Friday, December 8, 2006

Case studies in ambiguity

The unintentionally funny and never informative reader polls on illustrate a curious linguistic phenomenon: the thin line between ambiguity and meaninglessness.

One can easily accept that any simple yes/no poll about a substantive issue will have built into it all manner of assumptions about what the participant will read into the question. The poll writer will assume that her subjects understand her words in roughly the same way she does, and that they have at least a rough working knowledge of her subject and the way (and the terms in which) it has been covered in the media. These assumptions are probably necessary--to keep the poll questions manageably short, at least. They also, by their very nature, introduce an element of ambiguity, since their presence requires us to grasp the assumptions before we can grasp the intended meaning of the question; if we reject or cannot comprehend the assumptions, we might read the question differently.

The polls are remarkable in that ambiguity infects even the assumptions they embody. Take the current poll, which asks
Will greater international involvement help solve the crisis in Iraq?
How are we supposed to take this? At least three of the assumptions are clear:

1)There is a crisis in Iraq.
2)Said crisis can, at least hypothetically, be solved.
3)Greater international involvement in trying to solve this crisis is possible. (Or is it supposed to be inevitable? Why the "will"?)

Even at the surface level, confusion abounds here. What would constitute greater international involvement? An (extremely unlikely) influx of new, non-US troops? Regional diplomatic summits? UN action? And what is the crisis, exactly? Insurgency, terrorism, civil war, anarchy? Most crucially, what would constitute solving it? Even keeping in mind the Washington conventional wisdom about the terms of "reasonable" debate about Iraq, which must lie somewhere in the background here, the question is unclear.

I, personally, believe that the situation in Iraq cannot be "solved" at this point, at least in terms that any humane person would find acceptable. We cannot stitch back together a country that we ourselves destroyed and that had no real unity to begin with. Iraq will be a continuous bloodbath for the forseeable future. I thus reject assumption 2 above.

I don't intend to defend this belief right now, only to use it to make a point about the CNN poll: Given my position, which I think is actually very widespread in the US today, what should I vote? It might seem that I should vote "no", because I do not in fact think that any realistically-possible international intervention could "solve" the problem. But will my vote be interpreted this way, or will it be interpreted as unilateralist triumphalism--as a vote to continue going it alone? I would gladly support greater international involvement in Iraq, at least in some forms, but if I were to vote "yes", that would seem to require that I believe in the possibility of an outright "solution" to Iraq's problems.

What, then, can we make of the fact that 63% of those responding to the poll voted "yes"? Absolutely nothing, because the question by itself is so ambiguous as to be literally meaningless.

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