Friday, August 03, 2018


I fear that I have been accepting an idea that I really should question - the idea that there is this position called "centrism" that is to be taken seriously, and that it makes sense to criticize others for being "centrist".

There are, in fact, a wide variety of views that are called "centrist". I am concerned here with an understanding of the term that has come into politics within the past three years, and seems to be the dominant sense in current mentions.

This villain called a "centrist” apparently believes that, in all matters, the correct answer is always the midpoint between two extremes. So, if the Nazi were to say, “Let’s exterminate all the Jews,” and the anti-Nazi were to say, “Let us exterminate no Jews,” there is somebody out there called the “centrist” that would say, “Let’s exterminate half of the Jews.”

Of course, centrism is an absurd position. It is like saying that, if one person says that the Earth is 10,000 years old, and another says it is 4.5 billion years old, then the correct answer - and, by this, I mean the actual correct answer - is that the earth is 2.255 billion years old - the mid point between the two extremes.

The real world does not work that way.

More importantly, I don't know of anybody who thinks it does. The "centrist" - at least this type of centrist - does not exist.

Aristotle's ethics are the closest I can come to actual centrism. Aristotle held that a virtue sat between two extremes. Courage is between cowardice and foolhardiness. Generosity is between selfishness and complete selflessness. Pride sits between self-loathing and vanity.

However, Aristotle was talking about character traits, not policies. Honestly, I cannot think of a non-question begging virtue that allows for extremism. Somebody can argue that one cannot be an extremist for justice or for moral goodness. However, these ae what I would identify as question-begging virtues. They simply transfer the question of value from the virtue to the concepts of "justice" and "moral goodness". If the centrist position is just and morally good, then extreme justice or extreme moral goodness would, in fact, be centrist.

I frequently see the “centrist” fallacy used in conjunction with what Martin Luther King called the “white moderate” that he identified as potentially the most significant enemy of black equality.

I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice . . .

But the “white moderate” in this context was not a "centrist". The “white moderate” did not dispute the value of ends. The “white moderate” did not claim that the correct position was a middle ground between slavery and equality. The “white moderate’s” disagreement with King was a disagreement over means, not ends.

The "white moderates" in this case were not people who said, "We should adopt a position half-way between slavery and equality." They agreed fully with equality. They disagreed with how best to bring about this state of political equality. They condemned King for choosing the wrong means to a legitimate end.

On this matter, I hold that King had the better argument - as he presented it in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail. But he did not present an argument against centrism. In fact, he defended centrism. He simply said that the center line allowed non-violent protest, and that if this provoked violence on the part of others then those who resorted to violence were to be condemned, not those who defended justice.

King, most certainly, did not say, "Nothing done in defense of black equality can be considered wrong. The ends justify all means, no matter how violent or destructive."

On the question of compromise and negotiation, there are certainly those who compromise when theyCe should not. And there are also people who refuse to compromise when they should. Reasonable people can disagree over where, between the extreme positions of "always submit" and "never compromise" to make the centrist stand. Yet, almost everybody argues that there is a line somewhere between these two extremes that represents the correct attitude. This is not a dispute between centrism and non-centrism with centrism being the villain. This is a dispute between Centrism-A versus Centrism-B. If there is an argument to be made, it is not an argument against centrism.

Centrism does not exist. It is not a legitimate position. If somebody makes an appeal to centrism in an argument, he is creating a straw-man interpretation of his critic's position. When he defeats this straw man (which, certainly, is extremely easy to defeat), he is creating the illusion that he has answered his critic. In fact, he has not even addressed the critic's objection.


Chris said...

If I may nit-pick: your thesis is that "centrism" is an impossible straw-man position, but you also say that King defended "centrism". Maybe the word "centrism" takes multiple meanings (e.g. incrementalism), so there is an equivocation fallacy lurking alongside the straw man.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

The version of centrism being attacked is a straw-man position that nobody that I know of actually holds.

King (and Aristotle) defend a type of centrism, but it is not the type of centrism that the argument against centrism attacks.

I have come to recognize in writing this essay that this is an area where "centrism" has come to have a wide variety of meanings. I incorrectly assumed that my encounters with the term in current political discussion represented a cultural norm. This has caused some confusion. I regret that and recognize a need to be more specific in discussing this issue in the future.