What are we talking about today?

Some days have themes. I don't necessarily post something in each of these topic areas every week.

Sunday: Church-related or spiritual things.
Monday: Running.
Tuesday: Books.
Wednesday: Transportation.
Friday: Green living.

22 June 2017

The Galling Sides

There's a little saying that tends to pop up a lot in social media land, often after a news story hits about a massive gaffe, but it also worms its way into everyday life. I've said it many times, and maybe you have, too. But these days just the mere hint of it is enough for me to roll my eyes and stop listening, and I'm writing this in part to understand myself why I'm so annoyed by one little platitude. What is it?

"There are two sides to every story."

Nice, right? Good way to remember that maybe the victim and perpetrator aren't as clear-cut as we were first led to believe. Good way to suspend judgment until all the facts are in. Good way to exercise the voice of reason in a volatile situation.

Here's the thing: it's not true.

Now I'm sure some folks have rolled their eyes and run off already. Maybe others are trying to pinpoint which thing in the news that I'm talking about. (I couldn't possibly pick one, so don't bother.) Someone is already writing their heated response to my obvious foolishness in their head. And all those reactions are exactly why the cute little saying isn't true, because there are waaaaaaay more than two sides to every story. 

Humans are complicated, y'all. We are big bundles of messy emotions and motivations and intentions. Think about all the times in Fiddler on the Roof when Tevye mutters to himself, "On the other hand... but on the other hand... but on the other hand..." It gets a laugh, every time, at how quickly he runs out of hands. Until the time when he finally explodes, "There IS no other hand!" and then it's tragic, not funny.

Saying "There are two sides," when in fact there are many more sides, is a cop-out. It can be a stand-in for "I'm not choosing sides yet" or for "I have an unpopular opinion about this" or for "I think you're wrong but I don't yet have proof" or even for "Maybe this isn't worth spending our time arguing about" without really conveying any kind of meaning. At best, it sounds wise and reassuring without saying anything at all. At worst, it sounds wise and reassuring while being a passive-aggressive disagreement that's hard to refute, because who wants to disagree with both sides' right to their own agency?

Even the most basic die has six sides. Humans definitely
rate more sides than that.
Source: Armin Hanisch on freeimages.com.
The problem with this kind of "wisdom" is that we already know we have more than two sides going on inside ourselves at all times; why on earth would a conflict outside ourselves have only two sides? I may think a problem is with a coworker (although please note that I have no such problems at the moment), when really it's much deeper than that, with roots in our separate interpretations of company policy, and our relationships with the boss or with other coworkers, and with resonances of how a situation was handled in the dim and distant past that we may not even realize are still bouncing off the office walls. So one day when it all comes to a head, the simplistic "two sides" may bring temporary harmony, but it doesn't address the roots.

It's nice to jump onto Facebook with platitudes and try to be a voice of reason. It's great to get comments about how levelheaded one's interpretation is of the headline du jour. It even feels good to score some points against a hotheaded friend who chooses sides at the outset and then turns out to have read the situation incorrectly. But it's also good to remember that human interactions aren't equations with one correct answer. Let's not pretend every outrage that hits the evening news can be solved by hashing out the two sides until we declare a victor (and then, as is the wont of humans, go on fiercely defending the side we liked better ad infinitum).

Withholding judgment until more facts are available is wise. It's okay not to know who was right and who was wrong. Not saying so--biting one's tongue (or fingers, since they do the typing)--is harder when the arguments are piling on and you suspect other people are wrong. But "there are two sides to every story" is still a cop-out, especially if it really means "I'm not ready to rationally discuss this." If I'm that interested and that invested in getting to the truth, saying "there are two sides" and leaving it at that is not going to get me there.

Post title is an homage to the Mathnet episode "The Case of the Galling Stones," which is about a gem shaped like a dodecahedron. I'm still a huge Mathnet fan, and while I loved Kate Monday, I adored Pat Tuesday.

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