The Buddha called it the ‘middle path’, the ancient Greeks called it ‘the golden mean’: a way of life and accompanying mindset that avoids extremes – neither self-denial nor self-indulgence leads to fulfilment.
In politics and social issues, the middle path seeks to establish a middle ground between opposite extremes such as, to name just two of many, pacifism versus militarism, and abortion on demand versus a ban on abortion altogether, respectively.
Unfortunately, the middle path is often equated with fence-sitting: not being able to make up one’s mind, or being unwilling to commit oneself to one or another position. It is a stance – or rather, what strikes many as a non-stance – that smacks of intellectual and/or moral weakness. When the chips are down, most people feel that they need to join one or the other opposing camp at the extreme ends of the spectrum. ‘Compromise’ becomes a dirty word associated with ‘caving in’.
The English are by tradition averse to extremism. This goes back a long way. The Common Law instigated by Henry II in the 12th century steered a middle path between overprescriptive legal codes and judges making up the rules on the hop while on eyres (later called circuits). The 13th century Magna Carta and the 17th century Bill of Rights presented middle paths in the sense that they aimed to prevent any overconcentration of power. The Classical Liberalism emerging from the Enlightenment was a truly middle-ground ideology seeking a balance between personal liberty and the constraints imposed thereon by the social order and civic duty. It went down well in England, which was regarded as a haven of liberty by many continental Europeans who took refuge there over several centuries.
But Classical Liberalism was rejected by the English electorate in 1924 when it found itself the meat in the sandwich between Marxist-inspired labouritism and reactionary conservatism. Rightly or wrongly, people considered the moderates to be impotent in the face of the challenges that had arisen following the Great War. On the Continent, many turned to National Socialism as the antidote to the crisis brought about by economic meltdown and the communist threat.
Whereas the middle path seeks to accommodate, extremism seeks to divide. Whether on the left or the right of the ideological spectrum, it exhibits a ‘them versus us’ mentality whereunder ‘anyone not for us is against us’. Moderates as well as opposing extremists become ‘the enemy’.
We have heard repeatedly how Donald Trump ‘divided’ America. Actually, US society has long been a ‘divided’ one. Extremes flourish there – you are either a capitalist in all things including healthcare provision or a socialist (a word they appear to confuse with ‘welfarist’), a racist or an advocate of racial favouritism, a homophobe or an active supporter of same-sex marriage, a creationist or an ‘evolutionist’ (their silly word). Of course there are Americans who represent the middle ground, but their voices are drowned out by the high-decibel rancour emanating from both extremes whatever the controversy.
The US is certainly split down the middle between what they call ‘conservatives’ and ‘liberals’. There are problem issues arising from the way these words are applied, particularly in the mangled English used by most Americans. The term ‘conservative’ is a contextually relative one – a French conservative, a British conservative, a Japanese conservative and a Saudi conservative are on about very different things. Take the role of the monarchy in governance, for instance: the French conservative is a staunch republican, the British one supports a system in which the monarch is head of both church and State, the Japanese conservative regards an emperor as a divine figure above politics, and the Saudi believes in an absolute monarchy within the framework of a theocracy. An American conservative tends to be someone on the religious right (in European terms, the religious far right) who paradoxically promotes the infusion of religion into the apparati of governance while at the same time paying homage to the constitutional separation of church and State. As for ‘liberal’, I capitalise the ‘L’ in ‘[classical] Liberalism’ to distinguish it from the haughty, altogether illiberal totalitarianism of the Politically Correct far left, which is what Americans refer to by the term (don’t start me on their use of the term ‘progressive’!). Semantic quibbles aside, America is certainly ‘divided’ along ideological lines. And they really do fervently hate one another’s guts – the spirit of Voltaire has evaporated with the erosion of the middle ground.
The incident on the 6th of last month when a mob stormed the Capitol, and the very real fears expressed by the intelligence agencies about armed groups planning disruption in all 50 states on the 20th, exemplify the extent to which America has become a land not only of extreme views but of extreme actions in the political domain where the middle path is desperately needed but is being squeezed out by a polarisation process that gives some credence to speculation about the emergence of an American Civil War II. Joe Biden is looked upon by many as a moderate figure who can return American politics to the middle path. I doubt that very much – the country has moved too far down the road of ideological balkanisation.
In continental Europe too, deep societal rifts have been appearing, particularly around the festering issues of uncontrolled immigration and multiculturalism.
The renaissance of the so-called far right draws attention to an important principle: that extremism engenders opposing extremism – what I call Newton’s Third Law (‘For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction’) as applied to human affairs. The extremism of the far left manifests itself in, inter alia, open-door immigration policies and favouring non-native ethnic groups in matters such as educational and employment opportunities (so-called ‘affirmative action’, more accurately referred to as ‘positive discrimination’ in British English); meantimes, entire suburbs of some cities including London and Stockholm have become ghettoised by non-natives – and anyone who voices disapproval is likely to be threatened with punitive action for ‘hate speech’. Little wonder, then, that the far right is on the rise and indeed on the march. In America, there has been a notable increase in the visibility of paramilitary groups such as the Proud Boys and vigilante activity in some troublesome cities; while the Europeans are managing to keep the lid on such social movements – all too reminiscent to them of the rise of the Sturmabteilung (the ‘SA’ or ‘brownshirts’) in 1920s Germany– they may not be able to do so for much longer. Then, it was communist thugs terrorising whole neighbourhoods; now, it’s ‘ethnic’ gangs that the police don’t dare deal with for fear of charges of racism. But if the authorities are unable to ensure the safety of ordinary decent people, support for militant right-wing groups will only grow.
Where does all this leave the middle pathsters? As usual, out in the cold, regarded as weak-kneed, non-commital and undependable non-entities by both warring parties. To a large extent this is our own fault, as we have not done enough to promote ‘middle-pathism’ as a positive philosophy. We have plenty to be positive about. Our ideological roots in the Enlightenment and Classical Liberalism provide us with a positive central paradigm: the liberty of the individual. But we are not what Americans call (here we go again.... sigh) libertarians as, unlike them, we also believe in shared social responsibility – when an American asks me about classical European Liberalism, my pat response is ‘Libertarianism with an active social conscience’.
The middle path needs to be actively promoted and defended. We need to shrug off the image of being spineless fence-sitters who get bullied into sell-out compromises by those at the extremes. Being a middle-pathster does not mean having no firm principles. We have our bottom lines too which we will not surrender to either the extreme left or the extreme right. The political spectrum is best represented not as a straight line but as a circle in which extreme left and extreme right meet. The middle path is diametrically opposed to both – and for much the same reason: their erosion of liberty. It is liberty that defines our bottom line.
New Zealanders, like the English, traditionally abhor extremes. Just like the English, though, the resultant complacency has seen the hijacking of their political system by the far left. There isn’t really a far right to speak of in NZ – yet. The middle path beckons as a viable alternative to the far left’s totalitarianism. That is where sites such as this one come into play. Let’s keep up the good work, fellow middle-pathsters!
Barend Vlaardingerbroek BA, BSc, BEdSt, PGDipLaws, MAppSc, PhD is an associate professor of education at the American University of Beirut and is a regular commentator on social and political issues. Feedback welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org