Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash
This article first appeared on Role Reboot and has been republished with permission.
My previous relationship was with a libertarian, and let me tell you: Reason was always the name of the game. Political discussions were all about who could sound the most reasonable, the most balanced, the most amiable to political compromise. We often listened to “politically-independent” podcasts on road trips and even though I found myself nodding along in agreement here or there, I generally raised an eyebrow at hosts who seemed more concerned with worshipping at the altar of moderation for its own sake than with acknowledging the danger of a Trump presidency.
“I wish more people would see that there are two sides to global warming,” my ex said one night over dinner.
“Yeah. I’ve been reading Michael Crichton’s thoughts on the issue. He says that there’s a lot to be skeptical of and I think we should hear people like him out.” (Michael Crichton, beloved author of Jurassic Park, gave a speech in 2003 called “Aliens Cause Global Warming” in which he criticized scientists for being “seduced by the more ancient lures of politics and publicity.”)
I generally avoid talking about my workplace publicly online, but for this piece, it’s relevant. I’ve worked for the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine since 2015. The National Academies is a non-profit, non-partisan institution created under President Lincoln in 1863 with the understanding that the Academy shall, whenever called upon by any department of the Government, investigate, examine, experiment, and report upon any subject of science or art. Our institution takes this role seriously, and has produced numerous reports over the years on topics like cybersecurity, food waste, interdisciplinary education, and of course, climate change.
This is to say that despite barely squeaking out C grades in chemistry and physics myself, I ended up working with experts in a variety of scientific fields. They not only agree that climate change is real – they work furiously across disciplines to make sure that we can minimize its threat.
“Maybe the reason we don’t hear about this ‘other side’ to climate change,” I said, “is because there really isn’t another side.”
“I mean,” my ex shrugged. “That doesn’t seem very open-minded.”
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Moderation sounds good, and it certainly feels good – Who wouldn’t want to be open-minded enough to consider “all sides”? But acting as though every issue has a moral middle ground can be irresponsible. Here are a few ways in which I believe centrism fails, specifically in our current political context.
Centrism often creates false equivalencies.
When I taught multiple sections of English composition each semester, I relied on resources like Gale’s Opposing Viewpoints to show students the different available positions they could take on a topic. But I wonder if these resources, by distilling issues down to a “for” argument and an “against” argument, inadvertently reinforced political polarization and binary thinking while neglecting nuance. I also have to ask myself if framing issues in this way opened the door for false equivalencies.
Some questions, like, “Should safe injection sites for drug users be opened in the United States?” and “Should our state ban plastic bags?” invite myriad research opportunities to support various positions and claims. They are complicated issues with numerous costs and benefits to weigh, and a more centrist viewpoint would probably be valuable in sorting them out. Other questions, like, “Is climate change real?” or “Should all children be vaccinated?” do not lend themselves to multiple positions with equal merit because we already have the answer. Yes, the scientific consensus is that climate change is real and impacted by humans. Yes, the medical consensus is that vaccines are safe, necessary, and do not cause autism.
To handle these issues with centrist gloves (that is to say that “both sides” have value) isn’t just objectively wrong – it’s dangerous. No matter how much you may want to hear Michael Crichton out, failure to believe in climate change will ultimately lead to more flooding, more deadly heat waves, and less soil for growing food. And no matter how much you may want the government not to interfere with your parenting, failure to vaccinate poses an enormous threat to public safety. It is harmful to generate a controversy where there shouldn’t be one.
Centrism ignores the “moving of the needle.”
Ideas and policies that are deemed acceptable to a society fall within something called the Overton Window. Anything outside of this realm is generally dismissed as impossible, outrageous, or a radical departure from the norm.
As the 2016 election drew closer, I began to frame our nation’s two-party system in a less friendly way than elephant vs. donkey. I saw one party flirting with authoritarianism while the other braced itself to defend democracy. My ex, on the contrary, saw my alarm as irrational. His steadfast faith in centrism made him more inclined to excuse Trump’s behavior. This is because the Overton Window has been shifting to the right for several years, making a space for formerly fringe viewpoints to enter the mainstream. Against the backdrop of alt-right marches and daily mass shootings, a new normal takes shape.
As the Overton Window shifts, those of us who stand up to extremism are often put into a bargaining position. Take the recent state-level attacks on abortion rights. As anti-choice laws become crueler and more dangerous (no exceptions for rape or incest), we concentrate our energy on abortion in the case of sexual violence or a health emergency rather than on abortion as a whole. Our desperation to fight the worst attacks on our freedom will, if we are not careful, do the work of extremists for them in moving the needle.
Centrism is not applicable to human rights violations.
The last two and a half years have felt like a lifetime to me. There seems to be a new nightmare every day: transgender members of the military barred from serving openly, state legislatures voting to criminalize abortion, children separated from their parents only to die on our government’s watch. Our nation’s current debate over what constitutes a concentration camppaints a sobering picture of where we are.
Before the election, moderates told us that these human rights violations would never happen. We were being theatrical. Now that our worst fears are coming true, moderates choose to look away. Are they really concentration camps, though?
Almost every self-identified “independent,” “centrist,” or “libertarian” political thinker that I know is white and heterosexual. Most are men. Demographically, this is accurate, and I mention demographics because it is much harder to see systemic persecution when you are not a member of a marginalized group. A lot of political independents prop themselves up on the belief that individual responsibility is the sole cause of success or poverty, that the justice system will “do its thing” and right all wrongs. But those of us who are brown, queer, trans, and/or women know that some institutions and lawmakers actively work against us. Members of dominant cultural groups must be deliberate about learning from others’ experiences if they want to understand inequities in this country. They must not look away.
Abortion bans and health care repeals violate the human rights of American citizens. Camps at the border violate the human rights of refugees who deserve the opportunity to apply for asylum. There is no middle ground when it comes to human rights. You either have them or you don’t, and clinging to a middle that doesn’t exist will ensure that we lose them.