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Take A Position, Not A Side
Towards a healthier civic discourse.
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Which side are you on? That is a question we are asked every day, many times a day, as consumers of news and opinion. Which side are you on in the abortion debate? The gun control debate? The debate over gender youth medicine? Over the teaching of our racial history in schools? Are you for or against regulations? Green energy? Anthony Fauci?
But what if that's the wrong question? What if it hinges on the wrong word, that word that's so ubiquitous, that comes so naturally, that we don't even notice it? I mean “side.” “Side” carries with it an entire worldview; it tells us how to think and feel. As soon as you say “side,” you're saying there are only two: the right one and the wrong one, us versus them, good versus evil.
Which means that anyone who isn't on your side must be on the other, the hated other, and therefore must be demonized and suppressed. Anyone, for instance, who raises doubts about the wisdom of “affirmative care” for children with gender dysphoria (like J.K. Rowling, who's been called a fascist) or who questioned the value of school closures during the pandemic (like Jennifer Sey, who lost her job as Global Brand President of Levi Strauss).
But are there really only two sides to every question? Consider the abortion debate. While we speak of pro-choice and pro-life, there are actually many places to stand on the issue. But “side” pushes people to extremes, to single principles and simple emotions. Pro-lifers say that life is sacred; the pro-choice camp, that a woman has a right to control her own body—two absolute beliefs that almost no one believes absolutely. Very few would claim that the life of the fetus trumps all other considerations, and nobody thinks that the right to end a pregnancy should extend to the moment of delivery. Nearly everyone feels the tug of competing claims and conflicting feelings and ends up somewhere in the middle: six weeks; twelve weeks; second trimester; heartbeat; viability; exceptions only for rape, incest, and the life of the mother. These are not sides. This is a spectrum.
Instead of sides, we need to speak, and think, in terms of positions. On any given issue, there are almost always more than two. But adopting a position is very different than choosing a side. It takes thought; it takes investigation; it takes a willingness to consider alternatives. Sides are intellectually easy and emotionally satisfying. Positions are intellectually challenging and emotionally complex. Once you know which side you're on—in the culture war, or the political war—you can let your friends, or your podcasts, do your thinking for you. But “positions” requires you not only to think things through for yourself, but to think each issue through on its own terms, from the ground up.
One of the problems, for example, with the way that the debate about Covid policy took shape during the first year or two of the pandemic was that many issues got lumped together, because all of them were hostage to the logic of “sides.” Masks, mask mandates, the lab leak hypothesis, school closure policy, lockdowns, the masking of children, the vaccination of children and young adults—all of these raised separate questions, with separate considerations, and separate (and evolving) bodies of evidence. But we all knew, based on which side we were on—Team Trump or Team Fauci—what we were supposed, in each case, to believe. Which made it impossible to have a rational conversation about any of them.
“Positions” involves a very different set of practices than “sides.” “Sides” goes with debates, where each party tries to “win,” to show that they are “right,” by bashing away at the other. At best you might decide the truth lies somewhere “in the middle.” “Positions” goes with conversations. You listen; you acknowledge doubt; you think out loud; you learn. You both learn. You discover things together neither of you would have come to on your own. You might meet in the middle, but you're as likely to decide that the truth, or at least your next best approximation of the truth, lies somewhere else altogether—in a different direction, or another dimension. And you can do all this because the stakes aren't existential anymore. Your identity—as a member of your “side”—is no longer riding on the outcome. You can breathe. You can think.
Moving from “sides” to “positions” would let a lot of air into the national discourse. We could consider points of view that lie outside the usual binaries and therefore don't get much of a hearing. The position, for instance, of J.K. Rowling and many other informed parties, on gender youth medicine: that medical transition is appropriate in a small percentage of cases but that the best approach in most is watchful waiting. We could have a national discourse, a sober consideration of issues, rather than a national shouting match.
“Sides” is for partisans. “Positions” is for citizens. Yes, there are powerful forces pushing us toward the first: cable news, social media, the two-party system itself. No, it wasn't this bad in the past, when the parties were less homogenous (conservative southern Democrats and liberal northern Republicans), when congressional Republicans still wanted to accomplish things, which meant compromising with the other side, a circumstance that was in turn reflected in the larger discourse, when we all shared the same few sources of news and therefore, more or less, the same picture of reality. But we aren't going to eliminate those powerful forces, and we aren't going back to the past. What we can do is take a step forward, toward restoring the health of our democracy, by changing the way we talk about the things we care about: the media can, and we can as individuals. Next time someone asks you for your “side,” explain your position instead. It'll take a little longer, but it's worth it.
William Deresiewicz is an essayist and critic. He is the author of five books including Excellent Sheep, The Death of the Artist, and The End of Solitude: Selected Essays on Culture and Society.
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