Today I came across a letter written by Martin Luther King while he was in jail. It criticizes "white moderates."
That got me to thinking about Barry Goldwater's saying about moderation. Interestingly, King and Goldwater seem to have something in common, though their political views were very different.
First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
Moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue.
Now, despite King's words in his letter, he actually did practice moderation in his fight for civil rights. Non-violence was his credo. He spoke strongly, but as far as I know didn't insult or disparage his opponents (by and large; the letter from jail is quite biting).
Most of us, certainly me included, would rather have our political leaders tilt toward moderation and away from extremism. The problem is, and this also is me included, extremism can just feel so good.
When we believe that we're totally right and the other side is totally wrong; when we can't find anything amiss with our position, and nothing correct with what those idiots on the other side want; when our hearts thrill to voices from our political tribe, and we feel disgust at the braying of those on the other side -- there's a fulfilling primal sense of going into battle with flags flying in the name of righteous truth, justice, and our sense of the American way.
Yet this belief, this feeling, this sense, it's dangerous.
What the world needs now, especially our country, is an understanding that people should develop the capacity for responding to perceived injustice, inequity, and unfairness with varying degrees of intensity, depending on the situation. When everything is a Code Red call to arms, and sometimes my Facebook feed seems this way, we're less able to distinguish between a need for moderation and compromise, and a need to lay everything on the table, going all-in, hooray for our side!
During a recent meeting of a monthly Salon discussion group that my wife and I belong to, I made some observations about moderation. Naturally they made sense to me, since I'm me. In part, they went something like this:
When was the last time any of us liberals found some good in what Trump or the Republicans in Congress are doing? Isn't it bothersome that we've gotten so tribalistic, so dismissive of those who hold a markedly different political view, that we're unable to visualize the benefit of finding a moderate common ground somewhere in the middle of extreme views?
For example, probably reducing corporate taxes was a good thing. Sure, the way Congress did it, this will result in more income inequality, but taken by itself, that portion of tax reform seemed to make sense. Yet I find it difficult to admit that the GOP can do anything right or good.
It seems to me that our default attitude should be moderation, taking the best from both sides of an issue, finding middle ground. Hey, this worked for the Buddha, so why not us?
I'm not saying that I'm naturally inclined to do this when it comes to politics. But at least I have some inclination in that direction, even though right now I'm pretty piss-poor at backing up that inclination with action.
If there's an extreme injustice, as was the case with segregation, then extreme measures usually need to be taken against it. However, most of our political disputes, especially at the state and local level, don't fall into that category. Yet often those on either side of an issue act as if they were.
Over on my Church of the Churchless blog I shared eight tweets by Sam Harris about morality. They point to the fact, that, well, facts are a big part, maybe the essential part, of what moderation is all about. This was his final tweet:
8/ So what is morality? What *ought* sentient beings like ourselves do? Understand how the world works (facts), so that we can avoid what sucks (values).
Segregation super-sucked for so many people it was super-obvious that it needed to end. Moderation wasn't a virtue in this instance, since no facts were needed to know that segregation was bad, other than the brute fact of its existence.
Most political issues, though, aren't so clear-cut.
Policies in the areas of taxes, environment, health care, education, housing, defense, land use, and such typically come in shades of gray, rather than black and white. Debates require a moderator. Facts really are the impersonal "moderator" in most political debates.
Because Republicans are in control of Congress and the Presidency, and today's GOP is notoriously adverse to facts, most of the blame for a lack of moderation at the national level falls in their laps. On the local and state level, though, there's more opportunity for facts, and reasoned discussion/debate about the meaning of those facts, to moderate extreme positions on both ends of the political spectrum.
Stephen Colbert said, "Reality has a well-known liberal bias."
Well, the only reason for this is that liberals are more respectful of facts. Which goes a long way toward explaining why they're typically more inclined to compromise, to moderate their positions, than Republicans are.
Unless the facts strongly support a liberal position, in which case they're doing the right thing by being immoderate.