I can still remember being a child trembling in the church pew as the visiting fire-and-brimstone preacher told the congregation that on moral issues, neutrality is not an option. “You think you can sit on the fence but let me tell you: THE DEVIL OWNS THE FENCE!” he bellowed.
Some 25 years later, in a politics-obsessed culture, some progressives are employing this kind of rhetoric. The cries for forced political engagement—to choose a side—are ever more strident. One popular meme reads:
I want my friends to understand that ‘staying out of politics’ or being ‘sick of politics’ is privilege in action. Your privilege allows you to live a non-political existence. Your wealth, your race, your abilities or gender allows you to live a life in which you likely will not be a target of bigotry, attacks, deportation, or genocide. You don’t want to get political; you don’t want to fight because your life and safety are not at sake…
In other words, it’s “The Devil owns the fence” all over again. The argument is that the decision to not engage politically is in itself an immoral political act. The only difference between the tactics of the terrifying pastor I remember so well and today’s secular political fundamentalists is the addition of the “white privilege” argument. They’re saying that staying neutral is not only cowardly, but also racist.
The only way to avoid this reputation-damaging charge? You guessed it: join them. Their “call to action” is not about encouraging the public to become politically engaged. It’s about encouraging them to become politically engaged in service of the ideology of one side.
Are they right? Are we morally obligated to be politically engaged? The answer depends on the context, but contrary to much of the babble in our social media feeds, there are many compelling reasons to remain neutral on contemporary political questions. Often, remaining neutral is the most ethical position to take. Here are a few such reasons.
1. Lack of Objective Information Available
Most of the public are not subject experts on political matters. Most do not have easy access to scholarly or scientific sources to verify claims. They are forced, however reluctantly, to turn to the filtering device that is the media. Not unfairly, many people today are skeptical of its purported objectivity.
The 2016 election of President Trump may be the definitive marker of the breakdown in public trust in the media. Support for Trump was widely under-reported by members of the mainstream media, many of whom were visibly shocked by the election results, even if most of the American public was not.
According to a 2017 Gallup/Knight Foundation survey, Americans estimate that 80 percent of the news they see on social media and 62 percent of the news they see or hear elsewhere is biased. Given this perception, which may well be true, it is only reasonable to withhold judgement on political matters.
2. Lack of Time to Examine Information
Most people do not have the time to thoroughly examine what little good information is available. This is even more true for those who are physically exhausted after working all day on their feet. Having ample time to devote to political engagement, and the research necessary to be an informed participant in such engagement, is a privilege few possess.
3. Acknowledgment of Reasonable Arguments on Both Sides
It is quite possible to hold a set of views that are not all rigidly doctrinaire. According to Pew Research Center polling from 2017, approximately one-third of Americans hold a roughly equal number of liberal and conservative positions. A significant percentage of the U.S. population is not fiercely partisan. Yet, in a media environment that rewards shrill extremists, these people are almost politically invisible. For the sake of social unity, moderate thinkers should be cultivated, not marginalized.
4. Intellectual Humility
Quite frankly, political involvement is often a display of middle-class and upper-middle-class hubris. Those who choose to become politicians or heavily involved in politics assume they have the requisite knowledge and wisdom to take definitive positions on what are often extremely complicated issues. “I know that I know nothing,” a paraphrase of Socrates, is usually a wiser—and certainly a humbler—position to take.
5. The Right to the ‘Pursuit of Happiness’
This right, of course, is splendidly codified in the Declaration of Independence. One common interpretation of the phrase is that American citizens have the right to live their lives as they see fit if they’re not hurting others.
For some, that may mean devoting themselves to lives of political engagement: attending protests, writing letters to their representatives, and the like. For others, it might mean staying home and spending quality time with family and friends, shunning the choppy seas of politics entirely. Not everyone (thankfully) is inclined to enjoy politics. But they aren’t necessarily less moral than those who are. There are other ways to do good in the world.
The partisans demanding our engagement are right about one thing: the ability to stay out of politics is indeed a privilege. However, it’s not just a privilege belonging to the white and the wealthy. The ability to live one’s life in peace and avoid political conflict is a privilege shared by most of us lucky enough to be born in the late 20th- and early 21st-century Western world.
Immigrants to Western countries are often only too happy to leave political entanglements behind. Chinese immigrants grew up in a totalitarian country where the Communist Party controlled most aspects of their lives. Is it any surprise so many of them avoid politics? In this country, neither outright state mandates nor political expediency forces our children to join the Hitler Youth, Mao’s Red Guard, or the Komsomol. We should be mindful of our freedom to choose to “opt out” of politics. We shouldn’t be ashamed of it.
To be clear, there are political situations so outrageous that it is incumbent on private individuals to take a stand. Jewish citizens in pre-WWII Germany having their rights gradually stripped away comes to mind. But those who believe, for example, that the lack of federal paid parental leave is an attack on women equivalent to the institution of the Nuremberg Laws do not deserve to be taken seriously.
Unfortunately, we live in an age in which such hyperbole is commonplace. Because of this, we must use our reason to decide when a situation is critical—demanding our involvement—and when it is not.
People should not be bullied into choosing a side, especially when it comes from zealots pushing a false sense of urgency. Whether the push for political involvement comes from overt extremists or lighter forms like the pigtailed Swedish schoolgirl, Greta Thunberg, we must preserve the right to neutrality and nuance in our political commitments. We must not mistake the principled decision to stay above the fray as political apathy.
The Devil may own the fence, but my mind belongs to me.