Harvard's president Lawrence Summers raised a tempest by suggesting that (quoting the January 28 Chronicle of Higher Education's summary of his remarks) "... One reason fewer women make it to the top in mathematics and science may be because of innate differences of ability from men." Those expressing distress about his remarks included, according to the Chronicle, "... members of a Harvard faculty committee who last fall complained about the declining number of women tenured at the university [and who] sent him a letter faulting him for sending 'mixed signals' to high-achieving female students."
Being well known for my spiritual maturity, I squelched my immediate reactionary reflection about the mixed signals that this committee was sending out about academic freedom, not to mention their mixed signals about the ability of high-achieving female students to analyze Harvard's president's signals for themselves and request clarification if necessary. Instead, I began musing about the general phenomenon of charging one's opponents with issuing mixed signals or mixed messages. My hunch is that this charge rarely carries any weight.
Mixed signals and mixed messages (to me, they're roughly the same thing) really do happen. If my trustees or my employer or my national leader say one thing and do another, or their words and their body language diverge, or they seem to be saying different things to different audiences and I happen to be in the overlap, I am experiencing mixed signals.
When I first went to Friends United Meeting, some people were required to punch in and punch out on the time clock, and others weren't. One of the time-clock employees was male, and he asked not to have to punch in and out, and his wish was granted, although he was an hourly employee, as were the others on the clock. All of the other hourly employees who continued to use the time clock were female. Friends are very clear about the equality of men and women in theory, but in one of my first staff meetings upon arriving there, one of the women pointed out that we had somehow drifted into this odd situation: If you were male, your written report of hours worked was good enough; if you were female and not in management, you had to punch in and out on the clock. A classic mixed message. The clock soon ended up on the scrap heap.
I appreciated the fact that this colleague did not go denouncing her employer to the world as a source of mixed messages; she requested -- and got -- a clarification.
Where do mixed messages come from? Are they a calculated method of deceit? I doubt it, because they are by definition public -- they are not lying messages, they are more or less obvious contradictions. Their flaws are in full view. In my experience, mixed messages reflect ambivalence, indecisiveness, weak leadership, unresolved conflicts, or -- most innocently -- glimpses of uncertainty in a time of change.
And who is harmed as a result of mixed messages? Let's take the Harvard example: Are highly qualified women likely to be discouraged because Summers speculated in public about the gender disparities in the sciences? I truly doubt it. If such women are alert, they are certainly watching for other signs than what one academic leader might say. They are probably testing to see whether his statement is bizarrely outside the range of current scholarship (and if it were, the harm would accrue to Summers, not to them), and whether it was merely speculative and descriptive or had an edge of either regret or indifference. They would surely look for patterns of deliberate discouragement that would make Harvard under his leadership hostile to them. They would (or should) look for clues that Harvard's leadership goes beyond general observations and actually treats individual woman scholars in any way other than what their abilities deserve. Do faculty searches betray a discriminatory pattern? Are there more subtle biases in the recruitment process?
If they observed such discrimination, they would be right to be offended -- that truly would be harmful -- but as scholars they would also be bound to point out that systemic discrimination completely destroys a "natural-abilities" theory of gender disparities: As soon as you have a glass ceiling (whether perpetrated by a sort of culture of discouragement or by outright hiring bias), that ceiling must itself be taken into account in explaining the numbers. In the absence of evidence that Summers would not be eager to hire qualified women scientists, even as he speculated about the lower numbers of women in the field, the charge of "mixed signals" to me seems overstated, or perhaps it is the wrong charge at the wrong enemy.
Another classic misuse of the charge of mixed signals occurs almost constantly when the nation is at "war." In the recent presidential campaign, Bush accused Kerry of sending mixed messages (namely "the wrong war at the wrong time" and so on) to friend and foe alike. Our enemies are supposed to be quaking with fear at our united national resolve. To question our government in the hearing of our enemies sabotages this facade of unity. This is precisely why a national government that contemplates a massive intervention of any kind anywhere must earn national permission by obtaining national consensus through an honest process.
(The only time a shortcut is possible might be during a full-scale invasion or similar dramatic crisis. Then we pacifists might be the only dissidents, and we would sympathize with the sense of urgency even as we advocated nonlethal responses. The idea that a third-rate military power such as Iraq was so threatening that we could not even wait for an internationally mandated inspection process to finish its work, does not go anywhere near that standard. The dishonesty in the Iraq case, however, went way beyond a dishonest exaggeration of some facts; it also included deceitful silence about other facts, such as our complicity in the arming of Iraq; the lack of a conspiracy between Iraq and the 9/11 attackers; and the invasion plans that predated 9/11.)
If the country is in fact not united, and is a democracy (meaning that its disunity cannot be concealed by force or fear), the enemy already knows we are not united. The world does not rely for its information solely on "signals" from politicians. By the time any leader urges other prominent people not to give out mixed messages about our national resolve, it is already too late.
In both the wartime case and the Harvard case, I feel that the "mixed signals" charge is emotionally manipulative. There cannot be additional harm from a mixed signal when it is caused by a genuinely confused, conflicted, fragmented, or changing situation. It is simply symptomatic and ought to invite scrutiny, possibly a demand for clarification, or maybe suggestions for improvement. If it is caused by hypocrisy, then call it what it is. When critics charge "mixed signals," what they are usually really saying is "I'm right, you're wrong. To please me, you ought to agree with me. However, because my case isn't as strong as my sense of self-righteousness, I'm going to make this all about your inadequacy rather than my ability to persuade."