All Hail the Centrists
It's time to stop dunking on moderates
It’s a growing trend in America and elsewhere. Those who refuse to toe the extremist line are labeled a chosen pejorative, or even worse, a “Centrist.” There are now entire internet forums dedicated to mocking and hating Centrists and Moderates. But instead of dehumanizing the rational middle, these are the folks we ought to be listening to.
The Nature of Knowledge
Aristotle once said, the more you know, the more you come to understand what you don’t know. We might envision knowledge as a balloon, as one accumulates knowledge, the balloon inflates. As it inflates, the surface area grows, expanding the frontiers of the unknown. As a consequence, the more one knows, the more one recognizes how much one doesn’t know.
We all cannot be experts on every topic, so humans have developed belief models or mental heuristics that help us understand and describe the world in simpler terms. Some belief models are pre-packaged by others, such as capitalism, socialism, libertarianism…etc. This includes religious beliefs as well.
Oversimplification and Extremism
There is a saying about models, “all models are wrong, but some are useful.” Models boil the complex nature of the world down to such raw simplicity that they no longer accurately capture the nuances and caveats of the real world. There is no such thing as a capitalist country, for example, or a socialist one, for that matter. Both are theoretical constructs, models that are useful but oversimplified representations of reality.
When someone is unwilling to do the necessary knowledge accumulation required to move past a simplistic understanding of their chosen belief model, they may become dogmatic and absolutist in those beliefs. The reason is related to the Dunning-Kruger effect, where people with limited competence on subjects tend to have overconfidence in their knowledge because they don’t yet know enough to understand the scope of their own fallibility.
In other words, their “balloon” is barely inflated, they know not the limits of their knowledge, leading to extreme overconfidence. When someone says, for example, “socialism doesn’t work” or “capitalism is evil,” they are making sweeping absolutist unnuanced statements: a key trait of extremists.
Like Yin and Yang, the Moderate Left and Moderate Right are necessary compliments of one another, not opposites. Even though Yin and Yang are black and white, they each contain an element of the other, signifying that neither side can be fully absolute.
What separates moderates from extremists is the recognition of fallibility. Moderates may lean in one political direction or another, but what’s key is that they recognize and understand the limits of their own knowledge. They also see the benefit of engaging with those who disagree with them as an opportunity to learn and improve the breadth of their own understanding. This is crucial to a functioning democracy, but also increasingly absent from modern political discourse.
The Horseshoe Effect
Unlike moderates, extremists’ unwillingness to listen to those who disagree with them, makes them dangerous. Absolutist overconfidence in a chosen belief model gives rise to the Horseshoe Effect. The Horseshoe Effect holds that the more radical extremists are, the more alike they become, even if they don’t share the same beliefs. The political spectrum, between Left and Right, curves back in on itself.
Stalin and Hitler, for example, represented opposite ends of political ideology. Yet the outcome of their rule was broadly similar. They promised a utopian vision, and those who did not share that vision, were arrested, killed, or sent to labor camps. Meanwhile, any information that did that did not conform to official ideology was banned or censored.
The horseshoe theory plays out everywhere. American radical Evangelicals, who denounce the teaching of Evolution in public schools, should be horrified to learn that the Communist Soviet Union also banned Darwin’s Theory of Evolution because they felt it ran counter to their beliefs. The beliefs may differ, but the radical urge to censor and block is the same.
The Silent Majority
The problem today is that while Moderates make up the majority, the system systematically neglects them. These are individuals who represent reason, not blind ideological extremism. And yet, these are the very people we don’t listen to. On the contrary, we even chastise, criticize, and ridicule them.
Knowing their own fallibility, Moderates tend to be less firm in their convictions and appear less confident. No one votes for a politician who tells the truth, they vote for people who confidently reaffirm their own biases. Further, politicians don’t covet the Moderate vote because moderate voters are unmotivated. Lacking extreme passion and conviction, they are less likely to vote in primaries.
The media ignores them as well. Moderates don’t garner attention because they don’t shock you. They bore you with detailed analysis and nuanced debate. Such is not suited for a population with an attention span of 140 characters or an evening news soundbite.
Progress cannot come from the extremes. Extremists are fervent in their foolishness and will happily pave the road to hell with their “good” intentions. Rather, it is the timid moderates that hold the keys to reasoned solutions and human progress.