How to Find the Discomfort You Seek

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The received wisdom of our times, at least in the culture I inhabit, takes the position that every opinion has a counter, a Ying for every Yang. The genealogy of this kind of resolution-through-opposition, now taken as a general principle of agnostic fairness, can be traced through the thesis, antithesis, synthesis of Fichte, and further still to Platonic dialectic in which logic is employed toward an attempt to discover Truth.

The three-pronged dialectic seems to me to have a small mark of purity in a similar vein as the faithful out-of-hand rejection of undoctrinal opinion: It assumes that something resembling Truth would necessarily come out of a mirrored opposition. 1

Proverb

A recent folk-incarnation of this construction enjoins the reader to an open-minded consideration of all opinions.

Study both sides of everything, no matter how personally uncomfortable. If someone tells you not to study the other side of your beliefs, that is a huge red flag that means you should do exactly that. 2

The virtue within the act and experience of one’s “comfort” shifts midway in this constructed saying from self-prohibition of discomfort to prohibition from other people. Two proverbs jammed into one. It tells you, first, not to be afraid of weird ideas and then, if indeed you’re open to such ideas and someone tells you not to, that you should take that as a signal to pay special attention to the forbidden idea. The “red flag” is framed as though a dangerous episode, that is, someone forbidding or warning you not to study the other side. You are advised personally and emphatically by an unseen speaker. The intent comes through well enough despite some awkwardness and, on first reading, it sounds reasonable enough. I mean, think of the huge numbers of people out there, the great mass of humanity prevented from studying both sides of everything! I’m only kidding a little bit.

But, I think this proverb is slightly overstated. For one thing, I couldn’t help but wonder who, precisely, the intended audience for this manufactured proverb is supposed to be. Someone who ignores opposing opinions probably isn’t giving much attention to contrary opinion anyway, let alone minding advice to that effect. And, who among the vast culture of the Internet hasn’t already been exposed to a flood of diverse opinions? I’d think that most of them would assume this as a bland truism. Also, the “both sides” trope takes for granted that a binary opposite exists for every word, every thought, every opinion or position, and it simply reenforces the tendency, I think, to oversimplify a problem prior to examination. Let’s face it, most issues worth formulating an opinion about simply do not reduce down to picking one of two sides, whether “pro” or “con”.

Thesis

Well, this could be advice for the insecure, a recommendation for the curious and emergent mind. This might be a word for the person who wonders or suspects that a sinister motive lurks beneath the over-protection of precious and uncontaminated doctrine. Maybe this is by and for someone self-consciously throwing off their own perceived naiveté, already aware of the deficiencies in their own opinions. From this view, it could be advice for those who have endured a lifetime of overtly one-sided indoctrination and unmediated dogmatism. But, even that is an overly simple view.

Isn’t this also advice for those of us wanting instead to shore up our own narrow program of indoctrination and to set in stone, desperately, once and for all time, the “right way”? This prejudicial “both sides” way of thinking sees the world in terms of us and them. If one is to “be wise as serpents” 3, therefore, how else will you know the wisdom of serpents unless you ”study both sides”? Yet, you’d be still sort of stuck in your own narrow program, having taken nothing from the discomfort except a surface to push away from!

Antithesis

As a matter of fact, a lot of self-identified, “intellectual” religious, in my experience, take total confidence in that attitude of openness to a “both sides” worldview: The defender of anti-abortion arbitrarily chooses to value a fetus over a woman, but does so while claiming to “study both sides of the issue” 4, the “other issue” presumably not including the health and well-being of any particular woman or her particular privilege to mind her own health. Being simply and outwardly “uncomfortable with” the scientific Theory of Evolution seems, while standing firm on a particular dogmatic view, to satisfy the ideological positions of “consideration” and “balance” 5, yet, without that particular and necessary component that characterizes real inquiry, one doesn’t move toward that necessary conflict with incompatible facts. Similarly, the same kind of advice is offered by promoters of useless potions and dilutions sold as “medicine” 6. Black-and-white, us-versus-them ways of thinking, coupled with a superficial ”both sides” rhetoric are the very building blocks for the premises of every superficial ecumenical anti-struggle 7.

What is missing among these cited examples? These appeals read like pure fetishization, but in the minds of the writers holding the symbolic, ideological objects that act as a stand-in in for the internal conflict that these methods are meant to produce (but don’t), they only seem to be dedicated, just by way of mention, to an actual inquiry of ”both sides”. Some bravado is in evidence there, too. The feeling I take away from these example is that one is to study “both sides” in order to be more sure to retain and maintain one’s own position. Simply saying the phrase, “both sides”, seems in its invocation alone to protect against inevitable criticism––practically defining fetish! The talk about doing in order to not do; a holding onto of a symbolic [belief] object with only the pretense of having a process that would [or could] produce such an object. Consider some of the euphemistic themes in promotional material published by an insurance company 8. Paragraphs of language, which most people would, with little effort, identify transparently as being used only for their marketing value, the practically meaningless statements about “community”, “value”, “investment”, and finally, the “both sides” ideology (”It’s up to each of us to study both sides of that equation…”), seem symbolically to remove responsibility for proactive and aggressive transparency from one of the parties. I’ll leave it to you to decide on whom that responsibility is then laid.

That last one is, in a single example, the other edge of the “both sides” blade, that is, when positively used as a protection against criticism. It’s not just a commercial advertising turn. In a society wary of radicals and extremists, anyone suspecting that they might be truly dogmatic or gratuitously confrontational or transparently biased in their positions, might then also feel they have to protect themselves against a perception that they are also close-minded and intolerant. Consequently, while pitching the benefits of their wares, the church Elders will earnestly press the emotionally vulnerable to:

“Ask the Holy Ghost with sincerity and faith and you’ll be amazed at what happens. You must study and learn both sides of it.”

This manner of pantomime — going through the motions mentally — of “balance” allows us the means toward retaining a closed mind while also maintaining a clear conscience. Being such a self-consciously ”skeptical” thinker is allowed so long as one is quite sure of coming to the previously determined “correct” conclusion. And, if one happens not to get it? Well, the promoter advertiser can still fall back on cynicism and make the accusation that the abundant evidence is conspiratorially pre-contrived 9 with the purpose of turning the investigators from what they in their common sense already “just know” to be “The Truth”. In this way, the naive, “both sides” person is kept very busy sifting weak, contrived, and emotionally laden evidence.

Purity

It wasn’t more than a few seconds thinking about this manufactured proverb that I recalled the suspicious mode of thought, prevalent in the religious circles I inhabited decades ago. I knew people then who literally would say that it “is not necessary to study anything but the Bible” 10 ! They’d say with perfect conviction (and a straight face) that opposing viewpoints were the product of the Devil and that only a chosen few — “chosen by God”, of course — had the strength of Faith to be “wise as serpents”.

It’s an obvious strategy to characterize opposition as being “the work of the Devil” or the product of a conspiratorial plot by the opposition. Such rhetoric does actually prevent many cult adherents, even those who are aware of the ruse, from transparently exploring and analyzing truth claims of their own cult’s dogmas and foundational documents, from studying critically the traditional, inherited conventions and so forth. It works for politics, too. Outsider views hardly hit the table for discussion here, except when already categorized as incorrect by fiat. When you think you are fully in possession of The Truth, why bother considering anything else?

The “wise as serpents” trope, incidentally, is fairly transparent code for ”the ends justify the means”. That saying does a lot of work in sectarian circles framing physical reality and human culture as being somehow deficient or threatening in its essence. When you believe that meaning and truth comes from something other than physical reality or your own senses, then any action, being thus “wise as serpents”, ends up being justified so long as it promotes the pre-determined conclusion.

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  1. “Three-pronged” is, by the way, the inevitable metaphor whenever Hegel is mentioned in passing or in earnest. It invokes unconsciously the might of Poseidon’s trident, a well-executed battle maneuver, and every minimally stable platform — three legs being the least required to keep, for example, a foot stool or table from tipping over. It’s the imagery that does the work, I think. It should not be allowed to, in my opinion. An argument for another day. 
  2. http://www.sankofasofa.com/content/study-both-sides-everything-no-matter-how-personally-uncomfortable-if-someone-tells-you-not 
  3. Matthew 10:16 
  4. http://blog.abolishhumanabortion.com/2011/04/defense-of-abolition.html — note the title. 
  5. http://www.christianitytoday.com/iyf/advice/goodadvice/25.16.html 
  6. http://simillimum.com/education/homoeo-faq/general-questions/ ; quote, “Those who are interested in this subject should study both sides of the argument for themselves” Yet, the ”both sides” doesn’t seem to include actual data indicating the uselessness of homeopathic dilutions. 
  7. http://www.dtl.org/ethics/article/judge-not.htm quote, “it is often imperative to listen to and study both sides of a controversial subject before making a decision (as I have done in regards to the Bible versions and “KJV Only” controversies”; only doctrinally justified “ecumenism”, please. 
  8. https://www.cinfin.com/About_Us/The_Cincinnati_Ethic.pdf [not quoted here because of the unremarkable nature of the rhetoric, which, as I say in the paragraph, uses common imagery of “community”, “value”, “investment”, and so forth, seen in just about any pamphlet advertising or advocating for financial products] 
  9. The rhetoric is surprisingly similar: Religious literalists tell the doubters that devils planted “evidence” to deceive people and turn them from “The Truth” — some go so far as to say that their own gods go through the trouble of deceiving people. Cutting out the middle man, I suppose. In case you think I’m picking on cult fanatics and religious, the same accusations about contrived evidence comes out of the minds and mouths of fascists, nationalists, the self-identified anarchic “conservatives” of a society who insist that some group or practice represents an impurity. They might enjoin you to “look around”, see how “The Jews” or “The Muslims” or “The Blacks/Whites/Gypsies” are working together to convince you of some false fact. Here, there is no possibility of a counter opinion in a “both sides” argument, since The Good and The Evil have been pre-defined and all disagreements have been characterized prior to utterance. 
  10. I’ve been informed by interested parties that one can substitute “al Qur’an” here for similar effect. 
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