Extreme Centrism

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Warning: If you’re a Republican or Democrat you probably won’t like this essay. If you’re a self-described “centrist” you’ll downright hate it.

On December 13, 2010, hoping to offer a “third way,” a group (ironically) labeling itself the “No Labels” held its inaugural convention in New York City. Call it the 1131328_99750835_road_stock_xchng_royalty_free_300blue-blooded elitists’ Cocktail Party response to the red-blooded Cletus-ts’ Tea Party. Unlike the out-from-nowhere built-from-the-group-up political force of 2010, however, this group appears willing to use the power of publicity to build an organization from the top-down (at least according to the New York Times).

Unfortunately, after featuring an “A” list of political names, the initially favorable publicity fell away when it was discovered the “No Labels” party apparently not only didn’t believe in labels, but it didn’t believe in copyright laws (“No Labels’s T Shirt Looks Mighty Familiar to Brooklyn Artist,” The New York Observer, December 13, 2010) Perhaps being a centrist means never having to come up with an original idea.

Still, the concept has its virtues. Aristotle once warned us to avoid extremes and pursue the moderate road. This makes one wonder: What if you pursue moderation with extreme prejudice? Would this cause Aristotle to overheat in confusion, babbling incoherently with increasing high pitch until finally exploding in a sudden puff of sparks, fire and smoke?

Seeking the middle has its noble advocates. Taken in an economic context, one can view moderation as the classic negotiating tactic of making your first offer the most extreme possible. This creates a position from which you can negotiate. Assuming your opponent adopts the same strategy, you merely split the difference down the middle and agree to compromise.

This works well when using money, but not so well when using other things. For example, let’s say the item subject to negotiation happens to be a babe in swaddling clothes. Who in the right (or left) mind would say “Let’s split the baby down the middle”?

Solomon had a point. In a world of good and evil, black and white cannot be settled with shades of gray. In terms of morality and philosophy, it’s often not a question of two extremes, but of two completely different paths. Arguing which path suits a goal best does not therefore become a matter of compromise, but a matter of rhetoric (another thing which Aristotle seemed to say a lot about).

This isn’t to suggest no situation lends itself to the classic negotiating strategy (and thus to compromise). Some circumstances do merit a give and take. On the other hand, some issues do not. And having that debate – no matter how ugly in the short-term (think WWII, the Cold War or briefs/boxers controversy) – can help improve the overall position of the individual, the community and even mankind in the long-term.

Caveat: This assumes we have interlocutors smart enough to recognize the supremacy of logic; thus, a willingness to concede under the weight of credibly convincing syllogisms. If our nation is not smart enough for this, the answer is not to compromise for sake of compromise, but to become smarter or, in the very least, more creative. Maybe it means turning off those insipid cable TV gabfests. Maybe it means requiring every high schooler and college student to take classes in rhetoric. Maybe it just means electing representatives to do this dirty debating deed and then getting out of their way as they have at it.

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