By Oswald Sobrino, J.D.; M.A. (Econ.); M.A. (Theo.); M.L. (Master of Latin), doctoral student, University of Florida.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Moderation is Grace Under Pressure

I recall hearing a conservative, multimillionaire talk-radio "performer" continually mocking political moderates as those who stand for nothing, who are just indecisive, spineless, and useless.

That line of mockery makes sense for him since the cash flow for conservative talk radio is in direct proportion to the amount of over-the-top rhetoric provided to the audience. Many audiences have a natural taste for extreme rhetoric, a taste related to a general liking for vulgar, outrageous behavior and speech in books, movies, videos, and social media.

But it is easy to be immoderate. It really takes little courage to be so. Once you adopt a take-no-prisoners ideological posture in politics or religion, your intellectual life is easy: you have all the answers, the old reliable tropes trip off your tongue with ease and without thought.

What is harder and takes more courage is to let the facts determine your response. Letting the facts in means taking time to observe and collect facts, both the kind you can read about and the kind that comes only from human experience and interaction.

Facts are very difficult and challenging things. They usually do not conveniently fit ideological agenda. Borrowing from 20th century philosophy, I recommend a phenomenological approach: bracket your preconceptions and focus on the facts first and foremost. Only after doing that, should we start exploring solutions. This approach is supremely fruitful in our personal lives and can also be very fruitful in our social and political discussions. The best way to approach reality is inductively, not deductively from unthinking assumptions.

We also have to be careful to know ourselves, as the ancient Delphic oracle said. Our political conservatism, for example, may be rooted in great personal insecurity about our personal identity. Our political liberalism may also be rooted in visceral personal reactions based on resentment or, even, ironically, on a sense of elitist grandiosity. Those visceral, emotional stances shape a lot of what is passed off on the surface as rational discussion and analysis. Both the right and the left thrive on plenty of personal anger.

Another major inducement to immoderation is the drive to reject the good because it is not perfect. If you reject the good because of the unattainably perfect, you will often end up doing nothing at all for no one at all. The moderate knows how to save what he can. I recall the wisdom of an elderly, African-American councilwoman (Fannie M. Lewis) in a major Midwest city when she was attacked for supporting school vouchers: you "save who you can." That approach doesn't mean giving up on others--but it also means not refusing to help those whom we can indeed help now.

The answer to personal insecurity is not to create a right wing world of neat pigeonholes. The answer to injustice is not to overthrow all traditional customs and taboos. A friend I like recently mentioned that she would never again have a child without being married but made clear that she was motivated by practical, not ethical, reasons. I simply noted that the ethical is often rooted in the practical that has been validated over centuries of human experience.

So, be moderate: look for facts first then take a stand. That is the braver option because it requires a personality comfortable with a period of ambiguity as the facts emerge. Hemingway once observed that courage was grace under pressure. Moderation is grace--being able to suspend rash judgment--under the pressure of events until the moment is ripe. The true moderate is more courageous than an ideologue of either the right or the left. The true moderate can stand on his own two feet without an ideological crutch--as long as it takes to get it right.

(The image of "Know thyself" in Greek is in the public domain.)