You argue with a friend and it’s getting heated. You’re feeling confident and they’re getting stubborn and you feel your throat tighten. You go outside of yourself and say wait a second.
Your impulse is to chill out the conversation for the sake of the relationship. Stop the fighting. From the rarefied air of self-reflection, you see what could happen and it isn’t pretty.
You say something simple, like wanting to agree to disagree or maybe we won’t solve this problem this afternoon. Something trite, but effective. it seems like the right thing to do. And it sometimes is. But not always.
Politics isn’t a scale.
For years I’ve argued that we have the wrong approach to politics. We like to pretend that there’s a scale: liberal on the left and conservative on the right. At each end, each pole, is the extremist. And snuggling together in a nice cluster of reasonable and agreeable people in the middle of the line are the centrists.
They go by many names, but the playing field is laid out the same way. Two options and the only difference is intensity of belief. It doesn’t matter that there are some really radical people with very moderate ideas or the diversity of different kinds of liberalism and conservatism found in people around such issues as healthcare, gun ownership, civil rights, criminal justice, and military use. It doesn’t matter, in this frame, what economic theory a person espouses.
This view of politics is at best naive and simplistic. At worst, it diminishes our ability to come to agreement. Even that agreement to truly disagree.
History Reimagined with Centrists
- Accepting Hitler’s right to free speech while disagreeing with his sentiment.
- Seeking a compromise between the killing of African-Americans and the civil rights movement.
- Protesting for a “reasonable amount of wars”.
- Saying “I don’t really care about politics” while being strapped to the guillotine.
This comic reveal centrism’s fatal flaw: that avoiding the boat’s rocking is not a morally superior position. And it is often something we can’t do.
We have to deal with our history.
Historically, civil libertarians have wanted to ask if Hitler’s exercise of free speech ought to be protected. In an absolute way, when speech of an individual is isolated to only them, then yes. But few people in history could claim Hitler’s exercise of free speech was ever the problem. The problem is his free speech restricted others’ speech. His speech killed people.
Like the killing of African-Americans, soldiers and citizens, even the centrist who thinks they can abstain from politics. The person who thinks compromise is always possible and always better than the alternative has never borne out.
Jamelle Bouie explored this idea in a recent series of tweets about the Civil War. War over slavery was inevitable from the beginning and the compromises which papered over the hostility didn’t end it: it ensured its survival.
The exception which proves the rule may be the Elizabethan Compromise. While it didn’t end division, it brought a lasting end to conflict by allowing coexistence. But this is not a centrist position. Its true power is that the compromise was an honest third way. Not a moderating way, but a true alternative option with different ideals and priority.
Elizabeth invited the people to change to a different priority. And then live that out. That isn’t an example of centrism, but a radical transformation of expectation.
Centrism has its own ideological purity code.
In the best way, centrism calls people to come together and compromise. But in its worst way, it seems to see compromise as the essential solution.
Imagine what it was like in England back in World War I. An entire generation of men were sent to war. To walk around town and see no males between 15 and 40 anywhere. Not in shops or restaurants. Everybody’s son or brother or father is gone. And how life had to keep going somehow.
And imagine the churches need to keep going. Now more than ever! And there are so few priests and nobody to send to seminary and nobody in seminary to put into these communities to keep them up.
Imagine the anguish and fear. What are we gonna do?
They put women in leadership.
Women served with honor and dignity in the midst of the world’s greatest horrors. They served because the people needed them. Courageously and with the uncommon vision and decency of the church to change to meet the needs of the time.
But eventually the war ended. Many of the boys and men returned. The seminaries filled back up with these men who survived the horrors. And the women were stripped of their place.
It happened again in World War II. Florence Li Tim-Oi was ordained an Anglican priest in the midst of a priest shortage. She too was stripped of her orders. Orders the church believes given once by God and forever: a permanent change of the person. Apparently irrelevant. Because women can’t be priests. That was just an exception. The horror of the time and all.
Nah, never mind.
Never mind that if it isn’t God’s desire for women to serve then they would not have. Or that holy orders are permanent until suddenly they’re not. Or that things which are only acceptable in extreme situations tend to look acceptable in other situations, too.
It is no more pragmatic to strip these women of their service after they served than it was to raise them up and ordain them in the beginning. But it settled the consciences of those who hated to make the exception in the first place. And their consciences mattered more than these women and those whom they served. Or the consciences of those who celebrated.
And those children who saw mothers, not just fathers, reading and visiting the sick and breaking bread and sharing and praying over the dead.
A whole new world opened up.
One with women leading and serving. One which looked suspiciously like the gospel. How many Marys preached their first Easter sermon that one Sunday?
Their consciences weren’t served when they were driven away. Or these children. Even the obstinate curmudgeon who hated the idea from the beginning was poorly served for getting his way. For being the only one thought about or considered.
The gospel opened the door in the midst of horror and adversity, bringing the people one step closer to the Kin-dom. And the church, at its first chance, slammed it shut.
All those people, silenced.
Like the “apolitical” people in the comic strip taking a baldly political position to be apolitical. To shut up the conversation. In the face of injustice.
None of these images are the exception which proves the rule. They’re the everyday. They use the exceptional to silence the huddled masses seeking freedom. Seeking to live!
Silencing the countless seeking justice. To have what everybody has. But don’t.
Centrism’s flaw isn’t that it’s apolitical. It’s deeply political and polarizing. Some popular pundits seem to believe centrism offers a morally superior position. And yet it can be incredibly blind to the way it so easily tips the scales away from truth under a false neutrality.
Under such watchful eyes, the only ones whose speech is protected are those willing to take speech from others. The only free are those whose freedom is ensured. And the only ones alive in the end are the revolutionaries. For the gallows don’t care how tired of politics you are.