Sitting on the fence

When did you last fill in a feedback questionnaire or respond to a survey? There are various types, and different question formats. These days, straightforward ‘yes or no’ answers are rarely asked for; more often, you have to indicate (on a scale of 1 to 5) the extent to which you agree or disagree with a statement. If in doubt, for me the default option is invariably the one in the middle: ‘neither agree nor disagree’.

In fact, that ‘middle ground’, the place of non-committal, often feels like the safest place. When contentious subjects (like religion or politics) are being discussed, and people at both ends of the spectrum are expressing strongly held views, what else can the average non-expert do? I honestly do not know whether such things as immigration, Scottish independence, and military intervention in Iraq are (or would be) good or bad things; I certainly don’t feel strongly about political issues in general. So I can sit back ‘on the fence’ and listen to other people arguing their hearts out.

The problem with occupying the top of the fence is that it can feel like the moral high ground. While other people are bickering (or worse), the fence-sitters can be serenely uninvolved. But those seats on the fence can be occupied for any length of time only by those who have no actual responsibility for making decisions. Our politicians don’t have that luxury; eventually, one way or another, they have to vote, or act. Juries too can’t be neutral; they have to deliver a verdict of ‘guilty’ or ‘innocent’. In all these situations, ‘don’t know’ isn’t an option.

In fact, in real life (as opposed to opinion polls, forums and surveys), most of the questions we have to deal with are practical ones, and the answers we give will determine what we actually do. So does the ‘don’t know’ option really exist? If you are considering whether or not a potential food (a mushroom perhaps) is safe to eat, for practical purposes ‘don’t know’ will mean ‘no’. And if, for example, you are choosing a school for your child, you have to make a decision, right or wrong; even doing nothing has long-term implications.

The existence of God is often portrayed as a purely theoretical question, and those who prefer to sit on the fence (the ‘agnostics’) can be tempted to feel smugly superior to those of us contending in the arena. And yet is it possible to be truly agnostic, when the implications of answering the question are enormous and the consequences decidedly practical? Jesus once said, “Whoever is not with me is against me.” (Matthew 12:30) He does not offer us a scale of agreement from 1 to 5. Either you think that he is someone worthy of following (and follow him), or you don’t. If you want to say, ‘Don’t know,’ what you actually mean is ‘No’.

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