Crude Moderation …

So, Crude wrote a comment on last week’s post about moderates that on reading it I had too much to say to just reply as a comment, so I’m turning it into a post. Crude starts by saying this:

One problem with your view: the historical (and recent) tendency for self-described ‘moderates’ to collapse and change position when the tide turns.

See: the rise and fall of the civil union position. That used to be primo ‘moderate’ territory, the sweet spot between ‘There should be no gay marriage’ and ‘gay marriage now’.

They’re all gone. And quite a number of those people – surprise, surprise – collapsed into full-on ‘gay marriage is a basic human right’ the moment the momentum seemed to be on that side.

One of the most important things to remember about moderates is that they don’t passionately support either position, and so for the most part simply want the issue to go away unless it impacts them personally. So pretty much any position they advocate for is one aimed at doing precisely that, and no more. At the end of the day, what they really want is to find a compromise that at least satisfies both sides enough that they stop talking about the issue, and ideally a way to do that before the issue hits the major conflict stage where, for the most part, one side will win and one side will lose or, at best, a compromise will be forced on them that neither of them want.

So let’s look a civil unions. The initial idea that had some traction was the idea of leaving marriage as it was and adding civil unions that gay couples could get that would give them the marital protections that they were asking for. The problem is that this quickly spawned a counter that had some merit: that this was really “separate but equal”, which had been deemed discriminatory in and of itself, and so couldn’t be used as a compromise against a claim that not allowing same-sex couples to marry was discriminatory. Add in that one benefit of this idea would be to keep certain privileges away from same-sex couples if it wasn’t deemed appropriate for society and the counter of “What you’re really proposing is separate but equal!” really started to look like a good point. And the option for civil unions that avoided this — have the government get out of marriage entirely and only issue civil unions — wasn’t a compromise that anyone would accept. It was too radical a change for moderates. Proponents of same-sex marriage disliked it because it would deny them the social recognition of marriage on an equal plain with traditional marriage, and no matter how much they talked about practical issues it was the social recognition that they were really after. And opponents of same-sex marriage felt that it gave same-sex couples too much practical and social benefits. To be fair, opponents of same-sex marriage were probably more willing to accept that than proponents of same-sex marriage were, because it would at least cause less problems for religious marriage ceremonies. But at the end of the day, the simple form of civil union seemed too discriminatory, and the more complicated form wasn’t supported by anyone.

So, with no compromise forthcoming, it had to go through the normal mechanisms, which is this case meant the legislatures and the courts. And opponents of same-sex marriage lost; the courts and legislatures, in general, ruled that same-sex marriage was a basic right. Given that it went through all of the reasonable channels and that was the conclusion, of course moderates were going to accept that, and reply to the opponents of same-sex marriage that they had pushed the issue and lost, and so it was time to shut up about it and move on to something else. Once the legitimate channels have been forced to weigh in, the issue is over, even if moderates don’t quite agree with the reasoning.

This means that once something is settled, moderates don’t like reopening it, which can be a problem for certain positions. Trying to deny something will always be at a disadvantage when compared to allowing something. Let me us the analogy of a child asking for a toy to demonstrate how.

If a child asks for a toy, and you say “No”, if someone later convinces you that you should have you would then give it to them or give them something equivalent to that later. Also, presumably you had a reason to not give it to them, but that reason depends on that context, so they can ask for it later hoping that the circumstances have changed. Thus, in this case they can just keep asking and asking and asking until they get it, either because they convince you, circumstances actually change, or you just get fed up with their asking and just give it to them to shut them up.

Now, imagine that you give the child the toy. Since they get the toy, so they stop asking for it. If someone comes along later and says that they shouldn’t have had it, unless the consequences are dire — the child will choke on it, for example — you are far more likely to just say “What’s done is done, and we can deal with the negatives later”. Moreover, it would seem to be a bit mean to take the toy away from them while they’re happy that they have it and are happily playing with it. So you’d need to have incredibly good reasons to take that toy away before you’d do it.

Thus, advocating for something will always have an advantage over advocating against something. So, for example, it’s not likely that moderates will support completely overturning Roe vs Wade, but adding in extra restrictions and protections might, in fact, gain some traction with them.

Thus, moderates don’t really have arguments, they argue for compromises, but their main goal is the settle the issue and move on to things that they, at least, think more important.

How good can moderate arguments be when their own advocates are historically known for abandoning them?

They abandon them, though, typically when convinced otherwise or when the compromise is no longer valid. For both sides, accepting the compromise might be the better option than fighting it out, because there is always the possibility that they’ll lose, and if they lose they won’t even get what that compromise would have given them. The moderate argument is that while none of the sides will find it ideal, by the compromise they should at least get enough to satisfy them, and the compromise being rejected is usually seem as intransigence, at which point the only remaining option is the winner-takes-all approach of the legitimate conflict resolution mechanisms. And if it gets this far both sides will lose trust and respect from moderates because they’ll be seen as people who have no interest in compromising and are insisting on having things only their own way, which means that their proposals aren’t likely to take everyone’s interests into account. And on top of that, the side that loses actually lost, meaning that they didn’t get want they wanted and, much of the time, had exactly what they didn’t want to see enacted.

Moderates abandon their arguments when it is clear that they won’t serve their purpose of ending the dispute. That doesn’t mean their proposals weren’t the best options, just that neither side could or were willing to see that until it was too late.

4 Responses to “Crude Moderation …”

  1. Andrew Says:

    I think there is a distinction between principled moderates and compromise moderates. Some “moderates” have a preference for a specific end that happens to not lie at the perceived extremes (and might be something other than a compromise position). But you seem to be focusing on those who either don’t see the issue as a big deal or haven’t really understood the consequences.

    “Neither position will achieve the claimed outcomes” is an engaged position. “Does it really matter?” isn’t

    • verbosestoic Says:

      Sure, there are definitely times when moderates take a principled stance on a view that is a compromise or isn’t an extreme. However, my main point from the first post was that when you had two extreme viewpoints passionately battling it out, most of the time both sides will have a point, and most moderates in those situations will be advocating for a solution that tries to solve, in some way, both issues. So in general my focus was on moderates who don’t have a personal or ideological commitment to any solution, and see the consequences for both sides. Thus, they see why it is a big deal for either side and arguably understand the consequences better than either side does. They just want it resolved.

      I admit that I probably shouldn’t have focused on them wanting to move on to what they consider to be more important matters, but that probably should be read as “Things that impact me more directly”.

  2. Crude Says:

    One of the most important things to remember about moderates is that they don’t passionately support either position, and so for the most part simply want the issue to go away unless it impacts them personally.

    But why should I believe this? Why should I believe that they ‘simply want the issue to go away’, rather than seeing their moderate position (more often than not) as a stepping stone towards the conclusion that they actually want? Or, for that matter, that they’re urging a middle-ground position because they want to please both sides of a polarizing debate?

    Especially since ‘wanting the issue to go away’ isn’t exactly a principled position to take to begin with.

    I also think the claim that “Well, it went through the courts and legislature and that settled it and THAT’S why they all abandoned the supposedly moderate position” fails immediately on two fronts.

    First: because a judicial decision – especially a narrow decision based on absolutely horrific judicial reasoning – isn’t the final arbiter of these matters anyway. Roe v Wade didn’t end the debate over abortion. Various rulings on run rights didn’t end those debates either, even at the SCOTUS level. Trump’s wall going up on the border would not end the debate on immigration even if the last brick was set in place. So saying ‘well, this is now decided once and for all’ is rather arbitrary.

    Second: the gay marriage fight exists elsewhere in the world, and the same people who were civil unions moderates in the US hardly ever take that position when asked about the policies of other nations. And when they do, they often do so with the express acknowledgment that what they’re aiming for is the first step in a long fight, with the end goal of gay marriage being in mind ‘when people are ready’.

    I think the biggest problem here is that you’re treating your ideal moderate – which comes across as a shady milquetoast on its own, to be frank – as the actual moderate. But what about people who fake a moderate position in the hopes of advancing their agenda with concession after concession in one direction? You can’t tell me that people like that do not exist, in abundance.

    • verbosestoic Says:

      I think the biggest problem here is that you’re treating your ideal moderate – which comes across as a shady milquetoast on its own, to be frank – as the actual moderate. But what about people who fake a moderate position in the hopes of advancing their agenda with concession after concession in one direction? You can’t tell me that people like that do not exist, in abundance.

      The issue here, though, is that you are confusing moderate positions for moderates. I’m defending moderates themselves, not those who might advocate for moderate positions in an attempt to start things down the slippery slope. That people like that exist — on all sides — is one of the reasons why I roll my eyes at dismissals of that using the claim of “Slippery Slope Fallacy”; if people point out that this looks like the first step on that slippery slope, history tells us that a number of the people scoffing not only privately agree that it is, but are in fact counting on it.

      However, that doesn’t reflect at all on actual moderates or whether or not the moderate position really is the best compromise, which means that it works out for everyone the best. Scoffing at or attacking moderates for proposing moderate solutions on the off-chance that they don’t really mean it isn’t going to make them want to support your side.

      Also, I don’t see moderate positions as necessarily principled. I see two broad categories of moderates: those who can see the issues that all sides are reacting to, and those who have no personal stake in the matter but keep seeing the dispute crop up. Both want the problem resolved in some way in as convenient a way possible, for different reasons.

      Those who are more passionately attached to their ideology will be more consistent, but will also risk missing good points those not attached to that ideology will make. Those who are less — like moderates and centrists — will do that less often, but risk being wishy-washy and inconsistent.

      First: because a judicial decision – especially a narrow decision based on absolutely horrific judicial reasoning – isn’t the final arbiter of these matters anyway. Roe v Wade didn’t end the debate over abortion. Various rulings on run rights didn’t end those debates either, even at the SCOTUS level. Trump’s wall going up on the border would not end the debate on immigration even if the last brick was set in place. So saying ‘well, this is now decided once and for all’ is rather arbitrary.

      Well, it might not settle the debates, but often a) lots of people think it does (I’m not one of them, although not American) and b) often it will at least seem to settle the broad principle. As I said with respect to the abortion debate, in general I expect you to find little support for overturning it but much more support — or at least tolerance — for adding restrictions to it. And I don’t know what the run rights are, but suspect that a lot of the new debates are over more nuanced positions and situations, and not the broad principle, like with abortion.

      Second: the gay marriage fight exists elsewhere in the world, and the same people who were civil unions moderates in the US hardly ever take that position when asked about the policies of other nations. And when they do, they often do so with the express acknowledgment that what they’re aiming for is the first step in a long fight, with the end goal of gay marriage being in mind ‘when people are ready’.

      First, you seem to be ignoring the idea of them actually being CONVINCED by the arguments. Moderates aren’t always going to take a compromise position if they think one side is right and the other is wrong. And second, many of those with the actual end goal might have been those people who were never moderates in the first place, so it’s not really fair to consider them such.

      Again, my big point was about how moderates are so hated by both sides, and I don’t think they ought to be (and probably ought to be considered a moderate myself, although I’m more of the “I think you’re both idiots!” type [grin]). The best point you’ve made here is that sometimes non-moderates advocate for moderate positions as a way to slide towards their REAL end goal under the radar, making it hard to tell who is really a “principled” moderate and who is simply masquerading as one to further their own agenda. That’s a fair point, but hardly enough to justify attacking moderates AS MODERATES, especially since there are indeed some people who you can really indeed identify as real moderates.

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