Seeing Both Sides is a Curse

If people can’t put you in the right bucket, you must belong in the wrong one.

Black & White

Being able to see both sides of an argument is a curse.

People want black and white. If you’re cursed with an ability to articulate shades of grey, it’ll be taken as blanket disagreement no matter what your actual opinion.

Anything seen as less than 100% agreement is disagreement.

If we are to survive, that must change.

The curse

I’ve long had the ability to see both sides of just about any argument.

No matter how polarizing, I can generally at least understand where the other side is coming from, or at least why they might believe what they believe. I might not agree with them, but I can follow their train of thought.

I used to think it was a blessing.

Others even consider it critical to our understanding of the world.

“We all are learning, modifying, or destroying ideas all the time. Rapid destruction of your ideas when the time is right is one of the most valuable qualities you can acquire. You must force yourself to consider arguments on the other side.”
— Charlie Munger

Others consider it a pre-requisite to holding opinions of our own.

I’m wondering if it isn’t more of a curse.

People want black or white

In recent years people seem to be drawn to what I call “absolute” or “black or white” thinking. It’s the “if you’re not with us you’re against us” mentality.

There’s no allowance for shades of gray. Anything short of complete and total rejection of the opposition is required.

The ability to even understand the other side falls short of the required rejection.

If you can understand “them”, you must be with “them”.

You’re at least against “us”.

The ability to entertain an opposing view — to be able to explain how it exists and why people might believe it — is somehow now considered tacit agreement with whatever “it” is.

If you can explain it, you must agree with it.

Even when you don’t.

Understanding, apparently, implies consent.

We’re being trained to be lazy thinkers

At least one problem is lazy thinking. It’s simply too easy not to question your own beliefs. It’s less work to believe what you believe than it is to entertain disagreement, even a little.

It’s easy to point a finger at social media. Their algorithms are designed to not challenge us, but make us feel good by showing us what we already agree with. Even if we want to find a representation of opposing views, it’s difficult, at best. It takes work.

But it’s more than that. We’re not being taught critical thinking skills. We’re not being taught to question what we believe. We’re not being taught what it really takes to hold an opinion.

Nuanced thinking is hard.

It means actually thinking.

It means listening to ideas other than your own with an open mind. It means entertaining the idea that you might be wrong.

That’s often enough to convince others you’re playing for the other team, even though you’re just out scouting their moves.

The threat of understanding

It’s long been accepted that the best way to counter someone’s ideas is to first understand them.

Therein lies the threat. By vilifying even the attempt to understand, stakeholders reinforce their position. It’s what they believe. It’s right. In fact, it’s so right there’s no need to consider any different.

By eliminating the acceptability of even understanding an opposing position, they’re protecting their own.

A strong position isn’t afraid of disagreement. It should be willing to take on all comers. Rejecting even the attempt shows that deep down there’s little faith in the possible outcome.

It’s a sign of weakness.

Are there any absolutes?

Of course there are absolutes. For example, white supremacy is wrong, full stop.

And yet there are those who disagree. Understanding why and how they disagree, how they came to believe so, is critical to reducing its apparent resurgence, if not stopping it completely. It’s critical to making sure the steps taken are the right ones. It’s critical to changing hearts and minds, even a little.

It’s critical to not making the problem worse.

You don’t have to agree. You don’t have to approve. You don’t have to tolerate. You don’t have to “live and let live”.

But you must understand if you expect to make a positive difference.

And that’s true even if the disagreement is over what you and I would consider facts, rather than opinions.

Frustrated are the peacemakers

This brings us back to the cursed. Those able to hold an opinion while understanding its counter-argument.

Cursed folks like me, and maybe you.

Keep the faith.

Keep having your opinions.

Keep questioning your opinions.

Keep understanding the opposition.

And to the degree you can, help others to do the same.

It’s the only way you and I can pull our conversations back from the black and white thinking that seems to only be getting worse.

You’re not alone.

We need you.

4 thoughts on “Seeing Both Sides is a Curse”

  1. Thank you for putting into words how I have been feeling. I was discussing a difficult topic with my daughter in law and I really tried to listen and ask questions. She said she was so glad we could talk about it. We didn’t see the issue the same way, but we both came away feeling better for our understanding.

    I used to enjoy having discussions with my friends who see things differently. We would meet for breakfast and have great discussions. Meeting in person was/is the key. I don’t think there is any way to have a discussion on Facebook. I read some posts and they make me cringe. Then I don’t even want to engage with that person anymore if we can’t find time to sit down together. And with this pandemic it has been almost impossible to do that.

    We can agree that white supremacy is wrong. Is it systemic? Do we really want Critical Race Theory taught in our public schools? Is it really the biggest problem that we are facing? The climate is changing. Do I have to believe in Climate Change? Why can’t there be different opinions on what to do about it? Scientists have never agreed on anything. There are theories that are put to the test. And then those test results are tested.

    There’s an old saying, “There are two things that should never be argued, only discussed. Politics and Religion.” I will keep doing my best to foster discussion and understanding.

    Thanks again.

  2. Yes… just try to be an Independent in today’s political atmosphere… Everyone seems to think you HAVE to pick a side.

  3. Leo, you can see both sides because you have Dutch genes in you, the Dutch have the ability to “Polder”, come to a mutual agreement, incorporating the views of both or multiple parties. If they had not, the country would have been submerged by the sea or rivers, they needed to work together to keep the water out of the polders. A matter of life, really.

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