The View from the Top of the Fence

Yesterday, in support of a blog post by Laura Mathews at Punk Rock Gardens, I tweeted this response: inflexible ideology is always bad. Although Laura’s post was focused on the infighting between different factions of the gardening world, it brought to the surface something that has been simmering in the back of my brain for a while.


I am repeatedly struck by feelings of guilt and shame when I disagree with the consensus of groups with whom I am generally proud to identify. As humans, we have this need for group identification. I’m a progressive. I’m a conservative. I’m a Catholic. I’m an atheist. We define ourselves by our group memberships, and often — when confronted by a decision — look to the principles (dogma?) of these groups for guidance. When a referendum comes up for a vote, we ask ourselves how we should vote as progressives or conservatives, rather than making our decision based on the merits of issue at hand.

There are few things that gain more scorn from this group identification mentality than being a fence-sitter or a relativist. The worst thing one can say is it depends. For ideologues, there is a checklist — sometimes stated, often implied — that guides our decisions. The world is black and white. As a member of this group, you will believe this and act this way.

But there is an inherent danger in living solely on one side of the ideological fence. There’s no flexibility, no room for change and adaptation. Our lives are too nuanced for black and white. There is a spectral decision continuum of not only grey, but infinite colors, from which we can choose. Why would we limit ourselves from the outset to just black and white?

I’m not questioning the need for personal principles. These are those things that provide the magnetism for our personal compass. What I’m increasingly wary of is letting the groups I identify with define my decision-making by default.

I’m ready to climb to the top of the fence and enjoy the view.
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