Mainstreamed Extremes and the Search for Virtue | Jeremy Amin
I have lately observed several ‘mainstream’ positions as extreme in their ideas. While this observation has been somewhat across the board, my focus here will be in the social and political domains.
Before I get into all that, a note. I only began my proper political awakening process a few years ago. I acknowledge that I may be writing here from a position of supreme naïveté or ignorance, and I’m a rank novice at best in these discussions. That said, it seems to me that there has been a ramping up of what I consider to be extreme positions on the ‘right’ and the ‘left.’ Below, I explore, in a somewhat unstructured and non-scholarly fashion, a few of my observations, and some potential remedies I consider plausible for such maladies.
I would currently describe myself as a ‘centrist’. That term is in many circles a four-letter word, and not for no good reason. It could be taken to mean fence sitting in a way that leads to limp cowardice and thus inaction, an inexcusable lack of social character. I use it in a different sense though; I am a centrist in that I do not easily sit in the ‘progressive’ or ‘conservative’ camps. There are probably as many things I agree with contemporary progressives about as I agree with contemporary conservatives about. My stance is as follows: As long as I consider the principle or policy just and appropriate, I am for it. My position on any given issue on any given day is almost always “it depends.” This is a centrism which hopefully adopts the best of what conservatism and progressivism have to offer by way of principles and solutions to the problems and challenges we face.
With those contextualising remarks stated, onto the focus of this piece.
Take any position on a social or political issue and you are bound to find something like a spectrum of ideas and positions relating to or about it. Climate change skeptics and green types, open or closed borders, high vs. low taxation, etc. It seems to me to be safe to assume that for many people the positions taken lie somewhere around the middle of the poles. But there are of course those who, for whatever reason, adopt extreme and preposterous perspectives on issues. You just think ‘come on, how can you believe that?’ regarding their ideas about the topic. Conspiracy theorists immediately come to mind as obvious examples of this. Some perhaps less obvious examples include positions which we hear about frequently by people, for example, in media and in political vocations. Positions for abolishing private property or abolishing the police in their entirety, positions that advocate for absolutely zero borders around countries or, conversely, border principles that would allow for unjust screening & selection processes for international migrants and travellers.
Consider the ‘conservative’ side of the socio-political coin. It seems commonsensical that a conservative would have as their main agenda the ‘conservation’ of the good that we have in the world. This applies to social and cultural norms, scientific frameworks, religious institutions and so on. Given this, why in the world do so many conservatives act skeptically or indifferent or worse when it comes to environmental and ecological issues? You would think that one primary area a conservative would want to conserve would be the literal world he or she lives in. The tendency for the mainstream conservative to place an unwarranted standard of evidence on such issues is prima facie strange but not without explanation. The fact that the ‘liberal’ or ‘progressive’ tends to so forcefully argue for what might be called apocalyptic climate awareness gives the conservative a less than ideal taste of what might be sacrificed to join the legitimate green cause.
Flipping the coin, consider the progressive who otherwise advocates for constructive progress and toleration but who feels compelled to actively and intolerantly tear down anything that smacks of a religious worldview or other ‘outdated’ system of thought or organisation. On its face this is ill informed and dangerous. In order to progress, the progressive needs to have at least some understanding of the good and the useful in the world. And it seems to me that many such ‘outdated’ systems of thought and organisation have at least several parts to them which are good and useful, so much so that the progressive would be well advised to appropriate such good and useful models of what to do for their current and future progressive projects. Why the extreme in outrightly denying the good and the usefulness of such ‘outdated’ systems and ideas? Why talk about the “right side of history” with such a blithe attitude towards the good of yesteryear? The progress sought is undermined by these and similar acts of such a ‘progressive’.
Both of these examples are all too common, and known by many as the pendulum swinging too far in one direction or the other. Blind conservatism, blind progressivism, blind any ‘ism’, when unchecked, would lead to the destruction of civilisation and everything good it contains. Thankfully, we have ways out of these extremes. Education and virtue, to name only two.
I am an advocate of theories of virtue. Following Aristotle, I consider something like the middle position between two extremes to be the ideal. What the middle looks like on any given issue on any given day will almost always vary, but the fact that it is not extreme to the point of excess or deficiency is the point. During a time of peace it would be extreme for me to take arms and storm government buildings. Under a genocidal dictatorship the precise same action would be considered virtuous and not excessive/extreme. The good is found when the right action is done when the context calls for it. When it comes to socio-political ideas and opinions, I think the theory of virtue applies well. The appropriate middle position between extremes is the right position to adopt. What that means for any given individual, family, community, state or nation will probably vary based on a plethora of variables, as many variables as society is complex. A progressive position one year may become a conservative position the next. A correct position under the just rule (or dictatorship) of a party may become an extreme position under the next.
We need models of exactly what virtuous conservatism and virtuous progressivism look like. We need to have socio-cultural movements to disseminate these models in such a way that they become part of the mainstream conversation. Rather than wasting time arguing why a conservative should care about the environment or why a progressive should respect property rights we should be moving beyond such embodied caricatures of thought. These perspectives should already be internalised through a culture of education. There are to my awareness plenty of resources available to many of us to move our positions away from the extremes. Let us utilise them and if they come up short, let’s create resources that will do the job better.