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Centrism isn’t apolitical

Political moderates like to think of themselves as “apolitical.” They argue that, by treating both sides equally, they see the truth in each of them. Supposedly, this lets them steer clear of dogma and recognize that the truth sits “somewhere in the middle.” However, moderates tend to conflate treating ideas equally and treating them as equals. As a result, they consistently adopt positions which are neither correct, nor apolitical.

Giving consideration to all ideas and viewpoints is healthy. Moderates are right: it does lead to the truth. Either you’ll develop a more nuanced conviction in your beliefs, or you’ll realize that they were wrong. The question isn’t whether you should entertain opposing ideas—you should. Rather, the question is how you go about doing that. I say this because ideas aren’t inherently equal, and pretending otherwise is dangerous. For example, anti-vaxxers aren’t as qualified, well researched or knowledgeable as the doctors they argue with. Here, the truth doesn’t lie somewhere in the middle; in the vaccine debate, there’s only one correct side, and it isn’t the anti-vaxxers’. To discard faulty ideas, like the ones of anti-vaxxers, you must have standards by which you evaluate them. 

Believing that both sides are equally correct, as most moderates do, precludes having standards. This is especially noticeable in the debate on climate change. Climate denial is not a legitimate position, and its proponents do not have a leg to stand on. They argue against scientific consensus—even oil companies have known that climate change is real for decades. Treating climate deniers as though they have any point, then, gives them an unjustified advantage. Putting them on an equal level to scientists constitutes picking a side. That is political.

The fact that news networks give climate deniers more screen time than scientists is not “balanced” coverage, then. A truth seeking media would ignore them, just like what they do with anti-vaxxers, flat earthers and other cranks. Instead, they listen to conservative calls for even-handedness. They argue that all ideas, no matter how wrong or immoral, deserve to be heard out. One might think that conservatives reject the idea that some ideas are unequal, but they don’t. In fact, they have a robust set of standards which they apply to their opponents’ arguments.

Take how conservatives dismiss socialist ideas as an example. There are two basic responses: 1) learn economics, and 2) socialism killed millions. Say what you will, both of these slogans hint at reasonable rules for discussion. Asking that someone “learn economics” would suggest that, before you debate an idea, you must know what you’re talking about. It also implies that those who are more qualified should be given more credit than laymen. Calling socialism a murderous ideology suggests that an idea cannot have a hateful premise or conclusion. If your argument assumes that someone should be harmed, or otherwise calls for violence, then it should be dismissed. In short, conservatives do have standards for others’ ideas. By these very metrics, climate deniers should be dismissed. After all, climate denial is an objectively incorrect belief and it’s liable to kill us all. 

When you apply standards like these to any debate, then you realize that the “center” is an arbitrary position, and it’s unlikely to be correct. The fact that a viewpoint dominates doesn’t make it legitimate; people used to think slavery was fine. However, applying any coherent, moral standard to the institution would make you an opponent of it—that’s why there were even abolitionists in Aristotle’s time. These abolitionists, though their beliefs weren’t mainstream, ended up being right. It logically follows, then, that if two viewpoints are popular right now, the true answer doesn’t have to lie between them. If there is a correct opinion, then it can appear anywhere on the spectrum. People who are seeking the truth should follow the example of the abolitionists: develop your own standards of morality, then investigate ideas without concern for what’s popular. That is how you treat ideas fairly. That is intellectual honesty.

In that sense, placing oneself in the center seems lazy at best. It signals an unwillingness to go through the effort of thinking critically about the world. In fact, by assuming that both sides of a debate are equal, moderates declare that they aren’t even prepared to interrogate two viewpoints. Instead, they rely on the assumption that the beliefs of their society must be true, simply because they’re dominant. That is an especially strange position when you recognize that societal beliefs are constantly changing. Unless moderates believe that we have reached moral enlightenment, they’re conceding that the center they’ve chosen will someday be incorrect.

Because of that, it’s clear that moderates also aren’t apolitical, either. If you recognize that the truth isn’t always in the center, then you recognize that the moderate position isn’t a commonsense view. Rather, it’s a political statement. What moderates are claiming is that society’s current form is close to ideal. If they didn’t believe such a thing, then they’d advocate for more than small tweaks. No matter what the status quo is, saying that you’re ok with it is an expression of belief. It requires less action on your part, but it’s a political position nonetheless.

That means that centrism is as benign or malicious as the society it finds itself in—it is never truly neutral, though. What would a moderate have said in, say, apartheid era South Africa? They probably claimed that they understood the flaws of apartheid, but “saw reason” in the argument of its architects. In other words: they were segregationists. History does not remember them as apolitical, rather, they were assenting participants in an evil system. The people who opposed apartheid were the ones who understood that their society wasn’t legitimate by default. By holding up apartheid to their own moral inspection, and recognizing that it was unacceptable, they discovered a truth which moderates cannot. One can only oppose injustice once they stop pretending that it’s normal. 

We now look down on apartheid South Africa. Rightly so. We should be proud to have overcome such a historic evil. However, every generation, without exception, overcame an injustice of their predecessors. That didn’t stop them from perpetuating other horrors. Change came when people were willing to ask themselves difficult questions, and to challenge the idea that their world was the best it could be. 

In 2020, we shouldn’t consider ourselves special; modern society isn’t anywhere near perfect, and its beliefs are far from enlightened. Thinking otherwise is not only silly, it’s arrogant. The problem with moderates is that, implicitly, they do believe that we’ve peaked. How else can one only support mild reform, or believe that the truth must lie in the center of our current Overton window? 

Decades from now, our children will look back on our mistakes, and moderates will be seen as part of the problem. Believing that both sides of an issue are equal invariably privileges the worse side, and that’s why moderates are never remembered fondly. We saw this with apartheid, and we’re seeing it with climate change. If you want to be on the right side of history, then think for yourself—treat every idea equally. Apply scrutiny to them, and discard the ones which can’t hold up to your standards. Once you know that it’s unjust, upholding the status quo makes you part of the problem. Don’t be a centrist. 

Dan Reznichenko is a Trinity first-year. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays. 

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