In praise of standing back

By Jill Segger
May 12, 2018

Responses to the results of last week's local elections offer a cautionary tale about the impulse to rush into comment and justification. The number and extraordinary ingenuity of the ongoing claims, counter-claims and sheer magical thinking has been absurd – by turns comical and dispiriting.

However, this level of elaborately spun flight from the uncertainties of complex and still evolving circumstances is by no means the private territory of politicians. There are a great many reasons why almost all of us will, at some time, fall into a similar temptation.

Our culture does not take kindly to delay in expressing an opinion or to admitting that we may not yet have one. Caution is not exciting; watching and reflection do not play into an impoverished but popular concept of conviction; the urge to hang views in the Twittersphere, on air or in print is a badge of being informed, of being – according to the mores of our own group – far too smart to be taken in by 'the other side'.

Martin Luther's “Hier stehe ich. Ich kann nicht anders” – the iconic statement of principled non-conformity which still has the power to raise goosebumps across 500 years – was not an angry or reflexive riposte in a binary conflict. It was a voice of calm, raised in reasoned defence of the books he had written which pleased neither Pope or Emperor: books which were the outcome of years of evolving thought and struggles with conscience. Whether he was right or wrong, is in so many ways, secondary to the measure of the thing.

The clockspring of our own time is wound differently. Its coil bends to gratification in the moment. The comforts of ‘winning’; of demolishing another’s argument; of shoring up one’s own standing – maybe even of whistling in the dark, because confirmation bias flourishes where there is fear – cannot be denied.

Some confrontation is an inevitable part of dissent. But if it is not well founded in fact and truth, it quickly becomes damaging and futile in its hostilty. One unevidenced claim sparks another and the spiral into insult may occur with frightening speed and consequent further obfuscation. As protagonists dig into their entrenchments, this becomes the territory where ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’ demolish trust and render the conversation meaningless.

To stand back and to admit that one does not yet know is not to opt out of taking a moral stance. It may in itself be a manifestation of morality in pursuit of truth. To declare certainty without regard to nuance, misinformation or sheer confusion, is not a virtuous action. The fence may be a wise place upon which to sit a while when travelling towards the standfast.

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© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.co/quakerpen

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.