It’s our nature to crave certainty. But when it serves as an excuse for not thinking, certainty can cause all sorts of problems.
Certainty seems like something we should seek after; clear answers are satisfying and confidence-building. But the answers to some questions are ambiguous, not clear:
- Was the arrival of Christopher Columbus good for the West?
- Was Richard Nixon a bad president?
- Is American society inherently racist?
A willingness to trade ambiguity for clear but simplistic answers can affect our understanding of historical outcomes and lead to dangerous conclusions:
- My success comes from my hard work and ingenuity; therefore, unsuccessful people are lazy and stupid.
- My country goes to war with God is on its side; therefore, our enemies oppose God.
- My ideas are carefully considered; therefore, whoever differs with me is wrong.
But history is rarely as simple as we want to think, and it’s usually less flattering to our heroes than we’re led to believe. Acknowledging that prominent figures and institutions have made mistakes does not nullify their significance; it only brings us closer to an accurate view.
In the 2003 Broadway musical, Wicked, the “Wonderful Wizard of Oz” described how easy it is to hold a simplistic view of history:
Where I’m from, we believe all sorts of things that aren’t true.
We call it – “history.”
A man’s called a traitor – or liberator.
A rich man’s a thief – or philanthropist.
Is one a crusader – or ruthless invader?
It’s all in which label
Is able to persist.
There are precious few at ease
With moral ambiguities,
So we act as though they don’t exist.
Working to eliminate ambiguity where it doesn’t belong—like in our communication with one another—is great. And dissatisfaction with ambiguity can promote invention and ingenuity. But it’s rare when a true picture can be painted with only two colors—good and bad, us and them, right and wrong. And pretending ambiguity doesn’t exist just to feel better keeps me from celebrating the full spectrum of the world and the people around me.