I used to have a lot of stress whenever I would notice two of my friends didn’t get along. I’d start wondering which of them I should be supporting, what each of them would think when/if they saw me retweeting/reblogging or talking to the other, stuff like that.
I’d see people about the internet get in these huge blow-ups around this kind of thing, and when I was younger I was certainly friends with people who would actively divide any community in which they entered into sides labeled “with me” and “against me”. Without putting it into words, I had internalized the notion that this is a thing that happens, that it’s part of the nature of friendship.
I recently came to a stunning realization that changed how I see the world and my place in it, though: I’m not friends with anyone who thinks this way. I actually have friends—good friends, very good friends—who have bent over backwards to avoid even the appearance of telling me who I can be friends with, who have kept their grievances against other people quiet around me out of deference for my friendship.
And the thing is, there have been cases where learning about the way one person I call friend treated other people (sometimes but not always other people I called friend) did change how I felt about that person to the point that it cooled or ended the friendship. But that’s me making the free choice about how my time and energy and affection are spent, not someone leaning on me to make me pick a side.
At WisCon this year, I spoke on a panel geared at “social justice newbies” about curbing the desire to pick a side and saddle up and ride when you see a conflict. Which is not to say don’t have principles or don’t stand by them, it’s simply to say: resist the temptation to reduce a situation to a battle between sides. I wasn’t thinking of this at all in terms of interpersonal relationships, but it’s there, too. Just because two people appear to be in opposition doesn’t mean it’s a battle and it doesn’t mean they need an army. They might just be two friends who have a difference of opinion or a lot of feelings or even a friend who wronged a friend and who needs to make it right… but in that last case, what probably needs to happen first is for them to back away and get out of a defensive head space and the last thing they need is for someone to come along and join in just when it’s all dying down.
Or they might be enemies. They might have a deep philosophical difference that can’t be bridged. One or both of them might have wronged the other so badly they can’t possibly get along.
But if they’re not asking you to take sides, they probably don’t want you to and they certainly don’t need you to.
Nothing here against people who do ask for support when they’re having difficulty with another individual. Nothing here against people who point out that when you prioritize making someone’s abuser or attacker feel welcome in a shared/public space, you make them unwelcome and the space unsafe. Nothing here at all against the idea of making a stand or being choosy about with whom you associate based on how they treat others.
But, man… letting go of the idea that the world is made up of sides and the only way to interact with a situation is to pick one is just so terribly freeing.