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  • Janyne McConnaughey, PhD

Gathering at the Fence

This morning, while catching up with my Facebook feed, I realized two people posted the same meme to support completely different viewpoints. I had a few moments of cognitive dissonance as I check back to be sure what I thought happened really did happen. Inherent in both posts was a sense of “I am right and you are wrong.” I thought, “Well, we have no fence-sitters in this situation!”

Our society has villainized those who sit on fences. Having a strong opinion is seen as a strength. I want to qualify this with “having an informed opinion” but both of my Facebook friends would staunchly argue their opinion is informed. Then, I would hear warnings about “false news” from both sides and suddenly rocks are being lobbed over my head as I try to find something I can say that would bring agreement to the fence. I chose silence.

Sitting on the fence is a dangerous place to be. It is kind of like being a peacemaker in a raging battle of words. Anything I would say, could be fodder for attack by one side or the other or both at the same time. It really doesn’t seem acceptable anymore to see valid points from both sides. Living in community with disagreeing viewpoints is difficult—but possible.

We all have a lens, we all have opinions, and we almost always have an agenda (cause to which we are committed). Being aware of our agenda is crucial. It is easy to be so engaged, that everything begins to revolve around it. For instance, my agenda is to promote mental health, but when someone’s post about a Monarch butterfly becomes an opportunity to talk about the importance of self-care, I need to stop myself! I have crossed the line from having an agenda to pushing an agenda.

In the midst of all this, I am still sitting on the fence in a black and white world and dodging rocks. It is really confusing because, even on the fence I might have an opinion that somewhat disagrees with my own opinion. If I say, “Immigrants make America great,” my statement excludes those who lived here long before the first immigrant arrived. Well, I suppose we could make a case for them being immigrants, if we go back to their ancestral migrations; but they were well established before the “legal” immigrants arrived. It also doesn’t address that immigrants come in all forms—some bring great good while some do cause harm. I still believe my statement, but when I am sitting on the fence it is possible to see all sides and disagree with myself. On the fence, I understand the world is not black and white.

I taught at the college level for many years. My classrooms were a melting pot of opinions. I had an opinion and so did almost every student in the room. I had the power position as the professor; but I didn’t like to wield it. I really wanted critical thinking skills to be valued. I learned to say things like:

“I can see your point on this, let me explain why I believe differently.”

“I know some of the history of this that I believe would add to the discussion.”

“I am seeing some differing thoughts on this. Is there something we agree on?”

My years in therapy would have made me a better teacher. I would have added this question, “Could you explain more about what you just said?” Such an important skill. The first words out of someone’s mouth may not have complete clarity or be the actual issue. Also, I may not be hearing it right, so repeating what I “think” they said would have helped reveal my incorrect assumptions. Yes, I would have been a better listener!

The most heated class discussions came as a result of someone defending black or white so staunchly they couldn’t meet at the fence—and usually felt that doing so was a sign of weakness. Sometimes it was the slippery slope thing. “If I agree with anything you say then I am going to slide down a slippery slope and fall into some form of evil.” Slippery slope thinking convinces us that if we agree on one point, the very next step is supporting choices we staunchly believe are wrong. It is like saying we are going to walk to the fence down the street and thinking it means we have to walk to a fence in another country.

How this all plays out on Facebook is, “I can’t join in this discussion without making it VERY clear I don’t agree.” In other words, “I can’t make a statement in agreement with one part of what you said or everyone will believe I am in agreement with everything you said.” To both agree and disagree is not possible in a black and white world.

What if we could simply say, “I don’t agree with everything in this, but I do agree . . .” It is OK to agree and disagree at the same time. We need to rekindle the art of seeing both sides. Black and white thinking is polarizing us and anyone who tries to draw the two sides together at the fence gets rocks lobbed over them (or at them). We can agree to something without agreeing to everything.

Then there is intent. I have to stop and ask, “Am I posting this because I am for something, or am I posting it because I am against something someone else believes?” I consider this constantly. Am I posting because I am promoting mental health in the schools, workplaces, churches, and communities; or am I posting because I am angry at those things which hinder mental health? Sometimes we need to address what we believe is harmful, but what is our tone? I have hundreds of documents on my computer which were never published because I stopped and asked this question.

I have to continually work at expressing opinions/beliefs with grace. When “personally angry me” shows up, my goals are seldom accomplished. It calls no one to the fence. When “gracefully seeking justice me” shows up in my posts and comments, it is so much better—for everyone. Trust me on that one. I do have some very strong opinions about many things; but if I can’t find agreement at the fence, it isn’t a discussion; it is a rock-lobbing meme, post, and blog war. I have been guilty of joining in the fray; but if I sit on the fence of graceful agreement/disagreement, there is so much peace to be found in simply agreeing to disagree.

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