Always Keep Them Guessing

Wade's World

Pearl River      Transparency, specificity, certainty, clarity, and more are important operating and communications principles.  When it comes to strategy and tactics, experienced organizers know these same principles may not work as well when it comes to exerting pressure to create change.  Kyle Crawford argued on Wade’s World and in his book, Ambiguity is the Answer that in fact opaqueness, uncertainty, unpredictability, and all of the things about ambiguity might be more useful.

One dictionary defines ambiguity as being “unclear or confusing, or it can be understood in more than one way.”  Another adds that ambiguity is “the quality of being open to more than one interpretation; inexactness.”  Wikipedia offers that “Ambiguity is the type of meaning in which a phrase, statement, or resolution is not explicitly defined, making for several interpretations; others describe it as a concept or statement that has no real reference. A common aspect of ambiguity is uncertainty.”  Merriam-Webster adds that ambiguity is “a word or expression that can be understood in two or more possible ways.”  A thesaurus would offer a number of synonyms, including, dubiousness, doubtfulness, enigma, equivocation, incertitude, inconclusiveness, indefiniteness, obscurity, puzzle, and unclearness, among others.

You get the picture, and for Crawford ambiguity is all of these things and more when it comes, as his book’s subtitle says, a “timeless strategy for creating change.”  Crawford proposes ambiguity as precursor, acceptance, tension, split, options, interpretation, protection, completeness, connection, advantage, accuracy, opening, attraction, intrigue, and expansion with chapters highlighting each of these themes.  If ambiguity means keeping people off balance, Crawford finds a narrative and case study in each chapter to make his case for ambiguity in these terms.  These stories include big names who have used ambiguity to create significant change including Jane Jacobs, Cesar Chavez, Muhammed Ali, Kobe Bryan, Harriet Tubman, Thurgood Marshall and others.  He buttresses his arguments with quotes from Dick Cloward and Fran Piven, Audre Lorde and Robert Caro, Kurt Vonnegut and Saul Alinksy, and many more.

There’s no question in an organizing campaign, he’s got a point, as any veteran knows.  The more you repeat a tactic, the less effective it is, and the more prepared the target is to deflect and respond to the tactic.  When a target is looking for you to come in the front door, organizers and campaigners alike know that you have to feint and dodge your main march and find the other entrances.  Tactics are often copied, but there are limits.  The encampments during the Occupy actions eventually timed out in winter, just as the current encampments will be tactically strained or ineffective once universities close for the summer.  Timing and sequencing are vital in making a campaign effective and keeping the target off balance, while maintaining organizational momentum until concessions are won.  Ambiguity is critical.

Ambiguity, like anything else, may not always be the answer, but it is an effective weapon in the toolbox of change, just as Crawford has offered in an army of examples.

Duly noted.  Learn and do likewise.