“The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.” – Proverbs 18:17
I listened to my friend recounting the failures of someone he didn’t know was also my friend. I wanted to hold up my hand, to interject that his account of the facts was wrong, but I held back. I wanted to hear the whole account being presented by “the other side.” When he was done, all I said was, “There’s another side to that.”
There’s always another side. In a sense, simply remembering that principle is the safest way to remain grounded. The other side, the other version, may turn out to be flimsy and self-serving, but at least hearing it will better confirm the first version. Your perception will be more spherical, rather than one-dimensional.
In one of my high school history classes, we spent almost an entire quarter focused on something called document based questions, or DBQs. The only thing I remember was the teacher harping on our need to critically examine the agenda and perspective of the author. The point was to remember this proverb. Remember you’re hearing one side.
In a postmodern world, an emphasis on multiple perspectives is used as a way of relativizing truth, or giving preference to those who have the right identity credentials. That’s not what this proverb is saying. There is truth, but finding it isn’t as quick and easy as we like to believe. This proverb advises withholding judgment, if only partially, until you hear more. When you can’t hear more, due to limitations of time, space, or access, it will serve you well to bear in mind that you’ve only heard one side.
Our challenge, in a universe of digital perspectives, is not a quantity of sources, but allowing both sides their day in court. The prosecution should get to cross-examine the witnesses for the defense, and vice-versa. But in our court of opinions, most of the time we’re lucky if we hear from one qualified lawyer on either side, let alone multiple witnesses, or the other side.
The discipline of reserving judgment doesn’t come naturally. It’s part of our innate desire to assume the place of the only One who does see the whole picture all of the time, which is God.
The most important place to apply this wisdom is to start with yourself. At the risk of getting overly meta, am I aware that there’s another side on me? Do I have the humility to know all the things I don’t know? In one sense, I know me better than anyone else. But in another sense, there is nowhere I am more biased and prejudiced about the outcome, and therefore less able to judge rightly. There is nowhere I am less willing to hear the other side.
Fortunately, God gives us other people. He intends for us to live in community. Most importantly, he gives us His Word. The Bible is that unbiased third person perspective that we can always count on to give us reliable witness about the world and about ourselves. God examines our case with perfect judgment and justice. He shows us our shortcomings, but doesn’t leave it there. He provides our vindication in his Son.