On (Not) Having a Side, or Embracing My Inner Ent
"'And what about yourself?' asked Merry.
"'Hoom, hm, I have not troubled about the Great Wars,' said Treebeard; 'they mostly concern Elves and Men. That is the business of Wizards: Wizards are always troubled about the future. I do not like worrying about the future. I am not altogether on anybody's side, because nobody is altogether on my side, if you understand me: nobody cares for the woods as I care for them, not even Elves nowadays...'" --J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, book 3, chapter IVHow shall I say this without taking sides? One of the things that I have noticed in the arguments that I have managed to get into of late with my friends on Facebook is a tendency on the part of some of those who disagree with me to want to lump me into certain categories, typically phrased as "your side." As the friend-who-is-no-longer-a-friend put it in our pre-Christmas Messenger exchange: "What your side really misses about all this...." (my emphasis). Throughout our conversation, my-friend-who-is-no-longer-a-friend attributed my interest in the topic at hand to my need to satisfy my "new group of friends" regardless (in his view) of the damage that their views might inflict on someone whom I ought to see as a colleague but was (again, in his view) willing to damn for being "suspiciously liberal" (again, his words, not mine). When at one point I protested that I was not in fact taking sides for or against a particular theological position (although, as I explained, I do have one), but rather only defending the right of those involved in the discussion at Wheaton to defend theirs, he told me: "If you don't have a dog in the fight [my phrase originally], then stay out of the fight." "How dare you," he seemed to be saying, "take sides without taking sides."
"Your side," "your conservative allies," "your new group of friends"--that is, my friend-who-is-no-longer-a-friend would seem to need to insist, "not mine." He is not the only one who has phrased his disagreement with me in these terms, although he is the only one, thus far, to threaten to unfriend me over my shares. (In the event, I unfriended him.) Because, it seems, he could not bear the thought of staying friends with me if I were not on his side.
Now, to be fair, I did post a Facebook status sometime this summer in which, as it were, I came out of the closet, and acknowledged that I have become aware of holding views about many of the issues that now so occupy our national social media that many of my friends would feel uncomfortable with. Not to be too evangelical about it, I called myself a heretic, as much to acknowledge the feeling of discomfort that disagreeing with so many of my friends has given me, as to point out the irony of feeling such discomfort in a social context (predominantly, academia) that has traditionally valorized the heretical, the edgy, the dissenting voice. I am guessing that it was this status post that made my friend-who-is-no-longer-a-friend think that the views I hold now are somehow new, when at the time what I tried to make clear was how the reading I have been doing these past three years has simply helped me clarify the discomfort I had always felt about certain arguments that my academic colleagues have tended to make. I made no mention of any other friends who share these views with me, and I made no effort to identify myself with anybody's side. I did make an effort to distinguish between liberals and conservatives and suggested that I tend to see things in what I now understand as a more conservative light (my argument had to do with seeing the glass half-full--the conservative viewpoint, because things could so easily be worse--or half-empty, that is, less than perfect, which I took to be the liberal viewpoint), although I also acknowledged that I can easily fall into despair, which makes me a somewhat gloomy Happy Warrior (a.k.a. Eeyore).* But I did not (at least I did not mean to) suggest that I was somehow taking sides against the vast majority of my friends who think of themselves as liberal. All I meant to do was explain myself.
Yes, I disagree with many of the things that I see my Facebook friends share on their walls, but I also understand (or at least, I try to) why they hold the views that they do, and I honestly and sincerely do not blame them for it. They are all good people--they are my friends, after all!--and I know that the ones who post such shares care deeply about our country and the kinds of things that they see happening in our world. Nor do I think of them as a homogenous group ("your side"). In part because I sometimes agree with them, in part because, even if I disagree with them, I admire their willingness to engage with questions that none of us finds particularly easy to talk about, never mind talk about calmly when we encounter those who do not share our understanding of the issues involved. But most of all because I have never in my life felt that anybody (as Treebeard puts it) was altogether on my side, except maybe my dog (and she can be quite stubborn when she wants to stop and sniff on our way to campus in the mornings).** It is true, I have made a number of new and now quite dear friends in the course of my reading over the past several years, while discovering (much to my delight) that not a few of my oldest friends from high school and college share more of my views than I had expected they would. But (pace my friend-who-is-no-longer-a-friend), I did not change my mind about what I believe simply in order to impress these friends, new or old. Quite the reverse! After all, if my goal had been to impress anybody, I would do much better (numerically speaking) trying to impress the friends whose views I already knew I disagreed with, at least to judge from the jokes that they tell. (Maybe more of them are in the closet than I realize or than they have been willing to confess. Who knows?)
So why is it that my Facebook friend-who-is-no-longer-a-friend needed to see me as somehow having a side? To answer would be, I am afraid, to take sides, and my inner Ent is as stubborn as my actual Corgi at letting me go there.
*From my status post: "Most of the time, I see the glass as half full: there is so much good in our society, our culture, our civilization that did not exist even in the period that I study, never mind the blink of an eye that is recorded history, how could one not rejoice at the blessings? but when friends persist in insisting that it is half empty, I start to despair. I don't understand how they can get up in the morning when all it seems they see is the evil in the world and especially in our own culture, which when I am feeling hopeful seems to me the best hope for the world. I went to bed last night after spending the day trying to defend the half-full glass ready to die, filled with despair about how we are going to lose everything good in our culture because we no longer see it or feel it even worth defending, so angry are we that it is not perfect, the glass 'only' half full. I held off posting until I woke up to give myself the chance to recover, but as I am writing this now, all I want to do is smash the glass and give up as my friends seem to me to suggest that I should: if the glass can't be full, life not perfect, then we shouldn't have the glass at all. I don't like this feeling and think it is probably a temptation to despair, but it is hard to resist feeling it, much easier to want to give in."
**No, not even God. I acknowledge that this may be a problem of perception, but I am describing here what I have felt about having a side.***
***Having written which, I also realize is going to need significantly more unpacking. Who says the examined life is preferable to the unexamined any way?