Wanderings – Why taking the high road is overrated

A recent conversation with a peer led to the usual trodden out expression that the subject of our conversation should “take the high road” in a situation. I’ve often wondered about this expression – to take the high road. There are many people – famous and not – who have said it is always better to take the high road. Don’t stay down at the level of those who try to pull you down. Look it up online. Use the Google to search “taking the high road” and founts on wisdom provide not only inspirational quotes, but even some instructions of how to do so. My issue with the advice on which road to take, is it always seems to be given to those who were wronged in some way – the victim.

The simplest example of this comes from school. A bully punches a kid in school. The kid who was bullied is told by adults at school to take the high road. Is it because that is the perceived right thing to do, or because it’s easier for teachers so they don’t have to deal with school yard retribution? I know from my own teen years, the bullying subsided somewhat once I stood my ground and hit back. It took a few years before I was ready to take that action, and not everyone can/has – I was 16 when I did.

There is the Christian-teachings of Jesus which it is written that instead of an eye-for-an-eye, to turn the other cheek. I don’t know about that one. If someone has slapped me on one cheek, I’m not that willing to allow myself to get slapped on the other. My need for self preservation will prompt me to avoid being slapped twice.

Everyone has a breaking point. Should someone who is taunted with racial or homophobic slurs take the high road, or challenge those who are taunting? At what point does taking the high road become the road of weakness. A politician who constantly speaks in falsehoods and publicly lies should be challenged. Taking the high road against that and not challenging that person gives misinformation oxygen in the room. Should a woman being catcalled by men as she passes by ignore them, or tell them where to go?

American writer Mark Twain is often quoted as having said, “It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.” Wise-words, even if they can’t be 100 per cent proven to come from Twain. But keeping one’s mouth shut because what they have to say is foolish is not the same as choosing not to take the high road.

The argument can be made that taking the high road makes that person feel good; that they did not stoop to the level of the person causing issues (see Twain). Having taken the high road on occasion, I agree it can feel good, but not 100 per cent of the time. Taking the high road is also filled with feelings of doubt, anger, and resentment – usually targeted inward rather than projected outward. The high road is often lonely – pointing not to how frequently it’s travelled, rather how it’s an individualized highway – with all travellers in segregated lanes.

In the past, I have chosen at times to take the high road in situations – but it has been because I genuinely wanted to do so. Other times, I have chosen a different road or path with less altitudinal changes as the situation has called for it. Being a person who only says (or writes) what he means, I am okay with the fallout – regardless of what road I take.

I feel that in many stances, encouraging or forcing people to “take the high road” is no different than making two fighting siblings grudgingly apologize to each other. Everyone involved clearly knows that no one wants to be on that road – why force it?

Having travelled many roads at different altitudes, I think Everyone would be better off to encourage people to think before they act; be informed before they open their mouth; and take personal responsibility for what they say or do. If that happens more often, then we’ll all be on the same road – together.