When I was seventeen and reading Aristotle for the first time, I remember initially being confused by his idea of virtue as a kind of moderation. Virtue, I thought, should be pursued with passion. A lot of virtue is better than merely a moderate amount. And if presented with a pair of extremes such as courage and cowardice, finding the “mean between the extremes” is not especially praiseworthy.
Quickly I figured out what Aristotle actually meant: that the virtues themselves exist as a right balancing between actions that err either in excess or deficiency. It might not be the best account of the virtues ever, but there are plenty of areas in which this makes sense. Courage can be viewed as the mean between cowardice and rashness; temperance is the mean between prudish self-denial and piggish self-indulgence; humility the mean between arrogance and self-loathing.
Somehow, however, this popular idea has emerged that an Aristotelian “golden mean” means that taking a middle ground is always the better stance. Given two opposing “sides”, the virtuous party chooses neither. And brags about it.
In plenty of disputes, I’m with the virtuous party. Or, rather, I’m just not interested at all. If it’s a small-end-of-the-egg versus a big-end-of-the-egg contest, count me out of the fray. Does this make me necessarily more virtuous, or is it part of a pose of bland sophisticated ennui? Maybe a bit of both.
But not all disputes are like this.
There is no set guarantee that any time two ideas come into conflict, one must automatically look for the middle ground in order to find the truth. If I say “rape is bad” and another person says “rape is fine,” it’s not virtuous to say “rape is sometimes okay.”
Nor is there any guarantee that any time two material groups of individuals come into conflict, they are automatically equally right and wrong, or automatically guaranteed to use the same ploys.
So, in the Civil War, one could say that yes, both sides used similarly violent tactics in war, similarly brutal methods against prisoners of war, but only one side was fighting because it believed a state’s rights extend to a right to enslave, abuse, and sell other human beings. No, both sides did not do it. Both sides were not the same.
Yes, both the Allies and the Axis powers employed actions in war that were heinously unjust, especially in the matter of bombing civilians – but only one side was fighting for an end that was not just. Only one side was committing deliberate, systemic genocide. Both sides were not hauling Jews off to be exploited, tortured, and exterminated.
And even when both sides are similarly violent, there are issues of existing hegemonies to consider. In the French Revolution, for instance, the aristocracy behaved atrociously towards the peasants, and the peasants then behaved atrociously towards the aristocracy. But I can understand why the peasants, downtrodden and starving, unleashed their rage so brutally. I can not understand how the wealthy and powerful would be so utterly without humanity as to treat the lower classes the way they did.
Saying “both sides are the same” and “both sides do it” is typically a lazy fall-back, because it involves massive assumptions made without any regard for the actual facts and statistics. It’s an easy way for people to flaunt a moral and intellectual superiority they only think they possess. Yes, it might sometimes be accurate. It might be accurate in certain respects, though not of others, of a given case. But it is not some kind of guaranteed constant. I think it’s actually fairly rare for both sides ever to be equally weighted. Probably World War I is the best case I can think of, in which both sides were equally, tragically wrong. But in most cases it’s easy at least to see who’s the aggressor.
So why do people do it? Is it just intellectual laziness? Is it just the desire to appear superior, above all the noisy outrage of the side-takers?
It could also be that, for many marginalized peoples, power struggles imply having power in the first place. For those who are radically disenfranchised, often neither side in a struggle adequately acknowledges or recognizes their needs. The quote from Treebeard I alluded to in my most recent piece is relevant here.
But it often seems to be driven, instead, by something more pernicious, even if it masks itself as sophistication. It often seems to be driven by a fear of what happens when we take up our moral responsibility to defend the vulnerable and oppose destruction. Doing this means, often, annoying powerful people. It may even mean losing friends, or dissolving old associations.
When I took a stand recently regarding the cover-ups of sexual assault at the university where I was a student and later a teacher, I lost friends over it. It was unpleasant, and disappointing, but it would have been unconscionable for me to refuse support for victims and truth-tellers. I would have failed them.
When silence is complicity.
There are many times when staying silent, keeping a middle ground, gives tacit support to whichever group is already in power or achieving dominance. In which case, one is not really taking a middle ground at all.
To quote Elie Wiesel:
We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.
I’ve often thought about how easy it is to praise our heroes after the fact. Everyone admires Dr. Martin Luther King now – but how many who now praise him would have abhorred him as “divisive” at the time? How many who today praise Sophie Scholl might, in her day, have told her to use less inflammatory rhetoric, advised her to build bridges with her Nazi neighbors?
What would you say, in 1942, if you had read the leaflets distributed by the White Rose? Would you deplore their divisive rhetoric? What would you say when they advocated sabotage? Would you shake your heads and sigh that “both sides” are so violent, so uncivil?
Fascism is on the rise again. Nazis have marched in our cities. Jews have been brutally murdered at worship. In Brazil, a new president has been elected who openly advocates genocide.
Are you going to take a side?
In every nation in which fascism is rising, we should take to heart these words from the Fourth Leaflet:
If a person cannot even summon the strength to demand his rights, then there is nothing left for him but destruction. We will have deserved to be scattered to all corners of the globe, as dust before the wind, if we do not pull ourselves together in this eleventh hour and finally summon the courage that we have been lacking till now. Do not hide your cowardice under the cloak of cleverness! Because every day that you delay, every day that you do not resist this spawn of hell, your guilt is steadily increasing, like a parabolic curve.
image credit: www.maxpixel.net/Bruges-Belgium-Church-Art-Both-Sides-Sculpture-1540103