence is an invaluable tool to democracy. It prevents people from thinking in the extreme and villainizing their opponents. It innately encourages empathy for others and is useful for problem-solving, as it allows people to be open to new ideas and questions.
I am naturally opinionated, but great scholars and writers have begun to temper me. With a predisposition of ambivalence, I am now more inclined to be like Socrates and claim to know nothing, than to be arrogant and headstrong like some of Plato’s other characters. Imagine if our leaders took on this type of disposition. Imagine if everyone took on this disposition. Ambivalence may lead to more rational discourse on both life’s existential and everyday problems. This mindset may heal our divisive nation, bring us closer to individual enlightenment, and ultimately reconcile our conceptions of the world around us.
Ben Mathios may be reached at his preferred email: firstname.lastname@example.org