Thoughts on Moderation

At the end of my last post, I mentioned that part of RM’s objective is to “model a different way of talking about politics [and religion, culture, etc.]” I also talked a little bit about how including something in our blogroll is not tantamount to endorsing everything it does or says or to applauding its potentially slanted way of perceiving the world (I’m looking at you, Politico).

I think we’ve got enough of a paper trail by now that you should be able to get some sense of the range of topics that we most enjoy discussing and debating. That said, it’s maybe not quite enough of a paper trail for you to trust that we aren’t just shills for a particular ideological perspective that we’re trying to quietly foist on you under the benign guise of “reasonable moderation.” So I thought I’d take a minute to offer some reflections on what I think it means to be moderate, and more specifically on what it means to be a “reasonable moderate.”

Chris already discussed the concept of “rational humility” in one of his earlier posts. Although he was writing about literary criticism rather than politics, his points hold up in other contexts as well. He argued that the role of bloggers such as ourselves should be to

act as companions to their readers rather than enforcers of a set hierarchical order of quality, a gentler Virgil to the purveyor’s Dante in a midst of cultural purgatory. They need to explain why they believe what they do in relatively extensive detail, laying out a clear and vivid case to support their opinions… The most successful media organizations in the future will be the ones that make your life, his life, her life, or their lives better. This utilitarian view is admittedly not all-encompassing, but I adhere to Plato’s belief that the wise man knows he knows nothing.

The piece goes on to consider how criticism can and should be offered in a constructive way, and how tone is just as important as substance when it comes to critiquing the ideas or work of others.

I think we’ve done a decent job so far trying to follow these precepts. To the extent that we’ve touched on any subject that has the potential to be seriously controversial though, we’ve mostly sidestepped the heart of the matter and dealt with questions that might seem, in the grand scheme of things, to be peripheral or even irrelevant. My reactions to the Supreme Court decisions on same-sex marriage focused mainly on legal logic. Chris’ piece on Alain de Botton talked about “new ways that people might come to believe” in the modern era but said nothing about theism or doctrine, focusing instead on the social mechanics of religious institutions. One impression that you might take away from what we’ve published so far is that we have no clear opinions about any of these deeper questions, or at least that we’ve convinced ourselves that to have any opinions about these questions is to cease being “moderate.” This is absolutely not so.

I briefly wrote at a blog called “The Conscience of a Centrist,” but it never really panned out the way I envisioned (mostly because of homework). In some ways I’m happy it didn’t, because not working on it ultimately freed me up to work on RM instead, and RM is better in at least two respects.

Number one, it’s collaborative. What worries me most about blogging is not that people will see what I write or that they’ll disagree with me (that’s what makes it interesting!), but that blogs, if poorly executed, tend to give off a whiff of narcissism. Their mere existence often seems to faintly suggest that their authors have an exaggerated sense of how much their opinions matter and how much other people should care about them. (In the case of Twitter this suggestion is hardly faint, and remains one of the key reasons why I almost exclusively use my account to follow and retweet. I don’t want to be that guy.) At least when it comes to magazines or newspapers or books, the material is vetted and curated by editors who can help to determine which portions others will find most interesting, and which parts can be safely axed.

But RM is a little different, because there are two of us! The focus is on conversation and interaction rather than uninhibited monologues, so the result is (hopefully) that our posts come off less as lectures and more as invitations to join us in thinking about something you might not have considered before. This is not to say that nobody who writes a blog solo is capable of attending to nuance and subtlety, but only that there are stereotypes about bloggers that need to be overcome in creative ways.

Second, the name of the blog has better connotations. Although the words “centrism” and “moderation” are often used interchangeably in popular discourse, it seems to me that there’s an important distinction. “Centrism,” with its implicit reference to a “center,” can mean different things at different times and in different places. The individual health insurance mandate was a “centrist” or even center-right policy when it was devised, but no longer. The mandate is now firmly associated with the left, and demagogued as part of a “government takeover of health care” by its opponents. Does this mean that its defenders, erstwhile centrists, are now wild-eyed radicals? When their political views haven’t shifted one bit?

You see the problem. There is nothing intrinsically noble about asking liberals and conservatives what they believe or support and then declaring that you believe and support something that falls halfway between those positions. Sometimes liberals are right and conservatives are wrong, and sometimes it’s the other way around. As I’ve defined it, centrism constitutes an unwillingness to confront that fact. But doesn’t confronting that fact involve giving up one’s ability to think of one’s self as an even-handed, open-minded, fair-minded person?

I would argue that it doesn’t, and that that’s where moderation comes in. Moderation is an approach, not a particular worldview or slate of political positions. It describes a mode of interaction, a style of engagement. One can take sides on a particular issue, but still be willing to engage respectfully with those who disagree, work to incorporate their concerns in the formation of policy, etc. Although the words “extremist” and “moderate” are generally taken to refer to how closely one’s views hew to the ideological mainstream, they are just as often understood to describe ways of dealing with one’s fellow citizens, coreligionists, or the like. “Extremism” connotes zealotry and close-mindedness; “moderation” connotes thoughtful deliberation and an eagerness to cooperate with others.

Can moderation be unreasonable? I started off by saying that I wanted to explain what I mean by “reasonable moderation,” but you might be wondering by now whether the modifier is ultimately superfluous. When Chris talked about “rational humility,” he argued that bloggers hoping to influence the thinking of others “need to explain why they believe what they do in relatively extensive detail, laying out a clear and vivid case to support their opinions.” This is important: moderation should always be informed by facts and manifested in careful argument. It should not be allowed to devolve into a kind of obsequiousness or an excessive deference to the rhetoric of others and a reticence to criticize when necessary. There is a certain variety of pundit that likes to fantasize about how a golden age of political cooperation could be restored if only our leaders could all learn to be nice to one another. And while encouraging comity is not a bad thing to do, good manners alone are insufficient. The fact is that the divide in our politics is real and serious, and cannot be simply wished away. Even moderates can come to believe unreasonable things.

The question remains: are we intentionally avoiding getting to the heart of controversial issues? Perhaps, but if we are I don’t think it’s because we’re afraid of compromising our status as “reasonable moderates.” Any decision to keep clear of third rails, at least thus far, has been made out of an earnest desire to gain your trust. What would you think if we kicked off this project, this reasonably moderate project, with a post about how gun control is terrible, or how we should legalize all drugs, or how broccoli is objectively the best vegetable?

This is not to say that there’s been any sort of subterfuge involved. We haven’t actively censored ourselves or sanitized our beliefs to make them safe for primetime. We are not secret neo-Nazis. What we have done is try to find fresh angles from which to approach the subjects we write about, with a hope of drawing attention to interesting minutiae that tend to be ignored when those subjects usually come up. Hence the meditations on whether the definition of marriage should be settled in the courts or through referenda, or what sort of administrative shakeups the pope might be planning.

This should not be thought of as the last word on what we’re all about. The tension between the desire – or rather, the imperative – to be “moderate” in dealing with others and the need to stake out and defend clear positions that will ultimately alienate at least some people is one that can never be completely eliminated. But my hope is that RM will do its best to strike the right balance going forward, and that you’ll stick with us even when we don’t see eye-to-eye.

Speaking of last words: Chris offered me the opportunity to make some final remarks in our back-and-forth about Pope Francis and Chris Christie, but I think I’ll let his most recent contribution to the debate be its conclusion, since he seems to have tied up all the loose ends quite nicely. Maybe next time he’ll say something stupid and I’ll have to beat him to a rhetorical pulp, but I just did the whole moderate thing and… I should probably run with that for at least a little while.

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