Thursday, October 15, 2009

You don't have to embrace the extreme...but at least learn to live with it.

Extremism occurs on both ends of the political spectrum. On the Left the most radical faction pushes a secular agenda, embracing multiculturalism and moral relativism. The extreme Right possesses a religious fervor (usually Christian) which shapes a world view that is typically resistant to change, quick to judge, and frequently invokes God and faith in the public forum. Not every conservative or liberal is a radical (most are not), yet the extreme positions on both sides often largely define our political debates. The loudest voices with the most passion and the most press coverage generally dominate the news cycle. This is true on both sides of the aisle.
Like it or not, no matter which political party you join or what political philosophy you adopt, you will always carry with you the extra baggage of the extreme element of your group. When I tell people I am conservative, I know that that word conjures up images of “vast right-wing conspiracies” and Bible-thumping Christian fanatics determined to establish an American theocracy. I have learned to accept this caricature of the Right (regardless of its inaccuracies) as my unwelcome companion in political discussions. But I have also learned to value what the extreme Right offers in support of my beliefs, even if I do not partake in their radicalism. Both the far Right and the far Left operate with a clarity of purpose sometimes difficult to discern among moderates. There is no compromise on their core tenets, and they thrive on simplicity of belief. It is through this simplified view of the world that they offer political insight for the rest of us.
The far Right simplifies the world by seeing everything in “black and white” - good and evil. They categorize and label every aspect of society based on a strict moral code of absolutes. A thing is either “good” and godly and righteous, or it is “evil” and demonic. There is no middle ground. Conversely, on the far left there is nothing but middle ground. Everything is “grey.” The Left is, at its core, morally relative and as such recognizes no single, legitimate moral code. Accordingly, there can be no definitive good and evil, no right and wrong. The far Left’s simplified reality rests on a rejection of absolute moral Truth. Truth is relative.
Of course the flaw in these two approaches is not that they are both entirely wrong, but that they each have it only half right. More moderate thinkers from the left and right know that there is both “black and white” as well as “grey.” There is such a thing as absolute good and evil; and then there are times when moral questions are not so easily answered. Real dialogue happens when each side is willing to recognize the validity of both these points of view. Constructive dialogue always happens in the middle, not from the extremes.
Then what purpose do the extremes serve?
I have learned to accept the far Right as my ally because they offer moral grounding, a jumping off point, an ideological foundation. I begin any serious review of an issue by going back to the center of conservative values, back to the simplicity at the heart of it all. There I know that absolute Truth does exist; that there is good and evil, right and wrong; that there is a God and a purpose to life. I know that the grey-ness of the world is a mixture of the black and white Truths that shape my conservative convictions. Knowing these Truths I can step into the grey middle and better defend a particular position or course of action.
As a Catholic parent I see the importance of the Right’s over-simplified world view reflected in the upbringing of my children. My eldest is six years old. He is just beginning to see the grey-ness in the world of morality. He is beginning to understand that some issues are a complex blend of good and evil which must be carefully sorted out before passing judgment on a course of action or deciding the rectitude of any given moral choice. But to get to this point of complex discernment, he first had to be taught that moral absolutes exist as a foundation to shape his moral compass. He had to be grounded in a more radical “right and wrong” - a simplified moral logic, easily digested by a toddler or a preschooler - from which he can now judge the world. He had to be taught the absolute Truths of morality first, so that now he can navigate the uncertain grey-ness of the physical world.
My three-year-old is not at the same level of moral awareness as my six-year-old. For a few more years she must grapple with the “black-and-white” of a simplified morality so that, when she is ready, she too will reach a level of moral maturity and be able to cope with the grey-ness of the world, having first received a grounding in Truth. In a sense, I am parenting my children from radical Right-wingers into moderate conservatives.
Moderate conservatives do not deny that the world is filled with grey-ness. We meet people every day who are a moral mix of black and white – they are kind and loving souls, and yet they can do evil things. We all are capable of sin; even saints are sinners. No one is morally “white” (that is clean, pure and undefiled); and no one is morally “black” (totally corrupted and un-redeemable). As moral agents our actions are often a mixture of good and evil, in our intentions and in their outcome. If I am to send my children out into this world of grey how will they be able to discern good and evil, how are they to know right from wrong? I must first teach them that “black” and “white” exist and that the grey-ness they see is merely a blending of the two. Only then will they make moral sense of the grey-ness because they will know the source from which it is all derived.
On the other hand, if a child begins from a far-left perspective, that there is no right and wrong, that good and evil are relative, that all is grey and Truth is of our own making, then that child is left with only the shades of grey and no hope of sorting out the black-ness and white-ness of morality. They approach life with their own shade of grey, a unique shade, with no concept of the black and white from which it came. Good and Evil are swallowed up in a confused mix. Such a grounding in moral confusion cannot form a basis for right moral judgment.
So the problem of the political extremes is like that of a child learning moral Truth. The extreme Right sees the “black and white” and so has built a foundation for correct moral judgment (however immature this may be). The extreme Left is like an undisciplined child who has never been shown goodness nor scolded for evil. If the debate between these extremes sometimes seems like a shouting match between two three-year-olds, then I think that is an apt description. The radicals of each party are the embarrassing tantrum-throwers in the political families. If we engage ourselves in an active political life, we are bound to be thrown in at some point with one or the other of these groups (fairly or not). We will find ourselves in the same family with one or the other of the political preschoolers. We will look to our right or to our left and see that our allies in a particular cause are one or the other of the political extremes.
I categorize myself as a conservative. I am not “radical” – but I do appreciate the source from which the radical Right derives its passion. I do not mind being grouped with the Right-wingers any more than I mind being the parent of an unruly three-year-old. It is occasionally embarrassing, and I sometimes scold them publically, but they are part of the family, and I see the possibility of molding them into well-developed moral agents. They at least have in place some rudimentary insights into Truth and our divine origins…although I have serious disagreements with some of them theologically and on the correct application of these principles within society.
The far Right-wing does not always understand the reality of the moral grey (or even accept that it exists), but they do protect with zeal the Truth that I share in common with them. I am not a radical right-winger. But I am a conservative who remains in the fold, not in spite of the extreme faction on the right, but precisely because of those extremists. Although they are often self-destructive, closed-minded, and tactless, they understand certain Truths that the morally bankrupt extreme Left does not and cannot because of its own ideological flaws.
If I must be associated with the radical faction of a particular philosophy, then let it be those who see the world as having meaning and purpose and a foundation of Truth. If my political choices carry with them, at least in part, the added weight of the extreme conservative fringe then I can live with that, because I know that the extreme Left offers nothing in its place.

NOTE:
I would like to stress that there are some extreme elements within politics which do not deserve a place at the table. On both sides there are factions that use reprehensible tactics, or vile language, or make unfair accusations and peddle falsehoods. These groups are not the subject of this post.
I would never embrace or even tolerate a group that would blow up an abortion clinic, for instance. Nor would I suggest that liberals ought to embrace or make excuses for groups that set fire to corporate buildings because of their dislike of capitalism.
Instead I would use as an example a pro-life protestor holding a sign showing the dismembered body of an aborted fetus and shouting at women that they are going to hell for getting an abortion. This kind of action, while extreme (and I do reject it) is far less morally reprehensible than any terrorist action or destruction of property. I would never advocate breaking the law or harming someone physically just to make a political point.
Holding a picture of a dismembered fetus is well within a person’s free speech rights as is shouting that someone is going to hell… But it is tactless and infantile. My point would be that at least such a person has the correct moral foundation – abortion is evil; it is a sin; and certainly hell is a very real possibility for someone who traffics in this sin. But only God can make such a determination about one’s soul. And there are better ways to win over converts to your way of thinking than waving around pictures of bloody corpses.
This kind of political extremism is common and often makes the news. Nobody is doing anything illegal or engaging in terrorist plots…they just have misdirected passions and don’t know how to channel them effectively. As I said above: the extremists like this on the Right are at least in the right ball park. Those on the Left are not even close.

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