Why I’m a Fence-Sitter: In Defense of Neutrality

  • SumoMe

Wooden Fence in a Field

“Sitting on the fence” gets a bad rap in a polarized society. When you don’t take a position on a given issue, people who do have a position just can’t seem to understand why you don’t. The people on one side of the issue see you as wishy-washy and spineless; the people on the other side may see you as heartless or even cruel. Walking the middle of the road is often seen as the “safe” path. It’s a way out of confrontation. You can avoid offending parties on either side of the issue so, to avoid stirring the waters, you remain neutral.

I have a confession to make: I’m a fence-sitter. I’m one of those pansies who can’t make up his mind and stand for something. I’m one of those heartless human beings who won’t throw caution to the wind and join the cause without hesitation. I am neutral. But, at least for the most part, I don’t think it’s for the reasons mentioned above.

Although it’s true that I don’t like confrontation, I believe that taking the “middle road” on an issue in an increasingly opinionated society is more likely to attract contempt from both parties than it is to permit me to fly under the radar. People expect me to have a position. And, if it isn’t theirs, they at least expect that I will be defending mine. So, why–on 9 out of 10 issues, be they religious, political, professional, or anything else–do I not have a position? Here’s why:

You can’t simultaneously feel strongly and think clearly.

Emotional involvement clouds judgment. When we take a position, everything in our psychology musters up “evidence” to push us further in that direction. We lose objectivity. We lose our ability to understand truth. If you disagree with my statement above, it’s probably because you feel strongly about something and you don’t want to believe that it’s influencing your ability to be rational. But, I assure you, it is.

How Emotion Clouds Judgment

One of my favorite studies offers support that people can’t even do math when they are defending an issue in which they believe strongly. In the study, regardless of how good people are at mathematical reasoning, they become less able to perform basic calculations when the issue in question is an emotionally polarizing issue than when it is a relatively neutral issue.

The moment your emotional mind takes over, your reasoning mind becomes it’s servant. You seek out evidence that confirms your belief and avoid evidence that contradicts it. Psychologist Leon Festinger formalized this idea in his 1957 book A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance:

The existence of dissonance, being psychologically uncomfortable, will motivate the person to try to reduce the dissonance and achieve consonance. When dissonance is present, in addition to trying to reduce it, the person will actively avoid situations and information which would likely increase the dissonance.

As marketing research pioneer Daniel Starch noted even earlier in his 1934 book Faith, Fear, and Fortunes:

Just as water welling up out of the sand is the spring, so desire welling up in human nature is the very essence of life. Human life is the unceasing, ‘I want.’ Even the important turning points in life which are analyzed, thought about, and deliberated deeply, ultimately go back to the ‘I want” which usually plays the deciding role. We rationalize our acts afterwards, or sometimes in advance. But almost always we do things first because of the ‘I want,’ and rationalize afterwards. The two words ‘I want’ we probably say or think more often than any other two words.

And, several centuries before Daniel Starch walked the earth, philosopher Francis Bacon put it even more eloquently in his 1620 collection of aphorisms, Novum Organum:

The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects or despises, or else by some distinction sets aside and rejects, in order that by this great pernicious predetermination the authority of its former conclusion may remain inviolate.

As a human being, my natural tendency is to have my emotions take over. I don’t sit on the fence because I’m indecisive or because I’m heartless. I do it because I want to get to the bottom of things. I want to know the truth. And, for that to actually happen, I need to approach issues with a sense of detachment. I need to remain neutral.

The First Question

Although I fully realize it makes me a highly unusual human being, I am much more interested in understanding the truth of any given situation than I am in persuading other people to accept my position. When confronted with an issue or idea, my first question is always about understanding. My first question always begins with why. My first question is always from a position of curiosity rather than from a position of outrage.

  • Why does the media use gimmicky headlines to get you to click through to articles? (As opposed to, “How can I stop them?”)
  • Why does ALS only devote 28% of its funds to research? (As opposed to, “How could they be so wasteful?”)
  • Why does McDonald’s pay its workers minimum wage? (As opposed to, “How can we make them raise the wages?”)

It’s easy to get swept away by our emotions in debates such as those above. We feel strongly about an issue and, as mentioned above, our natural inclination is to latch onto any arguments in favor of our position. The problem is that it blinds us to what the other side of the issue has to offer. Once we’re on the defensive, we just stop listening. Once we’ve made up our minds, it is really hard to change them no matter how persuasive the evidence may be to the contrary.

If the first question we ask is one of curiosity, we stop seeing issues as black and white. We gain an appreciate for each side of the issue, and we are more able to show respect to each party involved.

Yes, online media publishers use catchy headlines in order to get web visitors to click through to pages. But, if they don’t, not as many people will visit the pages. That means less ad revenue which, in turn means less content. In most business models, journalism is funded by advertisers; the money has got to come from somewhere. We can argue that advertisers bias the media but, unless we can come up with a viable alternative, we aren’t really doing anything but complaining.

Yes, many non-profit organizations use large percentages of their income for marketing and administrative purposes in addition to funding their primary causes. But, before we get indignant about where our money is going, we might want to question whether or not this is such a bad thing. Dan Pallotta argues in his book Uncharitable that the results produced by the organization should matter more to us than how the percentages of contributions are divvied up. For example, which organization is more likely to cure cancer: an organization that devotes 10% of its budget to advertising and is able to raise $100k (with $90k going to research), or an organization that devotes 50% of its budget to advertising and is able to raise $1 million (with $500k going to research)?


Yes, families cannot survive on minimum wage in America. They must have multiple jobs, multiple incomes, and often government assistance. But the people who are protesting the low wages are often blinded to considering the other side of the issue. When companies pay out higher wages for lower skills, they will be forced to provide fewer jobs to low-skill workers. They may also have to raise the wages of other works to offset the difference (i.e. a manager making $15 an hour may demand $20 an hour when her workers begin to make $15 an hour). Still further, they may have to raise prices for consumers–some of those consumers being the very ones who are demanding the wage increases.

I am not trying to convince anyone of either side of the issue. I am merely pointing out the importance of considering all sides of the issue. There’s always more to the story. And it really all comes down to the first question you ask. Are you asking a question from a position of curiosity–to learn about the issue? Or, is your first question one of outrage, rhetoric, and resolution–only serving the purpose of reaffirming what you already believe?

The Downside of No Side

If I take this position of neutrality without a single caveat or exception, it would sort of go against everything I believe. Is there anything bad about taking the middle of the road? If it helps you think more clearly, make better decisions, and treat other people with respect and dignity, what could possibly be wrong with sitting on the fence? As much as it pains me to say it, yes, I think there is a downside to living the curious life. And, here it is:

Change only happens when you take sides.

Curiosity will not enable us to change the world; it will only enable us to understand it. While I sincerely believe that it is important to understand the issues before we take a position on them, I am willing to concede that there are instances where a position must be taken. Objectivity doesn’t accomplish anything. People change the world when they are passionate–not when they are level-headed.

The downside of being emotionally detached from any given debate is that we lose our power to change things. I am not a revolutionary. I am a student of the world; not a reformer of it. That being said, I am glad that there are those who are going out of their minds to make great things happen. The technology afforded to me to write this blog posts exists because there were people who were passionate enough about blogging to make it mainstream enough for me to notice. I am able to openly express my opinion because there were people who were passionate enough to create a society in which free speech is valued. Though I don’t necessarily consider myself one of them, I am truly grateful for the movers and shakers of the world.

Emotions are powerful things. They can be weapons in some hands and tools in others. I only hope that they fall into the right hands that will shape the world into a better place for all of us to live.

My Goal: Humility in All Things

I’m not bullet-proof when it comes to the pull of emotions. I get swept up in the arguments just like the next person. I’m only human. In the past, I have many times thoughtlessly joined one side of the debate without opening myself up to other possibilities. If you dig into the archives of this blog, you will find many rants taking a firm position on many issues. One of my most popular articles for another site was about why businesses should be blogging. Today, if I were to write such an article, it would be about the pros and cons of blogging for businesses–why businesses should blog, but also why they shouldn’t.

Bertrand-Russell-On-The-Paradox-of-Fools-And-Wise-Men

Over the past year or so, life has humbled me in many ways. I’ve been proven wrong more times than I can count, and it has really taught me the value of approaching everything with humility. More and more, I’m approaching issues, conversations, and challenges with a desire to learn rather than with a desire to teach. It’s not about how much I know that I can share with other people; it’s about how much other people know and how much I can learn from them if I’m willing.

Jesus said a lot of profound things that are recorded in the New Testament, and everyone–religious or not–has their favorite Jesus quote. Maybe it’s the golden rule: “Do unto others as you would have them to unto you.” Maybe it’s “Judge not, lest you be judged,” or “turn the other cheek.” The list goes on and on. Here’s my favorite:

If you were blind, you would have no sin; but since you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains. (John 9:41, NASB)

Jesus is talking about humility. Essentially, he is saying that your crime is not ignorance; your crime is being ignorant when you think you know so much. He said something similar in Mark 2:17 when he said, “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick.” When we humble ourselves to the point that we willing to learn, it is only then that we can improve. It is those of us who think we know so much that are unable to learn more.

My goal is humility in all things. I want to start from the position of ignorance. I still have everything to learn. I still have worlds of improvement to make. I am an empty vessel with an unending need of filling. I realize that I want make a lot of waves or start a bunch of revolutions with this posture. But, that’s okay with me. I’ll err on the side of humility. At least I’ll have a clearer understanding of the waves worth making and the revolutions worth supporting.

The world is awash with fanatics preaching the need to stand for something–to join causes and fight relentlessly for certain positions. I think that what the world needs more is to sit for something. I think the world needs caution; the world needs pause; the world needs reflection; the world needs consideration; the world needs humility; the world needs curiosity. And where might the world find these things? They are not going to be found high up on the soapbox. They’re going to be found down here on the middle ground–down here on the fence.

So, there. That’s why I’m a fence-sitter. It may not be for you but, if you think it’s worth considering, have a seat down here next to me. I’ve saved a spot for you…

(wood fence photo courtesy of Henry Burrows, licensed via Creative Commons)

The Curiosity Manifesto: Investigate

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