the moderate way

There is an old argument on the left that being a moderate is the same as being complacent with the established norms of an oppressive system. Often times the Martin Luther King quote is brought out to lend credence to this claim:

” the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate”

Martin Luther King had a point — in his day, there were many white “moderates” — in that traditional, middle of the road sense — who simply were unwilling to go the extra mile to help African Americans gain the political freedoms they were fighting for. It was the white moderate who did, often times, hold back progress.

They accepted the established norms as safe, and were willing to see merit in both sides, even when one side clearly had the better argument. But I will seek to put forward that being a moderate is more a state of mind and less about sitting perfectly in the middle between two poles. Anyone who, in my mind, is willing to change their opinion in light of a better argument and who is, on the whole, more interested in acting decent and noble to his/her fellow citizen is, at least in spirit, a moderate (whether they sit on the left or the right). Moderates are realistic and pragmatic. They are more interested in persuasion tactics than antagonistic ones. They seek fundamental change, but not revolutionary disorder. They poo poo the faux revolutionaries. They thumb their noses at the academics who spout nonsense and who, in their unending bafflegap seek to confuse rather than to clarify.

They are a moderate in that they are willing to admit they got it wrong — that their current position out on the far extreme of a certain wing was simply a mistake, and that they best be a little closer to something more reasonable. Or perhaps even on the total opposite wing! That doesn’t mean they flip their entire worldview, it’s is an issue by issue matter. Worldviews flip overtime, and only as necessary and when the accumulation of the arguments call for it. They are careful and well read. They understand the nuance of the world. They appreciate its beautiful complexity and mystery and wonder. They know that it’s possible that they are wrong because the odds are that they are (it’s astronomically unlikely every opinion one holds is the correct opinion, given the number of opinions, time to read them all, and limits of the human brain).

Here I would differentiate between being a moderate in spirit, an extremist in spirit, and complacent. There are folks who, in spirit, harbor the extremist mindset, and they are unwilling to read differing points of view, and unwilling to ever change their minds. Moderates in spirit, on the other hand, might agree with the extremist in spirit on occasion, but they aren’t willing to stay there if the argument eventually falls flat, or when the idea in theory turns out to be a disaster in practice.

Complacent people are the ones who sit in the middle and never change, straddling the line of two poles in an attempt to hedge their bets, to never get it wrong, and to be always able to claim the right side of history when they are old. These people are the problem that Martin Luther King identified, and are as much of a concern as anyone who is permanently fixed on the poles. They are the ones who would, if the next Pol Pot were to rise, would be among the first to fall into line. But just enough into line, mind you, that if there ever were a safe exit from his grip, they could sneak back over to the other side with hardly a scratch on their body, and be quickly able to claim their mantle on the right side of history without having broken a sweat. They are wishy washy bunch. They are dogmatic in their zeal to keep up appearances. Perhaps they are more alert to the changing winds of society more than any other group, since their whole schitck rides on total and complete immersion into the norms of the day. They are weak. And i have nothing to do with them.

Do people change their minds?

“Oh, but Jason”, you say, “are not moderates but a niche group? Do not they harbor but the proper genes, the fortunate upbringing, the correct disposition? Are not they the product of certain forces beyond their control, as are extremists, as are complacent people? After all, you yourself argue that all traits are heritable, no?”

To you I say: Yes, all traits are heritable. People are, to some extent, attracted to their positions because they were, to some degree, “born that way”. But they are not determined, in the “can never change” sort of determined (in the free will or not free will, the course they are on is necessarily the course they will stay sort of way). To me there is nothing more commendable than the person who, in spite of the way they turned out, in spite of the overwhelming influence of emotion on their position, still do their best to allow a little moderate framework to influence them. Maybe that person will never be the perfect moderate, but they are good enough, and they are the ones who change society more than anyone else. They are the ones willing to move an inch, even if it’s incredibly hard for them to do so, and in spite of everything in their body telling them to stick their ground, to take the safe path — because they have caught a wisp of the reason and rationality that is not bound by our circumstances or our genes, and can influence anyone of any predilection, if they so desire to let it.

It is these people that I seek most to influence. It is these people that I seek most to bring over to the moderate side. I don’t expect them to be perfect moderates. Just good enough moderates. Because that is how change happens — when enough people become willing enough, society shifts and things progress. Peaceful, and most importantly, effective revolutions are forged in this way. This is the path to real, lasting change.

So join me, my friends of all persuasions, on the moderate side, and let’s change society a little bit. Let’s make things a little better. Let’s generate measurable, forward progress. Let’s step away from the bluster and the hype, and that doggedly annoying “narrative”, and make things happen in the right way. The moderate way.