sit on the fence – to avoid committing oneself, to remain neutral
I’ve never really been the argumentative type. I suppose it stems from having quite a shy disposition, I tend to be more of an observer in discussions than an active participant. I got the nickname “Diplomatic Dave” while on holiday in South Africa because I tended not to take sides in arguments. I was quite happy with the nickname. Everyone loves diplomacy right? But recently, the joke in favour has invariably involved the fence. Sitting on it. Living on it. Getting off it. The connotations of being a fence-sitter annoy me more than those of being a diplomat. Rather than the quietly heroic negotiator that I like to imagine myself as, it implies a sort of wishy-washy, doormat with insufficient self-confidence to invest himself in a point of view, afraid to offend and pandering to the whims of the encircling opinionated. I’m well aware that there is a big part of my temperament than leans towards this caricature. I generally like to avoid conflict and try to be everyone’s mate which, to be honest, has served me well and kept me out of trouble – for example, as of last weekend I’ve officially broken up more fights than I’ve partaken in (1 – 0, if you’re keeping score!).
So is it a good thing to sit on the fence? Here is my defence as to why I have yet to de-fence myself (PUN!).
I know you are, but what am I?
I’ll admit, it can be a lot of fun to just disagree with someone and play devil’s advocate. Not only fun, but useful on many occasions, to highlight another opinion and make sure you’ve thought through the various options. In fact, arguing is really important. Academia, and therefore a lot of development and advancement, depends on it. And even parts of my degree touched on the role of argumentation in reaching agreement (for “agents” not people, but still!). But let’s face it, alot of arguments are stupid – an attempt to establish a smug sense of superiority that only serves to further entrench two opposing viewpoints. Even arguments about light-hearted things can quickly get out of hand – “could Jesus draw a perfect circle!?”, “can Taking Back Sunday be considered a ‘hard rock’ band!?”, “is it weird to eat soft weetabix AND crunchy cereal in the same bowl!?” – all of these are banterful exchanges that I’ve seen turn into pretty vitriolic squabbles. I’d rather be sitting on fences than building new ones for no real reason.
Death from above!
The time inevitably comes when you have to get off the fence. I guess that’s the moment at which a fence-sitter reveals whether or not they actually have any backbone, and whether all this rhetoric is backed up by action. Malcolm X (thanks Google!) said “If you don’t stand for something you will fall for anything.”. I remember that quote being chucked around at various church YF meetings (though I don’t think they ever revealed the source…), along with references to Ephesians 4:14 about being “tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming”. I firmly believe this; there are some things you need to make up your mind about, and you need to be able to defend your convictions. But I hope that by choosing my battles and not getting bogged down in trivial debates, my voice might carry more weight when I actually need to make it heard. Think of the fence like the top rope in a WWE wrestling ring – sometimes precarious, but from up there you can launch some punishing acrobatic attacks, which often lead to the pin!
Few issues are black and white.
There’s a verse I really love in the book of Ecclesiastes, chapter 7 v 18 “It is good to grasp the one and not let go of the other. The man who fears God will avoid all extremes.” This really resonated with me growing up as a Christian, realising how so many issues require a balanced approach and how there are so many contrasting view points which inevitably get some things right and some things wrong – few things are really black and white (or one side of the fence vs the other). It was equally striking how often we seem to get this wrong, especially in churches, creating labels and divisions that lead to arguments, often over trivial and inconsequential things. C.S. Lewis turns this on it’s head in the Screwtape letters, where Wormwood writes “All extremes, except extreme devotion to the Enemy, are to be encouraged”, knowing the problems and conflict likely to result from isolated, extreme positions. I find that the view from the fence makes it easier for me, personally, to “grasp one and not let go of the other”.
Maybe I should aspire to be a fence-hopper rather than a fence-sitter… and engaging a bit more with both sides of the debate instead of just observing. Feel free to disagree with me, but don’t be surprised if I just say “good point” and have done with it.