The Violence of Taking Sides, or Become the Nuance You Want to See in the World

This is an excerpt from a book I'm writing about arguments. Which feels like cheating posting it here....

This episode eloquently articulates the violence — the fascism — at the heart of "sides."

Which side are you on? It seems like a fair question. There are arguments and battles everywhere. So, c’mon, which side you are on? Pick one!

But that’s one of those insidious questions that behooves us to interrogate it. Most conspicuously, the question can only come after the terms of the discussion have been established and sides drawn; otherwise, there’d be no sides to choose from. To ask the question, then, is to assume that we all agree to the establishment of a) the terms of the issue; and b) that there are these sides from which to choose. It’s a question that acts like it’s asking for your free choice but is, in fact, determining your thoughts before you’ve even had a chance to think.

Let’s look at an example: In the abortion issue, which side are you on? It seems innocuous, if poignant, as presumably you’re other pro-choice or pro-life. But what if you don’t agree to any of these terms? As I’ve argued elsewhere, by calling it “abortion,” we’ve already put focus on the fetus, not the woman. And then we ask: Do you think it’s a woman’s right to choose to end the life of the fetus? This is a loaded question! And terribly unfair to the woman. And, from a certain perspective, it’s an insane question to ask: as a society, we generally don’t leave the act of determining whether someone should live or not to the individual person. In such matters, “choice” doesn’t enter into the equation (of course, we could interrogate these assumptions; for instance, it seems odd that suicide is illegal, a crime against the state; but let’s put that aside for now). By calling it abortion, we’ve already decided that it’s a question of the progress — perhaps not a life, yet — of a fetus. But then saying that it’s a woman’s choice to decide what counts as life is, well, difficult to defend as a general law for a society.

What if we put the focus on the woman and her menstrual cycle and say: Should a woman have the right to regulate her own menstrual cycle? Well, that’s an absurd question that doesn’t even need to be asked because of course she does. Which is to say, if we change the terms of the question, eliminating the very concept of abortion, the issue vanishes just like that. Poof!

And yet people like to be on a side. It makes them feel less alone. How do I know this? Because it’s what we’ve doing for eons: creating, then choosing, sides. We side with these or those folks who look and talk like us. In a world of relentless argumentation, it’s nice to have sides to choose. You’re most likely not going to find someone with a MAGA hat at a pro-choice rally just as you won’t find a someone wearing tie dye and kicking a hacky sack at a MAGA rally. Sides are really more about a culture than a position, about belonging to a group. They share a vocabulary, a sense of humor, and places they shop. Sides are territories with rules and attire. The pussy hat, made popular during the Women’s March on DC, is a kind of flag staking its territory. And like any police state, sides have their modes of policing. Think about “Seinfeld’s” Kramer when he participates in the AIDS walk: he refuses to wear the ribbon and is beaten up for it. This is a common event at any march — someone wears the “wrong” thing and a hullaballoo breaks out.

Sides are fashion communities, the pussy hat a flag colonizing a certain vocabulary and territory.

But in the age of the argument, there are no longer two or even three sides to any position. As arguments proliferate, positions begin overlapping at funny angles, making it even more complex to figure out what to believe. For instance, there are proponents of psychedelics who want to medicalize it, turn these drugs into products for health and profit. And there are proponents of psychedelics who loathe the pharmaceutical companies, believing mushrooms, LSD, and DMT are paths to a cosmic consciousness — a health, for sure, but not in the way the medical industry defines it. I ask you: Are these two groups fighting for the same thing? I don’t think so. And yet they surely overlap at certain junctures. What’s true for psychedelics is true for so many so-called big issues such as gun control which is opposed by both racist separatists and by certain people in the black community who understandably feel under siege from those racist separatists as well as from our heavily armed police state. Are these two groups on the same side?

There’s a keenly hilarious scene in the Tina Fey TV show, “The Unbreakable Kimmie Schmidt.” Kimmie comes upon a protest, or multiple protests, around a statue of Eleanor Roosevelt asking for the statue to be taken down. One protest sign reads, “You belong in a statue of a kitchen” as another protester yells, “Eleanor Roosevelt gave us unrealistic expectations of cousins” (s4 e10). Meanwhile, a group of lesbians demand the statue come down because Eleanor never came out of the closet. Are these groups on the same side?

Are there even sides to begin with? To choose a side, to be on a side, is to assume that positions are already determined and beliefs are a matter of multiple choice rather than a matter of crafting questions and creating new ways of thinking. By assuming there are sides, we reinforce a territorial approach to belief, an approach we inherit from religions and the nation-state: Here, we believe this, not that! It's the gesture of conformity and colonization.

And we thereby eliminate the act of individual critical thinking. No need to ponder the issues. We’ve done that for you. Either you watch “Fox News” or “The Daily Show." No need to think for yourself. This is how those with power perpetuate their power: by determining the playing field. And, for the most part, people feel involved when they’re invited to play — to vote or tweet on a matter — without ever questioning the field of play or the rules of the game. We’ve come to believe that our freedom lies in choosing rather than creating the very playing field itself. The media, in particular, work hard to reinforce these reductions as it makes headlines much easier to write. It gets a whole lot messier if, every time a newspaper wanted to say something, it had to let you know what it considers the field and the rules of the game. No, it’s much easier — more lucrative — to regurgitate the given terms of a discussion.

Meanwhile, the very idea of sides perpetuates conflict and drama. Sides are thought of in geometric terms, stable spaces: on one side, there’s those kooks; and on the other side, those nutjobs. Perhaps there is some insignificant territory down in the corner, what the media like to call “independents.” But the architecture of sides is never questioned: there are sides, always pre-defined, to which are you invited. Of course, once there, you’re obliged to don the appropriate attire. Can’t watch Fox News with a pussy hat on. The very notion of a side is detrimental to our civility, eliminating independent thought while fostering oppositional aggression.

So what if we got rid of the very notion of sides and instead privileged nuance and difference, quirk and creativity? What if rather than taking sides and perpetuating them through institutions such as debate and conflict-driven media stories, we encouraged people to create their own territories, to craft their own questions. By always asking what side you’re on, we’re telling people that it’s not their job to think for themselves. The world of thought and belief, we tell them, is handed down to you by others. Your job is simply to pick a side (which, in some demented Orwellian turn, is then framed as freedom). It fosters what Nietzsche calls the herd mentality rather than critical, creative thinking that is particular, individual, novel.

Being on a side is to participate in a pre-established sets of beliefs, words, and customs. As Burroughs would say, I’m never on a side, I’m with it. He may be with a side — but only because he’s constitutive of it. He is the side. Which is a version of a great bumper sticker I once saw. You are not in traffic. You are traffic.

I want to proffer a different image for the public space of beliefs, one not premised on taking sides: a public discourse in which there will never have been sides. Rather, there will be nuance, idiosyncrasy, creativity, fresh perspectives. Instead of planting flags and shouting, there will be positions that take time to explain and time to understand — a slow belief movement, if you will. In the place of reductive headlines, there will be nuanced positions that have different modes of thought, that create new playing fields, that invent new rules. I imagine a public discourse premised on difference, not opposition.


Essays said...

Doesn't this public space of beliefs not premised on taking sides require a background of violence (police force) to protect it? Would that force of legitimate violence be allowed to form opinions in the same manner?

Thank you,

Daniel Coffeen said...

Hello Brian: Great question. My first response is to say that there is always a policing of public discourse that exceeds the police state or armies. The great violent tools of discursive policing include: reductionism; casual conflations; the accusation of being insane; and such. All discourse is violent in as much as it enforces limits of what can be said and how it can be said. Violence, then, is not a background to discourse; violence is constitutive of all discourse.

As to how a perspective that seeks univocality within the chorus I suggest might exist, well, there must always be that possibility. I always say that rhetoric is the position of positions including the position that refuses the position of positions. I don't think I'd be one to ever advocate for "allowing" something or not.

Did I address your question?

Essays said...

Thank you for discussion. I was thinking about the relation between discursive violence and material violence, broadly speaking.

If I make a distinction between discursive violence (reductionism...) and material violence (bodily, economic), then one can see a calculus involved; for accepting increased discursive violence one can 'earn' a reduction in material (bodily/economic) violence. For example, if I join a union, I have to toe the line (discursive violence), but when it comes to work rates (material violence - economic), and safety (material violence-bodily), I get certain benefits. I wonder how this quid pro quo would change in a world of difference you advance.
Thank you, Brian

Daniel Coffeen said...

These are great questions. But I'm not sure there's such a ready formula — expaansion here is reduction there. In my naive imagination, I picture a public discourse of difference and multiplicity translating into less material violence. In a culture that privileges difference and multiplicity, it figures there'd be less adamant fuckwads who feel a need to bash heads.

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