“Both Sides are Bad” and the Shrinking Middle

There’s no other way to say it, these are odd times for a lot of Americans. If you ever find yourself in an environment where people hold different opinions, the tone is undoubtedly different now than it’s been in any other recent time. So while our social media feeds may be echo chambers of our own viewpoints, in the real world we often find ourselves at some point in our says around “mixed” company.

Everyone reacts to mixed company settings differently. Some are unabashed about their beliefs, ready to dive into debate whenever the opportunity arises. But what I’ve noticed this year is that a lot of people, typically those in the majority, will attempt to neuter their speech in efforts to “keep the peace”.

As a result, I’ve seen these people attempt to neuter their speech using two techniques in particular.

One is to try and sound objective about certain events taking place. Well here’s a newsflash, even when trying to sound objective, folks often tell on themselves with what facts they choose to bring up. For example, here in St. Louis there has been a recent uptick in protests over the wrongful deaths of several black men without convictions of the police officers involved. Rather than say outright that they don’t agree with the protests, I’ve heard, in person, the following comments of which the speakers probably assumed were objective and neutral:

“The protesters will be out again and everything will be shut down. You know the media will blow it up to be a bigger deal than it is.”

  “Well, I trust our justice system”

The reason these people told on themselves in this moment is that while yes, city-wide protests are purposely designed to be inconvenient, to simply acknowledge how you’re affected without any comment towards the cause or without offering even a moment of solace, is a clear message. After all, lives in fact were lost before these proceedings, and the anger you see is in direct correlation to mourning. The clear message to anyone listening closely is that the status quo works for you, and you would rather not be bothered than to care about how others are affected by that system.

The second technique of speech neutering, and the one that bothers me to my core as it is more widespread in my daily life, is the need to use counterbalancing qualifiers such as “on both sides.” As a transparent method of not seeming offensive, when one has an issue politically or otherwise, they’ll make statements such as “My Facebook feed has gotten really nasty, a lot of negative comments on both sides.”

And I actually totally understand the appeal of the “Both Sides” qualifiers. You get to remain neutral in a polarizing time. You don’t offend or ostracize any particular group, and in criticizing both sides of an issue, your parental finger-wagging leaves room for resolution in peace and unity, right?

Maybe…

Like, maybe in the past remaining neutral was a productive maneuver. I mean it’s a reflex we all have, and phrases such as “reaching across the aisle” seem to have originated from somewhere of purposeful intention.

But certainly not now. Right now the most “political” items on our government’s docket are a potential war with North Korea or whether or not to effectively end health care coverage for millions of Americans. Thus far, these minor agenda items have been met with considerable resistance, as they are generally unpopular. So to bolster the conversation in such a way to appease their base, our current federal government has done just about everything in its power to villainize minorities.

I may be naïve, but I remember a past political climate with a lot more emphasis put towards debate on taxes and welfare or when and where in the world we should intervene as a matter of foreign policy. While identity politics such as race and religion have certainly always played a role in every issue of national conversation, at least with those topics there was some level of nuance to which ideological debate was possible, absent of categorical biases.

But between bathroom bills, travel bans, threatening to end DACA, and such gestures as the Vice President flying across the country for a 5 minute publicity stunt in order to dilute the message of the protests of Black NFL players, we are well and far beyond nuance. We’re well and far beyond category-less ideology. We are without a doubt, in a time where leaders of one party have decided to deliberately degrade, demean, and cause harm to anyone neither co-opted by nor members of the Straight, White, Christian class. These are deliberate actions to divide what they believe to be their base from everyone else. They’re counting on having the numbers without any delusion of broad appeal, and so far, it’s worked.

So yes, factually speaking there is plenty of blame to go all around for many of the predicaments in which we find ourselves currently. I am sure that on social media timelines all over the internet, you can find examples of jerks representing both sides of multiple aisles. But in practice, when you make statements such as “both sides are wrong” at this point in the game, you are making false equivalencies.

Contrary to what the White Nationalists demonstrating in Charlottesville, VA would like you to believe, the collective power of the White American isn’t going anywhere. The demographic changes occurring in this country are not factors in a zero sum game where White Americans will one day find themselves powerless and discriminated against. I say all of this, because the most effective liberal, Black Lives Matter/Women’s March/Pride super movement could never significantly affect the lives of Straight, White Christians in any negative way.

The counterfactual is absolutely not the same. Pro-Nationalist policies already implemented across the countries threaten the voting rights, the freedoms, the healthcare, the stable households, and countless other pursuits of liberty for minority Americans.

So while you may truly live in the middle ideologically, that middle is shrinking and shrinking fast. While there are technically two (or more) sides speaking on any given issue, the gravity of what either is saying is vastly unequal. In that inequality lies the cause for urgency, tensions are higher and the polarity of each issue becomes stronger.

Typically I love the Middle. Not only is the Middle safe, but also I truly believe that in the Middle lies most truth. But the game, for now, has changed. We have a collective problem in our society when we see someone wearing a Black Lives Matter t-shirt sitting next to someone in a Make American Great Again hat and we simply reduce that scene to two people on “opposite sides” as if their views are equal to the same magnitude. One is pleading for the ability to be seen as an individual with rights, the other has the power in his or her vote to set off a chain of events to ensure those rights are never materialized. Whether it’s from TV/Movies, Sports, or just a basic understanding a Newtonian physics, we all often try and manufacture these equal and opposite side narratives to make sense of the world around us.

But when you properly contextualize what “both sides” really stand for in this day and age, you quickly realize how dangerous a throw away qualifier like “on both sides” can be in the grand scheme. While you’re busy trying to live on a neutral island shrinking by the day, you may pass up opportunities to speak your true mind.

If you’re opinion stinks, well my best advice is to at least be open to the deserved criticism coming your way and to really learn from your stinky position so you can gradually move away from your previous home in Stinkland.

But for everyone else, speaking out against the evils in our country preying upon the innocent is vitally important. The progressive changes we benefit from to this day are because we were able to sway public opinion on the micro level until we reached a critical mass and found enough people throughout the country that believed in the same progressive agendas.

Lastly, Trump has an approval rating ranging the 30th percentiles. A lot of the “both sides are bad” talk we see several months into this administration is actually an acknowledgement that the speaker of that phrase holds an actual opinion they know will be unpopular by the masses. In the nuanced past, that technique might have worked to cloak your true feelings. In today’s world, that Middle is shrinking so rapidly that statistically speaking you don’t actually occupy a neutral stance.

In summary, the current climate is such that attempting to neuter your stances in order to avoid offending people is becoming an almost impossible task.

We see right through you.

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