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Sunday, September 22, 2013

Sitting On The Fence

A friend of mine was once attending an evening college campus seminar on some topic like "Living Life to the Fullest." Early on, someone in the audience suddenly remembered that it was the same night as one of the baseball World Series games taking place that year. He went up and told the seminar leader he'd be leaving early and hoped that he would not take it personally.  Minutes later, the speaker had woven the moment into his opening message.

"If you need to leave this auditorium for any reason, go ahead, but for goodness sake, do it with enthusiasm. "Stand up from your seat with gusto," he declared. "Walk up the aisle with conviction in each step. Slam the door behind you. Leave here as if it really meant something." In life, he said, even an exit should be something to behold. Spending precious time sitting on the fence isn't beholding, it's withholding.

I've noticed there are some things, some rather innocuous things in life, that people seem to have strong feelings about, one way or another. Americans, for example, either love or hate black licorice. Same thing with cilantro and anchovies. Like anchovies on your pizza? For most Americans, there is no sitting on the fence when it comes to these foods. Similarly, my Korean friends tell me that in Korea there is no sitting on the fence when it comes to eating sesame leaves (깻잎), pig blood sausage (순대), roasted silk worms (번데기), or dog meat (개고기). You've no doubt heard the rap on Koreans for the now archaic custom of eating dog. One either loves dog meat, or finds the whole concept totally repugnant. Just ask Korean pet activists.

Korean silk worms ready for snacking

 But for the things that really matter in life, sitting on the fence should be   a place that provides little comfort."Sitting on the fence" is an expression used in English to describe one's neutrality, a hesitance to choose between two sides in an argument or a competition, or an inability to decide due to lack of courage. Interestingly, we can get excited about anchovies or eating dogs but often have a harder time taking a stand on meatier issues.
Several examples of not accepting a seat on the fence caught my attention recently. This week the U.S. confronted yet another example of senseless violence--the Naval Yard shootings in Washington D.C. Instead of the usual emotionless press briefing given by hospital executives numbed by the carnage they routinely see, Dr. Janis Orlowski, the Chief Medical Officer at the Med Star Center, took the podium and stepped off the fence stating her views that “there is something evil in our society…there is something wrong here. I’d like you to put my trauma center out of business…This is not America…this is not good.” Many Americans were struck by her courage and candor--her willingness to tell it exactly as she saw it.

We were also reminded of the 50th anniversary of the church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, that tragically took the lives of 4 young girls who, at the time of the bombing, were in the bathroom of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, never one fond of fence sitting, lost his patience with his fellow black Americans. “What murdered these four girls?” he asked. Then, answering his own question, he continued, “The apathy, the complacency of many negroes who sit on their stools of ‘do nothing’ and not engaging in creative protest to get rid of this evil system.”

Dr. Janis Orlowski takes a stand
Dr. Martin Luther King stricken by
the death of 4 girls in Birmingham

Think about it. If we can get riled-up about anchovies, licorice, silk worms, and dog soup (보신탕), surely we can take a stand on more essential matters. Will that be on the level of vanity, a football score, or something more meaningful? Whatever it is that pulls you off the fence, remember to slam the gate on your way out.


  1. Steve - not that I disagree with you about the importance of taking a stand on important issues - but as a lifelong fence-sitter I'd like to stick up for myself a bit!

    The way I see it, if you choose one side of the fence over the other, you do so at the cost of your ability to see both sides. How can you see the other side if that fence is in the way? Perhaps this is what leads to mindless acts of violence like the ones you describe in your post? When people lose sight of what's happening on the side of life they've chosen to oppose, they run the risk of losing sight of the humanity there. Terrorist groups play on this possibility - they create an "us against them" mentality which deliberately removes the other side of the fence from sight - and I've no doubt that whoever was responsible for the murder of those four children was not a person or group given to equanimity either. They were not sitting on the fence.

    Sitting on the fence does not, in my mind, necessarily mean being apathetic. It means having the best view of what's going on around you. I would not go quite so far as to say that you're wrong in suggesting getting off the fence as a solution to some of the world's ills, but I do think that people should take their stand only after they've served their time on the fence-top, carefully observing what's going on on both sides.

    1. Great Peter! You 're certainly not on the fence on this topic.

  2. I thought you might see the contradiction there, Steve! But my opinions on fence sitting have been formed by the process of spending the last 33 years sitting there.

    What worries me about the idea of getting off the fence is that people sometimes feel they must do so because it's considered socially preferable to do so (nobody likes a fence sitter!). Whereas I feel that peoples views, particularly on difficult issues, should be slowly matured and subjected to rigorous thought. So for me, a bandwagon-follower is a far worse thing than a fence sitter.