Taking Sides in Other People's Fights

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I was walking home from the bars in Boulder, Colorado one night in 2002 when I saw a street fight about to occur. There was a large and boisterous group of guys on one side of the street who looked like they were about to pound the snot out of two guys who were standing in the middle of the street. Everyone was screaming at one another, and the situation looked to me like a mob of drunk hooligans trying to stir up a fight with two random guys making their way home from the bar.

I watched the situation escalate for a minute and then decided that I had better jump in on the side of the two guys who looked like they were about to get pounded. At the instant that I took sides in the fight, punches started to be thrown, and I found myself in a full-fledged brawl in the street.

The fight did not play out as I had anticipated. The two guys I was trying to help, and whom I thought were the victims of this large mob, turned out to be almost expert fighters. The mob of screaming guys turned out to be a just a group of drunk frat boys who didn't really want to fight, and most of whom were screaming "what are you doing?" when punches started flying.

After a few minutes of vigorous fighting the group of frat boys took to their heels, and I was left with the two guys that I thought were victims. After talking with them for less than a minute, however, I could tell that they were the ones who had actually started the fight, and that they had set out to intentionally pick a fight with someone that night.

Thoroughly disgusted with myself, I left them and resumed my walk home.

The next morning I felt extremely guilty for what I had done, even though I had only tried to do what I thought was right at the time. It did not make me feel any better to think that I had acted with the right intentions, however. I felt embarrassed for having gotten involved in such a fight, guilty for having hurt blameless people, and, most of all, just plain stupid for thinking that I could tell who was "right" in a fight that did not involve me at all.

What I came to realize as a result of this shameful episode in my life is that human beings have an innate and almost always stupid desire to take sides in fights. When other people are arguing with each other, shooting at each other, or punching each other, we have an almost pathological desire to turn one side into the "good" side and the other side into the "bad" side. It rarely occurs to people during a conflict to analyze whether the side they are cheering on or joining is really the "good" side. Even more rarely still does it occur to people to think that both sides could be in the wrong. One side of a fight must be "good" to our silly little minds.

There is an obvious reason for this. We all find ourselves in conflicts with other people from time to time, and we are quite naturally predisposed to think that our own side of an argument or a fight is the "good" or "right" one. Few indeed are the people who enter a fight or an argument thinking that their side of the argument is the "bad" or "wrong" one. Even the thugs I had stupidly backed in the street fight thought that they were in the right because smug little frat boys "deserve to get their asses kicked from time to time." Our natural bias toward believing we are in the right predisposes us to view conflicts involving other people through the same black-white filter.

This natural tendency would be less of a problem for us if all fights and arguments between people were simple and clear-cut. If there was always an obvious "good guy" and "bad guy" in every fight or argument, we could easily take sides and fight for good (although we would still have to question whether it is a good thing to expand conflicts to involve more people).

The problem is that conflicts and arguments between people are almost always more nuanced and complicated than they initially appear. Some fights involve groups of people that are fighting for a just cause but are using immoral means to achieve it. Some fights involve groups of people that have impeccable intentions but who are actually fighting against the values they claim to support. Some fights even involve two groups of people that are both "wrong" or "bad," such as the fight between the mass murderer Hitler and the mass murderer Stalin. Our natural inclination to think that one side of these types of fights is "good" or "right" will necessarily get us into moral hot water.

The antidote to this natural inclination is just to think a little bit before we join fights or arguments on one side or another. When real fighting and killing is involved between people we don't even know, we should obviously just keep out of it altogether. Our chances of picking the "right" side of such a fight — if there even is a "right" side — are extremely small, and the moral hazard of accidentally backing people whose actions we deplore is extremely high. It is not our moral responsibility to look into every fight around the country or the world, try to pick a side that looks "right," and pick up a rifle to start killing people. Staying out of it keeps the casualties lower than they otherwise would be if every nosy person in the world were arming himself to pitch in with the killing. No one benefits by having armed conflicts expanded and more people killed or maimed, and we are protected from irrevocably staining our hands with the blood of people we don't even know.

We are rarely tempted as individuals to try to involve ourselves in conflicts between groups of people we don't know, however, and it is rare for us to be walking down the streets and witness a street fight about to occur. Instead, we are usually tempted to get involved in conflicts far removed from us by politicians who try to convince us that one group of people in the world is "good" and another group of people is "evil." The need for caution and skepticism is even greater when other people are trying to convince us to bloody our hands — especially when lying politicians are the ones trying to convince us.

The moral problem for us is all the more acute since people in other countries are not all the same. Some of the "good guys" favored by politicians can and often do turn out to be genocidal lunatics, fanatical racists, and even maniacal terrorists. Some of the "bad guys" condemned by politicians can turn out in retrospect to have been simply misunderstood or mistranslated, or even peace lovers. Worse still, the politicians who are agitating to get us involved in conflicts are often operating behind the scenes in ways that complicate the situation at best, or are inherently wrong at worst. If it is almost impossible to know if anyone in a street fight is "right," how much harder is it to judge the nature of people thousands of miles away that you will never meet, and that may be completely misrepresented by politicians? The answer is that it is almost impossible to judge them or their conflicts.

None of this is going to change anytime soon. All that we can do as morally responsible people is to think a little bit. Recognize that there is rarely a "good guy" to root for or arm in a fight you know nothing about six thousand miles away. Recognize that you can irrevocably stain your hands with blood if you unthinking back a group of people who turn out to do unconscionable things. Most importantly, recognize that you don't need to take sides in fights that don't directly involve you.

Your conscience will thank you for minding your business.

Mark R. Crovelli [send him mail] writes from Denver, Colorado.

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