There is a word that stands out among the English language’s many epithets and execrations. A word unparalleled in its ability to induce cringes. A word you just don’t say. The C word.
I am talking, of course, about centrism.
Americans have begun to view centrism as a dirty word. To the left, it means an unacceptable tolerance for bigotry, hierarchy and injustice. To the right, it means a willingness to entertain pernicious ideas that threaten social stability and traditional values. In an era of hashtag campaigns and shock jock radio hosts, close-mindedness is rapidly becoming a defining feature of modern politics. Those who dissent from the party line are silenced; those who compromise are branded as traitors. Tendentious media outlets like Fox News, MSNBC and the National Review make it easy to cocoon oneself in echo chambers, and echo chambers breed dogmatism.
One would think that the smartest students in the world would be wary of such totalizing ideologies. Yet Yalies, more than any demographic I’ve encountered, thrive on absolutism, falling head over heels to assert grandiose conjectures about human nature and human values. Columnists accuse the Yale administration of practicing eugenics; wannabe pundits wonder on Facebook whether Bernie Sanders is too conservative; within the Yale Political Union, a certain right-leaning party pontificates about human greatness and proudly bills itself as a “cult” (seriously, they actually do this). Rather than prizing nuance and critical thinking, Yale students have an unhealthy habit of cultivating extremism. Far from impugning dogmatism, they often embrace it.
But if victimhood culture makes you “stupid and lazy,” as Isaac Cohen ’16 recently put it (“Against victimhood,” Sept. 10), dogma culture makes you stupid, lazy and dangerous. Considering the extraordinary complexities of economics, history and philosophy, it is little wonder that all-or-nothing claims usually turn out to be wrong. One need only look at the carnage of the French Revolution or the failure of trickle-down economics to see how unflinching confidence in a moral order or an empirical theory often has terrible consequences.
Because they substitute worship for logic, dogmas never persuade and always seduce. Thus, in an intellectual milieu that privileges unquestioning acceptance of high-minded moral precepts, it becomes impossible to resolve political disputes with reason. Pundits can only settle these disputes with a Machiavellian war of the wills, in which the loudest, most persistent demagogues prevail.
My recommendation is not that we should strive to be squarely in the middle on every issue. That would itself be a form of dogmatism, an unfounded conviction that neither side can ever be more correct than the other. Rather, I am arguing for a centrist disposition, understood as a deep distrust of those who purport to have completely figured out the workings of the world — and of anyone who claims that his interlocutors are bigots or terrorists.
Being skeptical of extreme positions guards against solipsism and pushes us toward truth — even if the truth turns out to heavily favor one side over the other. The fact that so few leaders adopt a middle-of-the-road stance is all the more reason to approve of it. After all, as liberals like myself will be the first to tell you, most people have been wrong about most things since the dawn of time.
Some rejoin: “There is no middle ground on rape. There is no middle ground on slavery. You want us to challenge our deepest convictions, but some beliefs are just too important to be questioned.”
And you know what? Questioning bedrock moral precepts is dangerous. Sometimes, those who adopt a centrist outlook will, upon sincere reflection, get things woefully wrong, and a world in which people were unsure about the morality of rape or slavery would be scary indeed.
In a different time, however, when powerful men treated women like property, when politicians insisted that the Great Depression would solve itself if Americans would just suck it up, sureness stood in the way of progress. Pragmatists often insist that mobilization demands moral clarity. Yet what this reply blissfully ignores is that any dogma — Rightism, Leftism, Clintonism — ends up in a coin toss: When you believe unthinkingly, the bulwark of reason cannot stop you from living out a prolonged and pernicious fantasy. You’ve traded accuracy for certainty.
The point of questioning extremes is not intellectual gymnastics; it is the pursuit of truth. Rejecting dogmas means taking seriously the (absurd) possibility that social inequalities do not matter, that the impoverished are solely to blame for their poverty. But it also means that we will not leave the most important questions of our day to chance. If we are so convinced that ideas have consequences, we sure as hell better try to settle on the right ideas.
Centrism is not a cuss word. We would do well to err on the side of gradation, not gospel.
Aaron Sibarium is a sophomore in Timothy Dwight College. His column runs on Tuesdays. Contact him at aaron.sibarium@yale.