When the history of our era is written, there is much that will be said about the failures of traditional, mainstream media organizations. One of the most disappointing is the media’s ritualized exaltation of “balance”, which in practice means giving equal time and attention to both sides of a debate regardless of whether one side’s views are more in agreement with the facts. I wrote about the harmful effects of this ignorant and lazy practice last year, in “The Illusion of Balance“.
There’s an equally pernicious corollary to this which the media also frequently puts on display. This corollary is to believe that when there’s a debate, the actual truth is always somewhere in the middle – as if the correct position on any topic could always be found by taking the average of the two most extreme positions. The media too often acts as if “moderation” and “centrism” are always better than passion and strongly held opinions – as though a person’s being “extremist” is a good reason to reject their views, regardless of whether those views are rational or correct. As Glenn Greenwald puts it in his usual brilliant style:
Not only do they believe in nothing, they think that a Belief in Nothing is a mark of sophistication and wisdom. Those who believe in things too much — who display political passion or who take their convictions and ideals seriously… are either naive or, worse, are the crazy, irrational, loudmouth masses and radicals who disrupt the elevated, measured world of the high-level, dispassionate Beltway sophisticates…. They are interested in, even obsessed with, every aspect of the political process except for deeply held political beliefs — the only part that really matters or that has any real worth.
(A good example of this tendency in a slightly different context is the Guardian’s Mark Vernon, who writes on Comment is Free that we should shun debates between theists and atheists because those debates “forc[e] people to take sides”. Heaven forbid!)
As a counter to this insipid relativism, it can be observed that moderation and compromise are not always the correct course of action. Sometimes, there is a debate and the extremists are right. Consider these examples:
When Great Britain’s colonies in the New World were struggling with the oppression of a distant, dictatorial ruler and a burdensome tax scheme, who was right – the dangerous, zealous extremists who argued that the colonists should rebel completely against King George and create a completely new republic, or the sober, responsible moderates who felt that we should reconcile with the king, accept his divine authority and just ask him nicely to treat us better?
“Perhaps the sentiments contained in the following pages, are not YET sufficiently fashionable to procure them general favour; a long habit of not thinking a thing WRONG, gives it a superficial appearance of being RIGHT, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom.”
—Thomas Paine, Common Sense, an influential 1776 pamphlet arguing that the American colonies should declare independence
When slavery divided the United States and the country was burning on the brink of civil war, who was right – the wild-eyed abolitionist fanatics who thought that slavery should be ended completely and all slaves should be set free, or the cool-headed, wise statesmen who felt that the best compromise was to ensure an equal number of free states and states that permitted the slavery of human beings?
“I am aware that many object to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity? I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I do not wish to think, or to speak, or write, with moderation. No! no! Tell a man whose house is on fire to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen; — but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest — I will not equivocate — I will not excuse — I will not retreat a single inch — AND I WILL BE HEARD.”—William Lloyd Garrison, inaugural editorial in the anti-slavery journal The Liberator, 1 January 1831
When Jim Crow laws and de jure segregation divided American citizens into two classes of people, and people of African descent were fighting for liberty, who was right – the irrational, hysterical partisans like Martin Luther King Jr. who felt that acts of civil disobedience would startle the nation out of its apathy, or the sober, responsible religious leaders who felt that breaking the law, even if done peacefully, was an extreme and irresponsible course of action that would reflect poorly on the entire movement?
“But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.’ Was not Amos an extremist for justice: ‘Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.’ Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: ‘I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.’ Was not Martin Luther an extremist: ‘Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.’ And John Bunyan: ‘I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.’ And Abraham Lincoln: ‘This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.’ And Thomas Jefferson: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…’ So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremist for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?”
—Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail, 16 April 1963
And more recently: When George W. Bush and the Republican Party was advocating preemptive war against Iraq based on the threat of its supposed WMD programs, who was right – the extremist, cut-and-run liberals who said there was no good evidence of such a program and preemptive war was a dangerous, irresponsible policy, or the moderate, mainstream statesmen who advocated full-scale war based on a series of speculations and suppositions, just to be safe?
“While bipartisanship is a worthy goal, and symbols have their value, this resolution sacrifices far too much in the name of symbolism and compromise. As long as this president goes unchecked by Congress, our troops will remain needlessly at risk, and our national security will be compromised. This resolution fails to check the president, or to change his disastrous Iraq policy. It essentially authorizes the failed strategy that the American people rejected in November. For the sake of our troops, and for our national security, Congress should take real, binding steps to challenge the president’s policy and bring our troops out of Iraq.”
—Senator Russ Feingold on an anti-war “compromise” resolution, 2 February 2007