‘There are two sides to every story’ is one of those statements which, at first glance looks like wisdom, but in practice causes all kinds of problems. Here’s why…
It assumes both sides are equally true. This is the case sometimes, but it’s not always the case. If someone is lying, ignoring the differences between stories in this way allows the liar to get away with whatever they’ve done and leaves the honest person exposed and unsupported.
There are often, perhaps usually more than two sides to any given situation. Often it’s only when we start looking at the other facets of a story that the whole becomes more apparent. The trunk and the tail are both part of the truth that is an elephant, but without seeing the big grey bit in the middle, you aren’t going to understand what you’ve got in the room.
Reducing a story to two sides can be used to give a false sense of validation to one version of truth. This is especially popular in politics where the two options are ‘my way or certain doom’ and too often we don’t even consider that alternatives might exist.
Some things are facts. Climate change is a reality, and the vast majority of scientists confirm that it’s happening and an issue. Allowing unfounded opinions to hold the same weight as facts distorts debates and makes credible that which isn’t. We sometimes make it look like there’s two sides, when really there’s nothing to discuss.
Balance is not always about finding opposites. This is often a media issue where a subject is discussed by finding people who disagree, to argue it out. Our law systems are equally confrontational. Pitting two sides of the story against each other is not a sure fire way of finding the truth. The ability of the journalist, lawyer or commentator to make their side of the story look plausible may have more to do with storytelling skills. That something can be condensed into a simple and plausible narrative does not make it true.
The idea of two sides can be used as an excuse. Somebody acts in a way that looks terrible from the outside, but points out there are two sides to every story and you should hear their version. How far does claiming failed good intention excuse poor action? It’s certainly not a tidy situation.
We’re all cobbling together our own subjective understandings of what’s going on, what it means and what to do about it. We’re all limited by our own perspectives, experiences, capacity for empathy, and ability to understand. None of us will ever see the whole of anything (don’t believe everything The Waterboys tell you!). If anyone tells me there are two sides to a story, my first response is to wonder what it is about the other sides, beyond those two, that they would prefer I did not notice.