Choosing Sides

A few weeks ago I decided that even though I liked my car, there were several things it didn’t have that I wanted. With my wife’s help I made a list and took it with me to visit several car lots. Almost without exception, when the sales reps looked at my list they said, “Oh, that’s a Subaru.” So that’s what I bought. Not new, but new to me, and so far the choice feels right.

Deciding what is important and letting that guide me to a choice is how I do things when I’ve got it together enough to remember that it’s the best way to go. I can’t say I’m all that consistent yet, but it’s something to aim for.

Of course, whatever method I employ, once I make a decision I immediately start paying more attention to things that support my decision and less to things that indicate I might have made a mistake. There is a downside to this, a real danger. The danger can be referred to as incestuous amplification (a term attributed to the military during the Vietnam War), which is a way of saying that if you only listen to people with whom you already agree, your views tend to become more rigid and more extreme.

Needless to say, this kind of self-perpetuating polarization is rampant this election cycle and has a distinctly unhealthy feel about it. 

After all, elections are about choosing sides, and we all choose sides. Over and over again, all through our lives. It’s part of being human — to look for a tribe, a group to belong to, people who let me know I’m not alone.

It’s also human, once I’ve picked a tribe, to become more aware of the things that separate my tribe from yours, the reasons my tribe is better, stronger, more in the right. I’m not sure there’s any way around this. Just as there is no light without darkness, no good without evil, if we’re going to measure something we also need something to measure it against.

There are a couple of ways to do this measuring; one is to say how my tribe is better. The other is to say how your tribe is less than mine in some way. If from my point of view the way yours is less than mine is accurate and important, that’s one thing. If the difference is trivial or inaccurate, that’s something else entirely.

Civil discourse is a good and necessary thing. My tribe has stuff that yours doesn’t and, if I’m being honest, the reverse is also true, and real progress can come from honest discussion and disagreement. Unfortunately, there is a part of me that is capable of the uncivil, the crude, the use of ad hominem attacks to make my point. Looking around, I don’t think I’m alone in this. The secret is, I think, not to deny that part of me but rather to refuse to be guided by it. 

After all, that’s really the lazy way out, isn’t it? If I spend my time and energy on attack, then I don’t have to examine my position to see if it makes social, scientific, moral, or spiritual sense. Contradictions won’t bother me if I don’t let myself know they are there.

In the service today our minister kept returning to the theme of how hard it is to stay human. It’s unfortunate that it is difficult, because our shared humanity is what binds us together and allows us to tackle the big issues without getting bogged down in personal attacks or bogus arguments. There are times, and I think this may be one of them, when getting bogged down can have devastating consequences.

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A career working with teenagers on the fringes of society has made me both sensitive to and appreciative of the complexities of character and the struggles, inner and outer, that we all wrestle with in one form or another. My writing emphasizes character development over action, and, as a lifelong Southerner, the rhythms and cadence of the Southeastern United States influence both my spoken and written voice.

2 thoughts on “Choosing Sides

  1. Jim, I agree with you that it’s a very basic human trait to divide everyone into “us” and “them”, whether it’s on the basis of nationality, religion, race, or political party. I like to think that one of the benefits of civilization is the ability to see the good characteristics in “them”, but I’ve been discouraged about that lately. As with many other difficult things, I think the only place to start is with yourself.


    1. Absolutely. I’m the only place I can start. It’s easy to forget that us and them doesn’t have to mean us vs. them. Speaking as a liberal in the conservative part of a conservative state in a conservative region of the country, I can attest that coexistence is certainly possible, and even the occasional friendly conversation. Of course if I were to decide to pick a fight, the opportunities (read: traps) are all around. Being of a certain age, I have better things to do with my time.

      Liked by 1 person

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