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opinion | Stephanie Fairyington

Moral ambivalence makes the world better

Lance Armstrong is cited as an example of moral ambivalence. Corporate sponsors dropped him amid public outcry after doping allegations emerged, yet people in general ignore those same corporations’ unquenchable thirst for profit. Getty Images

Ambivalence is rarely, if ever, cast as a positive attribute in our culture. It’s associated with indecision, a lack of commitment, weakness. The old adage, “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything,” pretty much sums up our intolerance for minds in perpetual states of motion and revision.

The opposite of that axiom, though, is just as true: If you stand for something, you’ll fall for everything — everything that aligns with your pre-established set of beliefs and self-definitions. (Think of all the Fox News evangelists or the liberals who worship at the throne of Rachel Maddow.) Over-commitment to one’s beliefs and identifications often shuts down, rather than opens up critical discourse.

This phenomenon was particularly acute recently in the aftermath of Michael Brown’s and Eric Garner’s tragic deaths, when liberals as well as conservatives left little room for inquiries and questions that didn’t jibe with their preconceived notions: The far left declared law enforcement to be little more than state-sanctioned white supremacy, while those on the right refused to recognize the racism underlying the systematic killing of black men by cops. Ideological gridlocks like these seem useless, even hopeless to me.

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So when I read cultural critic Laura Kipnis’s new collection of musings, “Men: Notes on an Ongoing Investigation,” I was struck by a kind of radical moral ambivalence undergirding her analyses of (un)gentlemen. Throughout the book, the clever contrarian aligns her sympathies with some of our culture’s most ridiculed and reviled public figures: Hustler publisher Larry Flynt; dope-enhanced cyclist Lance Armstrong; golf champ and serial stray-er, Tiger Woods; disgraced wiener-Tweeter former US Representative Anthony Weiner; and many more.

“I’m ambivalent,” Kipnis told me recently over email, “in the sense that it’s possible to hold two contradictory views at once. I’d say that’s where my essays are all pretty much poised: mid-contradiction.”

Kipnis, who calls herself “unambivalently ambivalent,” effectively destabilizes absolutes. And by doing so, she fosters compassion — even appreciation — for those who brazenly defy moral edicts, shortening the distance between ideas in opposition.

Take her spin on Flynt, for example. In her provocative analysis of the smut-hound, Kipnis confesses that she’s a “shame-ridden bourgeois feminist,” who could hardly cope with Hustler in her house when she first encountered its filth-filled pages. That reflexive impulse, she eventually realizes, is the porn mag’s strength: By shocking and unsettling conventional sexual morality, Hustler excavates new ways for us to see ourselves and the beliefs that govern our lives. With subversive admiration, she writes:

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“Basically, Hustler’s mission was to exhume and exhibit everything the bourgeois imagination had buried beneath heavy layers of shame, and as someone deeply constrained myself, whose inner life has been shaped by the very same repressions and pretensions Hustler is dedicated to mocking, the depths of its raunchiness often seemed directed at me personally.”

Similarly, in a chapter called “Juicers,” Kipnis forges an alliance with Lance Armstrong by admitting her own form of “juicing” for career advancement: “I fake certainty and strong opinions,” she half-jokes because the alternative is less rousing. “From where I sit,” she reflects, “it’s not difficult to see how the ambition-afflicted keep falling in the soup of professional scandal.”

In the case of Armstrong, who won seven Tour de France titles (with a little help from his drugs), she points to the irony of his corporate sponsors abandoning him amid the doping allegations and public outcry when we so easily abide by those same corporations’ unquenchable (and ethically questionable) quest for profits. “Why are individuals supposed to uphold some antiquated pre-capitalist code of honor when their employers and industries honor nothing in return?” Kipnis asks.

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Moral relativists like her, she writes, “wish to point fingers at the structural determinants of behaviors that moral poseurs want to hang on individuals alone.”

This last point, reflective of the radical ambivalence underlying her entire inquiry, seems especially important as a kind of theoretical framework for working through the complexities of contemporary ethical dilemmas and social issues.

While it may be more primal and ego-satiating to drive our swords into the morally felled, looking at the “structural determinants” that create fertile conditions for reprehensible behavior holds far greater promise for social change and progress. It’s the crucial difference, for example, between directing our hatred and censure toward un-indicted police officers Darren Wilson and Daniel Pantaleo, and critically interrogating the institutional beliefs and practices that informed their egregious misconduct. Rather than spewing hateful chants in protest — “Arms up, shoot back!” or “What do we want? Dead Cops!” — we should be asking crucial questions about how officer training and protocol manifest racism and work toward correctives. Kipnis’s ambivalence, as a state of intellectual flux, lends itself to the rigor and nuance of such analyses.


Stephanie Fairyington is a New York City-based freelance writer.