on the dangers of centrism

A fellow student recently complained to me about the "knee-jerk lefty-liberal" worldview of one of her teachers. I don't know why she assumed the professor's worldview was reflexive rather than well considered, but she went on to say, "I try to take a moderate approach to all things. I feel it's very important to be moderate." When I suggested that "moderate" is a relative term, she said she knew that, and that's why she sought out the position.

This strikes me as sad - and dangerous. Political discourse in North America has been marching steadily to the right. Like Michael Moore, I date this to 1980, the dawn of the era of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Views that might have been characterized by mainstream pundits as moderately liberal in 1975 were considered much farther left-of-centre in 1985, still farther left in 1995, and so on, to our present day. A person who wants to be considered politically moderate by the dominant culture has been moving consistently to the right, possibly without even realizing it.

A person striving for the political centre is morally adrift. Her own opinions and views are an empty vessel, waiting for others to fill it, or a colouring book, waiting for people with stronger opinions to pick up the crayons.

On the other hand, a person who understands her core values knows what she believes in, no matter where the majority or the mainstream stands.

The person who values moderation above all else measures the political spectrum, then decides what position represents the centre. The person with strong values and beliefs can hear all sides of the story, and know where she stands, regardless of how that stance is judged by anyone else.

Which leads me to ask, is it centrism this person is after, or conformity? Does she eschew extremism, or does she merely need the comfort of knowing her position will be questioned by the fewest numbers of people?

The problem with centrism is also the problem with its opposite: extremism. Conservatives and right-wing radicals routinely characterize progressive positions as extremist. Yesterday during Question Period, I heard talk of "environmental extremists". These are people who oppose the tar sands, which the speaker represents. National parks in the United States were once closed to certain commercial interests. Now we are told the lives of wild bison must be weighed against the recreational habits of snowmobilers - and banning snowmobile use from national parks, once the norm, is an extremist position. People who oppose mandatory identification cards or warrantless wiretapping are "libertarian extremists". And so on. An angry wmtc commenter once claimed that CNN represented moderate liberal views, and therefore people such as Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow were radical leftists. (A dictionary might be useful there.)

Once upon a time, people who advocated the abolition of slavery were considered extremists. More recently, those trying to dismantle apartheid in South Africa were similarly characterized - by the President of the United States.

The label of "extremism" is a semantic weapon, used by people with a very specific point of view, to advance their own interests in the arena of public opinion. A person who values centrism above all is at the mercy of whoever controls the discourse. If we're afraid of being characterized as extremists, if we fear this somehow taints us - and if that fear outweighs the strength of our own values - then we leave ourselves wide open to manipulation.

The person who fears being labelled an extremist may find herself supporting the unsupportable. As long as she's swaddled comfortably in centrism, she'll be able to sleep at night. In Canada, where conformity may be prized over individuality - and where right-wingers (from any political party) tap into this fear by portraying themselves as centrist - this is dangerous indeed.

As the centre continues to move farther and farther to the right, my own core values are ever more easily labelled extreme. But what of it? You can characterize a viewpoint any way you choose - what matters is the belief itself and what you do with it, not the label.

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