When Opposites Detract

Dr. Earl R. Smith II

(Read More From My Blog)

There are lessons to learn from listening to what people say – and sometimes those lessons go well beyond what has been said.


Some 90% plus Americans say they believe in heaven and hell. That corrosive Zoroastrian legacy leaches into their civil society and world view. I suspect that the French have a better handle on this – less than half say they believe in heaven but more than two-thirds believe in hell!

Americans generally are addicted to an adolescent bilateral-symmetry. This simple-minded tendency leads them to see most things in black and white. Under its oppressive ideology, the opposite of anything is named by simply attaching an ‘un’ to it. The opposite of ‘clear’ becomes ‘unclear’. The opposite of ‘ambiguous’ becomes ‘unambiguous’. But what suffices for adolescents is often insufficient for adults. While the opposite of clear may occasionally be unclear, the opposite of ambiguous is rarely unambiguous.


The idea that words have denotative meanings becomes a somewhat unwieldy concept as a ‘silly-putty’ language like American leads many to the presumption that intention need only emerge proximately. This tendency is often over-glossed by the constant ‘guilty but with an explanation’ plea that characterizes most American writers.

These are authors who constantly have to explain what they meant to people they assume ‘just didn’t get it’. Their writings seem to require a compensating companion – a continuing further explanation and clarification. But this, of course, does not ever suffice. Language should stand on its own and not require more than it is. Language should be intentionally clear. Less than that is a lack of clarity and that is worse than unclear – it is insulting.

A writer should accept that at least a portion of readers should be capable of understanding complex ideas couched in subtle uses of language. Otherwise, why bother – go read Shakespeare to a cockroach! Adolescences all around provides a delightful opportunity for the uninformed to lecture the unwilling on how to do the unnecessary. And, although some authors seem to prefer such a thing, is truth is it simply a kamikaze raid on a vacant lot – a waste of the possibility of actually awakening alive.

Clarity begins with intentionality. Intentionality is grounded in carefully crafted purposefulness. Writing without intentionality and purposefulness is much more like a finger painting by a three year old than a van Gogh or Picasso – more like Mozart than Beethoven – more akin to scrapple than pâté de foie gras.

The opposite of intentionality is indolence and indolence produces faux ambiguity. Extended adolescence produces an aversion to ambiguity. As the temporally-challenged encounter adult conceptions, they insist that there always has to be beginnings and middles and endings. Adults, of course, accept that it is all ‘middles’. You are born into an ongoing conversation and are obliged to leave before it is ended.

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