Flat White

On radical centralism

21 July 2020

5:00 AM

21 July 2020

5:00 AM

It’s an interesting point in time when a non-ideological and non-partisan stance becomes radical.

That seems to be the point we find ourselves at as several factors converge. An embittered stridency in the tone and content of international politics from both the Left and Right sides of the agenda. The adrenaline-like amplification and acceleration effect of social media. The increasing tribal-targeting and fact-curating by mass media outlets to protect their market share. An American President who not only reflects these phenomena, but narcissistically and ruthlessly exploits them.

Add in the erosion in some quarters of traditional faith systems and other previously accepted and shared ethical frameworks including definitions of universal human rights, and their replacement with self-designed moralities and ‘critical analysis’. A rapidly changing economic structure where hi-vis workers are literally marked as different from those of us tapping away at our keyboards for our daily bread.

Then, as if all this wasn’t enough, introduce an ill-defined and frightening disease whose precautions force us away from basic human contact and the daily practice of empathy that goes with it, and turns us all into purposeful but alienated ‘boxes on boxes’ via Zoom.

The sum total of these conditions aids us in becoming deaf to other voices – especially those that don’t agree with us – as we scream about our own worldview from a digital distance. If there’s ever any doubt in our minds as to our own righteousness and our opponents’ lack thereof, we just turn up the volume of the shouting through the kind of verbal violence and vitriol that has come to characterise platforms like Twitter.

Confirmation bias and acting out through it is the 21st-century addiction. Like all addictions, it’s both masked from view and it can temporarily soothe what deeply ails, but it’s ultimately hugely self-destructive.

Think of kids in a civil war zone. The bombs and gunfire become part of everyday life. Indeed, there’s the probability that constant and sometimes confected confrontation is becoming the new normal as much as social distancing may also be. A perpetual and perpetuating state of affairs, or rather a failed state of affairs.

And, like some kids in some war zones, who must fight, flee or fear, it seems that for many survival in a harsh world means picking a side or being drafted into a side., Class allegiances, racial categories, gender definitions, preferred pronouns, red MAGA cap, Blue State, woke, deplorable, progressive, alt-right, Black Lives Matter, all lives matter etc – each is similar in that it denotes some subjective message to others of “this is my reality and don’t dare question its legitimacy and supremacy”.

The events after the killing of George Floyd are telling in this regard. On one side, there is a campaign to use this and other instances of police brutality to draw attention to racial divides and injustices. On the other side, there is a counter-campaign to effectively deny any systemic nature to those divides and injustices. Ironically, it seems that both sides are only succeeding in perpetuating those very divides by playing uncompromising, zero-sum politics in their demands, and that any attempt at practical reform in the middle seems stifled.

It’s awful and troubling – because it perpetuates a status quo of divisiveness and sometimes hatred – to watch people on both sides question each other’s moral integrity and motives, and inaccurately generalise and label each other as alternatively ‘culturally Marxist’ or ‘racist’. Salesmen know that you make sales – or change behaviour – through understanding the client and not by trying to mug her/him for their credit card.

In this midst, it’s why centrism and its sensibilities are an increasingly radical position. Centrism stands back from the convenient but stifling brand bashing of contemporary discourse. Perhaps, that’s why it’s increasingly scorned by the extremes.

Not flying a specific flag or not having an active partisan affiliation and loud voice is now somehow contrarian or controversial in its own right. Being of the middle ground is attacked or mocked in different ways as: untrustworthy, wishy-washy, complacent, privileged, ignorant, ill-informed, or amoral.

Even more problematic in a monochromatic context is anyone who dares to dance with duality – who wishes to see things from a multiplicity of perspectives and realities. That’s considered virtually neurotic by some who insist that there can be no grey areas in their self-virtuous, black-and-white world. Those who call for balance are tagged as somehow unhinged.

If there’s one thing that the Left and Right benefit from destroying, it’s not each other. They need each other for self-validation. Two to tango. Like the Cold War of old. Rather, it’s centrist politics and civic behaviour that’s equally problematic for both the warrior groups. “The Centre” is a less well-defined place that draws on broader traditions and not just old tracts and playbooks.

One can see why a centrist outlook is threatening to the old combatants who now wear different uniforms, be it the vicious memes of the Right or the hipster demonstration chic of the Left.

Because they both pretend in some way to explain everything in the economy, politics and society, and because they both need to continually refresh their ranks of adherents, the Left and the Right have to both rely on simple rules and simple formula. Easy ways to interpret issues and guide their attitudes and behaviours. But simple and easy doesn’t simply and easily explain a complex world – which leaves them exposed to the risk of a centrist outlook.

So, if centrism’s critics see it as somehow radical, why not go with the flow and embrace the logic? What would a consciously radical practice of centrist outlook – that aims to bring society together in a positive and respectful civic middle – look like?

Well, it takes hard work, discipline and constant open-mindedness as prerequisites because centrism:

  • truly seeks to listen and reflect a broad cross-section of society at the grass-roots level and not just elite tropes;
  • is open to facts and evidence as they quickly emerge in a fast-moving world;
  • can rely on the best of both pro-market thinking and pro-equity thinking according to the situation;
  • upholds common courtesy, good manners, empathy and the rule of law;
  • isn’t allegiant to any one single political theory;
  • respects political opponents as legitimate in their aspirations if no means, and in no way inherently bad or stupid;
  • seeks to weigh and balance the interests of both the individual and the broader collective;
  • recognises both liberty and mutual obligation as vital to human survival;
  • is open to both rational and emotional factors as both valid and powerful in how we organise ourselves as a society;
  • acknowledges the emergence of haves and have nots in terms of access to water, health services and the internet;
  • adopts decision-making on many factors and not single, all-powerful criterion;
  • accepts conflict as inevitable and compromise as productive;
  • rejects clichés and challenges assumptions that often mask true intent;
  • sees that we are all equally brilliant and flawed, and;
  • recognises that day-to-day interactions are just as important as grand politics.

Centrism has the potential to heal some of what harms us because it’s application takes a certain discipline. It requires us to see the world, its issues and our fellow citizens through the multi-focal lens of past, present and future context, be it technological, historical, political, economic, emotional, and social. By looking more systematically, listening more comprehensively and considering more thoroughly, we get better at the leadership wisdom of discerning what’s valuable and essential beyond the superficial and purely reflexive.

Put more simply, if there’s a tendency in modern society to pull at the edges and thereby fray the social fabric, what can be the harm of trying to hold things together through a more patient and conciliatory approach?

So, be a radical today. Listen to somebody you might disagree with without needing to prove them wrong. Our revolution starts with small steps and genuinely given smiles.

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