John Donne’s observation that people are not isolated entities—“No man is an island”—is not quite a truism, because there are indeed solitaries, anchorites and society-shunning misanthropes among us; but it is nearly so, because it captures the fact that as essentially social animals we need our connections with others, our friendships and our exchanges of affection and dependency.
This is what explains the phenomenon of taking sides. You might be watching a sporting event in which you have no particular interest regarding who wins, and yet soon find yourself preferring one side to the other. It is hard to stay aloof in any division of opinion, any quarrel or conflict. Sometimes one can think, “a plague on both your houses,” but that is a relatively rare state of disinterest. We like to belong, even vicariously.
This group thinking was no doubt of evolutionary advantage to our earliest forebears, given that clubbing together against a tiger or gang of marauding strangers has obvious survival value. In more recent times the natural inclination to get caught up in group feeling has had less constructive outcomes. The madness of crowds, their manipulability by demagogues, the collective blood-lust of lynch-mobs, are frightening examples of how something monstrous still lurks below the individual level of consciousness, making people do as one of a mob what one would never dream of doing on one’s own.
Some would hotly deny that supporting a football club or the national team has anything to do with the hysteria of a mass rally at Nuremberg. The good-natured singing on the stands, the sense of affinity with thousands of like-minded folk wearing the same-coloured scarves, is of course a thing to be celebrated: it is a paradigm of the harmony of togetherness, at least on one side of the ground. The point is that it is not just in very different circumstances, in bad places and times, that the same community of sentiment can go horribly wrong: it used regularly to go horribly wrong on those self-same stands.
John F Kennedy famously said that hell’s hottest depths are kept for those who stay neutral when the moral stakes are high. He is surely right, for some kinds of moral stakes; he is referencing the idea that not taking sides against the perpetrators of evil is to be complicit in their evil.
On the other hand—why, someone once asked, were we given two hands if we weren’t to make use of the fact?—there are plenty of cases where impartiality, objectivity, disinterestedness (not uninterestedness: this is not a pedantic but a vital distinction) are key to what makes a civilisation civilised. The administration of justice; scientific exploration; education; adjudication of competing interests in the daily life of commerce and trade; fairness in the allocation of resources and social goods—in all these cases bias distorts and causes harm. The very meaning of cooperation is that all parties are on the same side, rather than splitting into opposed sides.
There is an unhappy feature of side-taking which relates to what happens when couples split up. You are friendly with a couple; they part; it too often proves difficult to remain friends with both parties independently. This does not always have to do with thinking one of them is in the wrong in some way, though obviously if one was your friend beforehand and the other was a brute, your natural sympathies take over. But in such cases taking sides happens unconsciously, and not infrequently with regret. How much better, when there is no palpable fault in the case, to be on any friend’s side whatever.
A striking example of taking sides in this way is EM Forster’s remark, in his Two Cheers for Democracy, written in the tense early period of the Second World War, that if he was forced to choose between betraying his country or his friends, he would betray his country. People brought up in the palmy days when Latin was a compulsory school subject and who knew about Horatio and Mucius Scaevola would blanch at that; you take sides with patriotism, those examples teach us, no matter what. Forster’s lesson might often be a better one.
There are some sides it is always worth being on. By definition they are oppositional sides. The side of scepticism, of generosity and tolerance in social attitudes, of social justice in political affairs, of the bullied against the bullies, of peace against war—these are the sides one should always take, even if it costs. It goes without saying that in other aspects of life, the fine judgment we all have to be capable of making is: when to take sides and when not? That is what it is to be wise.