Clarity is a narrative that can be weaponized—to cause emotional and social damage instead of strengthening civilization. I am not saying that clarity is always that way, only that there is a potential for this dark side.
The idea of weaponized narrative has been around, primarily conceptualized as an instrument of national power that we project against the bad guys overseas (Allenby & Garreau, 2017). But here, I am focused on our internal space, that is, the everyday space within organizations, within our broader culture, and in social media and networks.
Clarity makes it easier to understand a particularly issue—complex or not—but it counterintuitively can make it harder to think critically about that issue. The former aspect of clarity is the “bright side” while the latter aspect is the “dark side of clarity.” The dark side of clarity is an especially dangerous place when evidence, facts, and truth are seen as optional and/or relative, and, most importantly, when asking questions is not seen as important.
We love clarity. It is highly desired and an expected commodity in organizational life. I define clarity as a communication-related quality of being intelligible and certain, ensuring that ambiguity in interpretation is absent or greatly reduced. The main value of clarity is that it minimizes misinterpretations about its meaning, and because of this, it potentially reduces counterproductive disagreements and friction between individuals and groups.
Achieving clarity, however, is a demanding task, but like good art or literature, it is quite often a rare outcome that we only know when we see it. The challenges in achieving clarity have, in part, two reasons:
One is that the person framing and crafting the clear information usually has greater insight into the complexity of the issue, which is reduced in complexity in order to be clear. The person who receives the information usually does not have the benefit of having access to the complexity of the issue. As a consequence, making sense of the logic behind the construction of the clear information is difficult and not obvious to the person receiving the information. March and Simon (1958) called this difficulty “uncertainty absorption.”
A second related reason is the difficulty we have upon receiving the clear information because we do not have the foundational knowledge to fully understand the information or to effectively incorporate the clarity into follow-on clear ideas or action. Lacking foundational knowledge occurs either through limits in our experience, education, or both, which creates this difficulty. Cohen and Levinthal (1990) called this difficulty “absorptive capacity.”
These reasons combine to create three categories of responses to clarity—there are nuances between each category:
- Clarity is assumed to exist in the eyes of the beholder because of the inherent trust we have in the person crafting the clear information;
- To the degree we question the clarity, we fill in our understanding about our unanswered question(s) without the benefit of accessing or knowing the actual considerations included or not by the crafter—we are guessing and could be way off the actual meaning; or
- We do question the clarity, and we get to the bottom of the data, assumptions and logic of the argument that the person crafting the clear information is making.
For a person who falls into the first category, if the purpose of clarity is for it to be weaponized and it is successful, then it can undermine one group over another. For a person who falls into the second category, whether intended or not to be weaponized, its effects are unpredictable. Only for the person in the third category is where critical thinking emerges to reduce or eliminate ambiguities, contradictions, and uncertainties we sense about the clarity, resulting in a reframed understanding, thereby defeating or degrading any outcome as a result of weaponization.
Shedding light on the dark side of clarity seems like a worthwhile and necessary endeavor in order to preserve and advance civilization. Hence, this is a good reason why critical thinking is so important, and consequently, why the dark side of clarity is a potential threat without it. I suggest viewing learning—whether in formal or informal settings—as education based on thinking critically and creatively, rather than solely on training, is an antidote to the dark side of clarity.
This article was posted first on Adrian’s LinkedIn page on August 19th, 2017.