Moderates are vilified, even in mainstream political discussions, for contributing to any number of social ills, simply by touting principles such as open-mindedness and civil discourse. Too many see important issues as involving only one side. They take the unhelpful (and logically fallacious) view that unless you’re fully supporting a cause, you are undermining the cause. Just this week, my signing up for an email list that advocates for immigrants’ rights directed me to a fundraiser denouncing moderates for their willingness to “listen to both sides.” Two other links sent to me by friends this week – one on the hate crime charges against the man who yelled at a woman for wearing a T-shirt depicting the Puerto Rican flag, and one on the accusations against author Junot Diaz – are good opportunities to reflect on how ever-vanishing moderates can help save our political discourse and culture.
Although I believe that some moral issues don’t have much room for moral equivalence, those who see most issues that way are adding to the intolerance of our culture, not remedying it. Family separation is, to me, intolerable; racial bigotry is perhaps humanity’s greatest social ill; and sexual assault and harassment are finally getting the attention they deserve. But there are open issues in immigration, the intersection of antidiscrimination laws with free speech, and the blurring of important lines in the #metoo movement that deserve our attention. We cannot and do not talk about those issues openly (or rationally), because those most deeply committed to either side skew the dialog, caricature their political opponents, and don’t present their actual views in a transparent way. Worse still, without exposure to moderates, political extremists often end up employing the tactics of their opponents, ensuring a vicious cycle of political pathology.
To enter this discussion, I want to start with an unfortunate fact about people who have escaped what is perhaps the most horrific regime on the planet, North Korea. These asylees share horror stories, but the most memorable ones often turn out to contain serious lies, which the escapee did not think are material, but that seem quite material and certainly damaging to credibility. The author of Escape from Camp 14, for example, has admitted to fabricating even the camp at which he spent most of his life. Do North Korean escapees deserve asylum? Yes. No question. But because they feel they have to lie and embellish to bring attention to their causes, it’s actually difficult to know how bad North Korea really is. A documentary called The Propaganda Game chronicles how some of what we think is true about the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea resembles our side’s version of propaganda, because of North Korea’s secrecy and repression, but also because we can’t trust our information from those who get out.
If even our relationship to North Korea could benefit from some circumspect skeptics pointing out weaknesses in what is generally the right view (that North Korea is evil), imagine the loss of factual information and logical consistency through cross-examination that occurs when we exclude moderates from other conversations. For example, as heinous as this man’s treatment of a woman wearing a T shirt depicting the Puerto Rican flag was, we need to consider countervailing free speech concerns in the firing the police officer for not intervening sooner, or charging the man with a felony hate crime. The woman in the video said she felt “uncomfortable,” but there is no right against feeling discomfort – the right that exists is the one to express yourself. If the police officer intervened too soon, he would have impermissibly chilled protected expression.
Much of the behavior in the video is pure speech, although at some point, perhaps the woman felt reasonably threatened that she would experience imminent bodily harm (I’m not sure; the man didn’t seem violent, just horrible and annoying). Because the man was asked to back away several times, and a fighting words exception might apply, there is likely criminal conduct here — but a felony hate crimes charge seems extreme, given the speech elements at issue. Those among us, like this man, who engage in largely valueless, truly objectionable speech, maintain the outer boundaries against the government’s intervention, preventing the government from coming after those of us who say other controversial and unpleasant things that may have more value. The moderate, who understands the harm caused by this racist tirade but has perspective on the free speech issues as well, might come to the socially and philosophically optimal solution.
Further, as laudable as the #metoo movement is, its proponents need to confront the blurring of lines between actual assault and obnoxious speech. Their approach of putting all behavior on a spectrum instead of drawing meaningful lines has led to the labeling of misogyny against people who simply express different viewpoints. This article about celebrated and revolutionary author Junot Diaz addresses some of these points – including the unsettling account of a woman who accused Junot Diaz of misogyny and bullying for his manner of speaking to her, but refused to relent, even after a taped version of the conversation belying her portrayal came to light.
Unfortunately, many of the movement’s proponents have become so hardened in their positions that they feel no sympathy even for those who are falsely accused of sexual assault – as if those innocent men deserve to pay for the centuries where sexual assault was unrecognized. That sort of thinking comes from not letting moderates, willing to hear both sides, into the discussion. Without exposure to the moderates, many display the logical fallacy of believing that because sexual assault is serious and unaddressed that there isn’t a serious and unaddressed issue on the other side, of drunk-drunk sex being considered rape or of overcharging. Without exposure to moderates, people begin to employ the hated tactics of their enemies, against their enemies. Without exposure to moderates, even academics believe that calling on white men in a classroom only as a last resort, is an appropriate pedagogical strategy; that it equalizes opportunities instead of explicitly enshrining discrimination into an academic setting. Even a view that is almost impossible to argue against — that we should give equal opportunities for marginalized voices in the classroom — can become corrupted and hypocritical without tempering by the moderates.
The Trump administration’s policy of separating families was almost unspeakably wrong, in conception and in execution. That is slowly resolving (not fast enough due to incompetence). But there are open areas where moderates can help bridge discussions among extremists unwilling to recognize the valid points or concerns of the other side. If many of the asylum seekers are economic migrants, what role should the United States play in allowing them to enter and gain citizenship?
Advocates of the asylees and left-leaning politicians do not (and sometimes cannot, due to legal obligations) acknowledge the potential for asylum seekers to lie or embellish the truth, perhaps because they think it is not relevant — the migrants deserve an opportunity here anyway, and those here illegally deserve the ability to stay. I have a lot of sympathy for that position, but if people don’t acknowledge this potential, we can’t get the real facts out about the situation.
By only portraying the strong points in their position, non-moderates often put us in a Prisoner’s Dilemma, and we all end up worse off. It’s like I teach my students about oral argument; you can’t avoid the weak point in your argument, because that’s the thing stopping the judges from siding with you. You have to confront it head on. Otherwise, what we see is extremists on both sides of the immigration issue unable to convince each other, because they cannot even appreciate what the other is saying.
For so many issues, the terms of the debate are clouded and murky. In immigration, perhaps this is because the extreme on one side cannot admit its racism, and the extreme on the other side cannot admit that what it truly wants is for basically everyone who is not a criminal to enter with minimal scrutiny. In #metoo, the debate is skewed often because people are afraid to distress victims or don’t want to anger those rightfully outraged, but not receptive to being challenged in their views. Those who try to champion free speech in a principled way are often unfairly accused of being motivated by political bias.
Although passionate activism is an effective way to enact social change, stable social change requires persuasion and reflection. Allow the moderates in your life to challenge you, and maybe you’ll even convince them (they’re pretty open minded).
[Edit: Click here for a nice discussion on Twitter about whether I have unfairly conflated being politically extreme with being intolerant of opposing views.]