Rebecca Solnit, as ever, nails the zeitgeist: this time by skewering “centricism” which smugly pretends to be above politics, while secretly enabling wrong-doers and silencing dissent.
I see a lot of such “both sides”-ing among “polite” Buddhist circles: this refusal to acknowledge that sometimes there is a moral issue at play. That there are facts and lies.
You also see it at play especially when “moderates” agree that something is an issue, but then denounce any actual advocacy as being “too radical” or “not going about it the right way” or “too political.”
So, let us never forget: it was power that made the truth “political” and prevaricating is also “politics.”
It’s a bit ironic to me that a Buddhist monk is lecturing us about the wrongness of the middle way and the rightness of the two extremes in modern Western politics. Exactly when did the middle become the wrong position to take? When did the Buddha become a mascot for political partisanship? Mind you, I’m aware of the alt-right people who have invaded Buddhism, so I’m think of both sides of the coin. It’s really quite rich as a kind of meta-sarcasm that this would be the way Westerners adapt Buddhism to their culture.
Left, right, and center are relative, I suppose. My reading of the linked article was that the political “middle way” has actually been nothing other than a status quo that turns a blind eye to sexism, racism, various kinds of abuse, and embraces and furthers white male privilege to the exclusion of all else.
In the U.K. those kind of issues have always been addressed by those who are either centre-right, centrist or centre-left. For example, it was the centre-right Tories who introduced gay marriage into the U.K. On the whole those on the far right or far left do not get elected in the U.K., usually for good reason. I think to govern properly you need to sometimes be able to go see things from both sides. That obviously becomes harder the further away from the centre you go, in any direction.
I think the point of both the Dhamma, and, in a more worldly way, this analysis of politics is to transcend extremes, rather than just compromise (not too much sensual indulgence, not too much mortification…).
As @Ceisiwr notes, sometimes, when there is an obvious need for change, a party can just “do the right thing”. Obliviously, this happens more commonly during emergencies.
Centrists have unfortunately often been on the wrong side of history. In the USA, in the early 1960’s, neither major party wanted radical reforms to address civil rights. Both parties were wrong. The better approach was considered radical at the time (nonviolent protest and civil disobedience).
The Middle Way doesn’t really imply a compromise between arbitrary political positions. It implies those things conducive to a peaceful path for the ending of suffering.
To look at it from another standpoint, truth is not a compromise between the truth and a lie, and justice is not a compromise between justice and injustice.
But people seem to be missing the point. The article, and Ven’s comment on it, are not criticizing being in the middle. They are criticizing the dogmatic attitude that there is something inherently morally superior about refusing to take sides, the valorizing of the center itself as the posture of virtue without consideration of “the center of what, exactly?”
Imho, this perspective is the result of a misreading of the Middle Way. As others have already pointed out, the teaching is not about uncritically taking the middle position in every situation, such as in the political spectrum. The middle between punching someone and killing them, is maiming them. Surely that’s not what the Buddha taught.
I think a more helpful way of arriving at a good position is to ask oneself, as the Buddha recommends, “Does this lead to the goal? Will this action result in freedom from suffering either in myself or others?” And if so, then that is a position in accordance to the Dhamma.
Over here in Brussels, a political debate between centre, conservative and progressive parties is going on about the removal of a facebook support group (by Zuckerberg himself) for a heavily armed extreme right-wing Belgian army officer on the run, who is threatening a national terrorist attack. The man is hiding somewhere for already one week. After just 4 days, the Facebook group had grown to more than 50,000 people (of only 6 million Flemish Belgians). Should such a support group been deactivated by the state ( instead of by Zuckerberg) or not? Which means, do we allow these people - or not - to express their free opinion, more than often protest voices? The tricky thing is whether you can forbid free opinion when it incites hatred. After all, incitement to hatred is punishable over here, just like incitement to violence. But what is hatred, asked one conservative politician. I hate Hitler and I hate communism. Is this no longer allowed to say so? And what about the hatred that climate activists express towards the major polluters of the earth? Inciting to violence should be punishable, but I agree that what is hatred can be a subjective interpretation, depending on the socio-political position one takes. I advocate free speech but not hatred. But, I advocate free and preferable right speech. As we shouldn’t deprive people of the choice to reflect thoroughly - or not - before acting. I’ll be spending four days in a meditation center this week near the national park where the fugitive officer’s car was recently found. If the man were to appear in the meditation hall, the police will be notified immediately, and hopefully we’ll be able to do so. Compassion is a limited quality. At times, some people seem to confuse compassion with tolerance. Being tolerant towards the intolerable doesn’t work. Showing compassion means as well stopping someone from doing wrong.
Speaking as a political scientist (who happens to practice Buddhism but has more experience as a political scientist), labels such as “left,” right," and “center” are of decreasing relevance in Western democracies these days. The old left-right spectrum which typically refers to the role of government in economic regulation has been rendered somewhat obsolete by the proliferation of post-industrial, post-material, and post-modern issues in the realm of politics.
Perhaps the better way to view political attitudes is not where one falls on a metaphorical set of ideological axes, but rather, according to the intensity of one’s positions on any given issue. What people mean by “moderate” or “centrist” more likely has to do with whether one is only mildly committed to a certain position or if one has an intense attachment to that position (what some people might refer to as “extremist” views).
Honest people can disagree on what is the best solution to any given policy issue. It is much harder to engage in constructive debate with individuals who hold such an intense attachment to a policy that they become incapable of negotiating some compromise which satisfies a large number of people.
It’s worth remembering that this article was written about American politics. In America, the “left” is already much more “right” than the “right” is in most of Western Europe or the UK. For the last several decades, talking about universal health care in America was political suicide, as whoever mentioned it would be labeled a communist. I live in Sweden now, and have an American friend living in Berlin, Germany. We’ve talked about the portrayal of Bernie Sanders in American media and how ridiculous it is when compared to the politics of the countries we live in. Sanders’ “radical” and “extreme” ideas about higher taxation for the rich, universal health care, affordable (or free) higher education are just life as usual here. There’s nothing extreme or radical about it. Within my lifetime, the American left having the gumption to champion universal health care is a recent thing. So you have to keep that in mind if you’re going to compare American politics to the UK’s, for example.
Many think the middle way means a fixed position without tension. In fact the Buddha’s middle way is a dynamic balance between moving opposites, so the balance point is constantly changing and in a state of tension. That’s why in general details cannot be laid down in the suttas because they change with situations. This dynamic equilibrium is maintained by all living organisms and is monitored in humans by mindfulness of the state of mind. Balance is described in the suttas as achieved between the polarities of lack of energy and restlessness, and resulting in mental powers:
“There is the case where the monk Moggallāna develops the base of power endowed with concentration founded on desire & the fabrications of exertion, thinking, ‘This desire of mine will be neither overly sluggish nor overly active, neither inwardly constricted nor outwardly scattered." —SN 51.14
I like the passion of the article and I agree to an extent (not unreservedly though). There is a touch of “who is not for us is against us” about it. There’s a touch of a “forces of light v forces of darkness” framing about it too (a few of the issues are not so black/white but a bit grey also). There’s brief mention of the environment and then nearly all of the issues touched upon are social ones. There’s no mention of economic issues, increasing precariousness in employment etc.
Centricism is, at least in part, a political strategy: craft one’s policy to appeal to the “median voter”. Where such a “centre” will be located, of course, will vary, often widely, from country to country. Though, this is a time of increasing political instability and polarization. This is something that probably goes in long historical cycles. Peter Turchin has produced some very interesting writings and theories in this regard.
In many ways, quality of life and equality in the West, and particularly the US, has been declining since around the late 1970s (the period from the late 1970s to now is some respects mirrors the period from the 1850s to the early twentieth century in the US). Less people are happy with the status quo and the political centre has noticeably shrunk.
I suppose a failing of the centre left in recent decades has been a tendency to focus on social issues and inequalities and not pay much heed to increasing economic inequalities and worsening of quality of life (as evidenced by the social issues primarily focused upon in this article). Centricism can, no doubt, often be a cynical form of pragmatism (a political strategy that often probably works).
Boris Johnson in the UK comes to mind. His shifting and flexible opinions on Brexit seem indicative of such cynicism. Helped by the disarray in the Labour Party, I think he has very successfully appealed to the UK “median voter”. Economically, he has shifted more to the left that Tory PMs normally do (increase in minimum wage, support for the NHS) but is rather more conservative and right-wing on social issues. Seemingly there is where the “median voter” is at (currently the Conservatives surprisingly get more support in opinion polls from working class voters, whereas middle class voters, paradoxically, tend more to vote Labour).
I rather liked Corbyn (had a soft spot too for Tony Benn). I’d say Corbyn was somewhat surprised to be made Labour party leader (was even on the ballot only as a token sop to the left-wing of the party) after only running because the other usual left-wing Labour figures, Diane Abbot etc, couldn’t or wouldn’t run for one reason or other. Nonetheless, he came within a whisker of being prime minister (might well have made it if only for the centrists in the party trying their best to sabotage him). Well, the more “grown up” Blairite wing of the party have their guy in charge now, Starmer. He seems a nice guy but seems cursed by a lack of charisma and he seems a bit of a cypher (no one really knows what he stands for). At least Blair (too much pragmatism v idealism for my liking; had Rupert Murdoch backing him too, which I wouldn’t count as a positive mark) had charisma.
I suppose my main niggle about the article is that I don’t think there is avoiding the need for building consensus and compromise in politics. Most voters are not hugely passionate or particularly interested and wouldn’t be at the extremes. They have to be brought along. Sure, IMO many politicians are cynical pragmatists who will hug to whatever centre they think will get them elected. However, I think many of the best politicians combine both a vision or a plan and the political skills to negotiate and persuade and get them over the line, e.g. some of the best US Presidents like Lincoln or FDR had a vision but were also well prepared to deal in dirty compromises (I guess you could call them canny idealists or pragmatists with a vision/heart). Lincoln after all got assassinated for his efforts (he was trying to balance some vehemently opposed forces). Politicians who combine both sides of this equation do seem to be rather rare though.
I remember when I returned to America after being away for 10 years, I was shocked at how polarized politics had come. Shortly after I got back to the States, the Tea Party shut down the American government by refusing to sign a bill that funded the government. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, but the people around me (I was in Alaska, so they were mostly far to the right) were cheering. They didn’t see anything wrong with a government that claims to be the exemplar of democracy failing to even be able to pay the light bill, as it were, because of petty squabbles. People have such short memories that this kind of behavior seemed normal. Same goes for mass shottings. When I spoke to 20 years olds about it, and told them it didn’t used to happen, they didn’t believe me.
That’s an interesting thought that I think should be thought about a bit more.
There’s an old adage in Confucianism: Be strict with yourself and lenient with others.
It has a basis in a problem of human psychology which has been documented in modern times and labelled the self-serving bias. People have a basic cognitive distortion of seeing the positive in themselves and the negative in others or external circumstances.
When it comes to political philosophies, they become extreme when they refuse to recognize what’s true in what lies outside their intellectual or social circles. The self-serving bias is glorified (as it were) and the reality that different perspectives have correct points is overlooked. There’s a very good reason for this: They exist to create mass movements and require a sense of being part of a conflict to motivate people. You can’t really get the enough energy from positive emotions, so they work to generate negative emotions. Thus, the primary focus is on constructing rationalizations for never ending conflicts for people to internalize. One side must be the only truth and the others heretics, otherwise the mass movement doesn’t maintain social cohesion in the long-term.
The reality that I have noticed is that people generally understand partial versions of what we might call objective truth or reality, but their understanding has many holes and blanks that need to be filled. The more a person thinks about things outside their experience, the more they infer or over-generalize from that partial but true understanding, and then mistaken thinking arises. It’s hard to discern what’s mistaken from what’s true subjectively because the mistakes grow out what is actually true.
On the other hand, it’s easier to recognize what’s mistaken in other people’s thinking when we listen to them. The self-serving bias creates this problem of people focusing on what they understand to be true and not discerning very well what they get wrong and also on what other people obviously get wrong but not on what they get right.
Politically, the result is social fragmentation as people gravitate to others whose perspective closely align with their own and reject people that don’t align with them. In America, the social divide is quite advanced, reaching the point that most elections on the local level are not competitive. Pollsters can confidently predict which party will win in the vast majority of elections. It’s only on the national level and a couple states that there’s high uncertainty because, on the whole, it’s basically a 50/50 split.
I think the correction of the problem of self-serving bias that drives this to consciously focus on discerning what’s mistaken in our own perspectives and focusing on what’s true in other people’s perspective. This requires that we be strict with ourselves and lenient with others. The Confucians may have been terribly patriarchal, but they did get some things right, like how to keep a political system from flying apart.
So, to get back to this word “compromise,” I think people should come to a better understanding of what it really does. A person can feel they are being very principled in rejecting the error of others, but they will be limited to their own partial understanding of what’s true if they aren’t willing to recognize what’s right in the other’s perspectives. On the other hand, if they can instead recognize what’s true in their own and other perspectives, they can learn a larger truth that bridges the gap, develop their ability to recognize their own errors, and (most important in terms of Western politics) make it possible for democratic institutions to function properly.
If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.
And if I dare a quote from my distant youth influences, Ecclesiastes 7:18
It is good to grasp the one and not let go of the other.
It takes an evolved person to truly recognize what’s right in the other’s perspectives. fwiw, I don’t consider myself to be particularly evolved (yet).
 Keep it EBT Radius, like in the guidelines, and like @paul1 does consistently :
I was thinking of a sutta when I typed this but could not locate it at the time. I think it was SN12.14:
These I consider to be ascetics among ascetics and brahmins among brahmins, and these venerable ones, by realizing it for themselves with direct knowledge, in this very life enter and dwell in the goal of asceticism and the goal of brahminhood.
When I read that sutta, it sounds to me like the Buddha was not hung up on labels (e.g. Daoist, Christian, left/right/centrist), rather whether or not people recognized certain (larger) truths. I take this as transcending extremes.