On Writing: Ambiguity and Precision in Social Commentary

Social commentary is, as the name implies, the practice of actively voicing one’s thoughts on elements of society. It is the act of demanding change, it is the act of preventing change, of demanding justice and of promoting injustice. In short, it is voicing one’s thoughts on the state of society and what should be done with it.

Over the course of human history, this has been done through speeches, songs, essays, poems, paintings, theater and film, among others. I will focus on essays* and poems in order to show the role of ambiguity and precision when expressing one’s views on society and will use the examples of a journalist and a poet to this effect.

Of the essayists, perhaps the best known and accessible ones are the journalists, they are in the newspapers and magazines, and to an extent in the news shows. Thus, they are almost literally all over the place. The poets, in my experience, are not so widely disseminated. They are hidden in the cafés, the universities, the occasional blog, in the underground music scene. They are elsewhere (again, in my experience).

The journalist is supposed to be clear, precise and as unambiguous as possible. He or she must convey the most amount of valuable information in in the most revealing light possible. The poet, on the other hand, works in ambiguity, his /her use of words make their meaning hard to pin down in a definite manner. He or she cleverly hides meaning amongst metaphors, word games, and allusions. These are clearly pretty different approaches.

From the outset, one might think that these approaches must have radically different ends and/or that they are mutually exclusive, but I don’t think that that is the case. There are differences, naturally, and they are significant, but the ends are more or less the same; voicing an opinion, conveying information, rallying support, eliciting a response, etc. These goals are usually found in the act of social criticism/commentary.

Which one is better? On the face of it, that question would seem to only have one answer: essays (i.e. precision and clarity) or poems (i.e. ambiguity and wordplay). But social commentary is as diverse in means as it is diverse in opinions (all thanks be to freedom of speech), which is both a great strength and great annoyance (sometimes). This suggests that our question might be very simple-minded, so let’s explore the topic further.

Let’s take the journalist’s approach first. The term journalist is used interchangeably with reporter because many times they well, report. However, they do a bit more than that. They analyze, make opinions, speculate, and so on. They usually are writing to the public at large, aiming their pieces at large chunks of demographically diverse people.

A journalist, then, must keep in mind that he/she is writing for a potentially large number of people with a potentially large diversity in terms of culture, life experience, etc. This in turn means that the journalist must make sure that his/her message can be understood by this large and diverse group of people, and the best way to do this is by writing with clarity. A journalist must strive for unambiguity, plain and simple.

A poet, in contrast, does not have such constraints. In fact, I’d argue that it would diminish the work of the poet. I say this because a poem is all the more powerful when it uses images, phrases, ideas, etc that are familiar to the intended readers. After all, it doesn’t make much sense to write a poem using Islamic allusions and then reading it to Australian Aborigines (obviously, if the audience doesn’t understand the language this is sillier still, but for my point to be made I’m assuming that they do). It simply would not connect, since it is of no relevance.

A poem is similarly unconstrained with respect to ambiguity; it needs not be as clear as a journalistic essay. It can’t be utterly indecipherable either, but there is much more flexibility. This is because a poems strength may often lie in telling a story implicitly, employing clever word games and devices that suggest out-of-text connections to the reader. I speak, of course, of metaphors and allusions, of alliteration, and other such tools. Being ambiguous means that you there’s a larger number of possible connections to be made, it means that a poem can be packed of more meaning that meets the eye. This is precisely why a handful of lines are able to tell a great story or rouse great emotion.

From this, we can see an answer for the question posed earlier. It is simply a case of separate means and ends; neither approach is the absolute best. Rather, both approaches are best in specific contexts and for specific goals. You shouldn’t report the news in ambiguous verse (or prose, for that matter) nor should you write a poem that reads like a badly formatted essay.

*I’m aware of poetic prose, but for the sake of simplicity and getting my ideas out, I will limit essays in this way.


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Filed under Society & Humanism, Thinking Aloud

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