A highly intelligent friend of mine, Donal, has a habit of being non-committal when asked a direct question. His opinions are always well thought out but he avoids the type of simple, direct answers I demand. Usually, after I’ve unsuccessfully tried to pin him to a definitive statement several times, I’ll close the topic by telling him to get off the fence or he’ll get splinters in his arse. Lately, I find myself increasingly attracted to life on the fence because the alternatives are less attractive. I once viewed fence-sitting as a kind of indecision, or worse, cowardice, but now I see the wisdom and honesty in it. I feel increasingly like the Delmar character in O Brother, Where Art Thou?
There’s been a lot of talk in the Irish media recently about the upcoming Marriage Referendum which, if passed, would fully recognise in law marriages of people of the same sex. Imagine. The main advantages of referendums of this kind are that it gets the public thinking and talking about issues which, as a society, we often ignore or avoid.
My problem is with the divisiveness and extremism of the debate that arises around votes of this kind. The media, when presenting the arguments of both sides, too often favour the attention grabbing extremist fringes and this in turn often drives the narrative of the public debate. I don’t reside on the extremist fringe, none of my friends reside there, I doubt any friends of my friends reside there, but the opinions of the fringe become the opinions the media report and repeat and these opinions then inform what the rest of us talk about when discussing the issue. The poster below is an example of the extremism I’m talking about. When both sides of a debate represent extremism the fence starts to look very inviting. Move over Donal, there’s room for one more.
This pic has been republished courtesy of Laura @fantasyparade_
It’s not quite as simple as that
While the Marriage Referendum is a simple Yes vote for me, many other referendum-type issues are not. Availability of abortion in Ireland for example, or legalisation of cannabis, or introduction of euthanasia, or changing our party political system. I know which way I’d probably vote on these issues but I’d have reservations about each one.
I’d have reservations because most things are complicated. Often my decisions are informed by siding with what I perceive to be the lesser of two evils rather than something I unquestioningly support. Worse, these reservations only apply to the few issues which I understand, because understanding is exhausting. Making decisions about what deserves our attention in a world full of information is hard! If we don’t understand the complexity of the issues we deem important we’re much more likely to fall into the yes/no and good/bad type debates outlined above.
There’s also danger in the language of these debates. In relation to abortion for example you must choose between being Pro Life or Pro Choice? In the literal sense I’m Pro Life and Pro Choice, but the simplification of the abortion debate doesn’t allow this. The problem with this simplification is that it all becomes about point scoring, it becomes political in the most cynical sense. Discussions become opportunities to display rhetorical cleverness rather than empathy and understanding, qualities vastly more desirable in public representatives.
- The politicians portrayed sincerely believed in their party’s policies and their duty to their voters to follow these ideals while in power. This show would be received as a farce in Ireland.
- The fictional centre-left party were called De Moderate (The Moderates) and they had policies that fit their name.
The Moderates operated where most of us operate, somewhere in the middle. This didn’t stop them from making decisions, rather they represented a society that was more fence than fields. As well as this, The Moderates weren’t afraid to pass legislation while always remembering that…
The Law Is An Ass
Those of us lucky enough to live in democracies have to make choices when it comes to elections and referendums. When we elect politicians it is their vote in parliament that represents us (in theory!) and when we vote in a referendum we get direct access to the outcome. As voters we have to be decisive but most of us are decisive while also seeing the merits of the arguments of others and the flaws in our own.
This reminds me of my first year in college when I was exposed to one persuasive set of ideas in the first semester and in the next semester I was exposed to contradictory but equally persuasive ideas. At the end of the college year I agreed with both sets of ideas and this drove me crazy. In a society the ability to understand both sides of a debate is admirable so feel free to join me on the fence.