Thinking Without a Bannister

In politics and religion, especially, moderates are in high demand, and understandably so. The demand for moderates reflects growing impatience with polarization, extremism, and vacuous partisan rancor. But perhaps these calls for moderation are misguided, or, at best, incomplete.

To be clear, I have no interest in defending extremism, political or otherwise. But having said that, we immediately hit on part of the problem as I see it. While there are some obvious cases of broad agreement about what constitutes extremism–beheadings, say–it seems pretty clear that, in the more prosaic realms of everyday life, one person’s extremism may very well be another’s principled stand. In such cases, genuine debate and deliberation should follow. But if the way of the moderate is valued as an end in itself, then debate and deliberation may very well be undermined.

I use the phrase “the way of the moderate” in order to avoid using the word moderation. The reason for this is that moderation, to my mind anyway, suggests something a bit different than what I have in view here in talking about the hankering for moderates. Moderation, for instance, may be associated with Aristotle’s approach to virtue, which I rather appreciate.

But moderation in that sense is not really what I have in mind here. I may agree with Aristotle, for instance, that courage is the mean between cowardice on the one hand and foolhardiness on the other. But I’m not sure that such a methodology, which may work rather well in helping us understand the virtues, can be usefully transferred into other realms of life. To be more specific, I do not think that you can approach, to put it quaintly, matters of truth in that fashion, at least not as a rule.

In other words, it does not follow that if two people are arguing about a complex political, social, or economic problem I can simply split the difference between the two and thereby arrive at the truth. It may be that both are desperately wrong and a compromise position between the two would be just as wrong. It may be that one of the two parties is, in fact, right and that a compromise between the two would, again, turn out to be wrong.

The way of the moderate, then, amounts to a kind of intellectual triangulation between two perceived extremes. One need not think about what might be right, true, or just; rather, one takes stock of the positions on the far right and the far left and aims for some sort of mean between the two, even if the position that results is incoherent or unworkable. This sort of intellectual triangulation is also a form of intellectual sloth.

Where the way of the moderate is reflexively favored, it would be enough to successfully frame an opponent as being either “far right” or “far left.” Further debate and deliberation would be superfluous and mere pretense. And, of course, that is exactly what we see in our political discourse.

Again, given our political culture, it is easy to see why the way of the moderate is appealing and tempting. But, sadly, the way of the moderate as I’ve described it does not escape the extremism and rancor that it bemoans. In fact, it is still controlled by it. If I seek to move forward by triangulating a position between two perceived extreme coordinates, I am allowing those extremes to determine my own path. We may very well need a third path, or even a fourth and fifth, but we should not assume that such a path can be found by passing through the middle of the extremes we seek to avoid. Such an assumption is the very opposite of the “independence” that is supposedly demonstrated by pursuing it.

Paradoxically, then, we might understand the way of the moderate as the flip side of the extremism and partisanship it seeks to counteract. What they both have in common is thoughtlessness. On the one hand you get the thoughtlessness of sheer conformity; the line is toed, platitudes are professed, and dissent is silenced. On the other, you sidestep the responsibility for independent thought by splitting the presumed difference between the two perceived extremes.

We do not need moderation of this sort; we need more thought.

In the conference transcripts I mentioned a few days ago, Hannah Arendt was asked about her political leanings and her position on capitalism. She responded this way: “So you ask me where I am. I am nowhere. I am really not in the mainstream of present or any other political thought. But not because I want to be so original–it so happens that I somehow don’t fit.”

A little further on she went on to discuss what she calls thinking without a bannister:

“You said ‘groundless thinking.’ I have a metaphor which is not quite that cruel, and which I have never published but kept for myself. I call it thinking without a bannister. In German, Denken ohne Geländer. That is, as you go up and down the stairs you can always hold onto the bannister so that you don’t fall down. But we have lost this bannister. That is the way I tell it to myself. And this is indeed what I try to do.”

And she added:

“This business that the tradition is broken and the Ariadne thread is lost. Well, that is not quite as new as I made it out to be. It was, after all, Tocqueville who said that ‘the past has ceased to throw its light onto the future, and the mind of man wanders in darkness.’ This is the situation since the middle of the last century, and, seen from the viewpoint of Tocqueville, entirely true. I always thought that one has got to start thinking as though nobody had thought before, and then start learning from everybody else.”

I’m not sure that I agree with Arendt in every respect, but I think we should take her call to start thinking as though nobody had thought before quite seriously.

I’ll leave you with one more encouragement in that general direction, this one from a recent piece by Alan Jacobs.

“I guess what I’m asking for is pretty simple: for writers of all kinds, journalists as well as fiction writers, and artists and academics, to strive to extricate themselves from an ‘artificial obvious’ that has been constructed for us by the dominant institutions of our culture. Simple; also probably impossible. But it’s worth trying. Few things are more worth trying.”

One step in this direction, I think, is to avoid the temptation presented to us by the way of the moderate as I’ve described it here. Very often what is needed is to, somehow, break altogether from the false dilemmas and binary oppositions presented to us.

8 thoughts on “Thinking Without a Bannister

  1. Hey! This is so important!
    I’ve skirted this point a few times, but I’ve never presented it thoughtfully like you did here.
    I think this is extremely relevant:
    By forcing binaries, I think political parties have been able to hold onto bad ideas. Like you said, absolute partisanship creates a false middle that can be exploited.
    This is just an inclination, it’s vulnerable to intellectual attack. And I might be missing your point altogether.

  2. I like this metaphor. I tend to find that (at least in the US) neither pole of the political spectrum offers a fully internally consistent ideology. To fully adopt a label is almost always to adopt some kind of contradiction.

  3. Really Michael, another great piece. One that feels particularly affirming to me, as something I was trying to get across in my not-so-moderate way in our long three way discussion on your great past piece “The Humanities, the Sciences and the Nature of Education”.

    Long concerned with this increasing “falseness” of determining truth in political,social and economic values- discussions by “triangulation” as you say, of the presented extremes, I noticed that concern becoming ever more immoderate in me. Increasingly, that was consciously because of my emotional radar of real frustration at being muted and policed by these unstated norms of the “moderate, reasonable and realistic” tone–no matter the horror of the reality — and the only one “acceptable to be heard.” (And thus who will ever hear the children, the enraged by pain, those so brutalized by cruelty that cry out?)

    It has indeed made me want to scream. Not just about these increasingly harsh and unfair realities underlying the resulting falsified analyses, but about the achieved coldness of the rational discussions addressing these extremes of injustice and inequity in our world — without any real sign of true empathy and understanding that may be the key to any truly effective action in resolving them?

    For me, it is an actual development of social metaphoric autism — this extreme disconnect and neutrality of both tone and argument — perhaps acceptable in discussing computer code or scientific equations, but destructive to both the saying and hearing of human truths in all the immoderate states that most completely describe them and their necessary, often extreme, need to be redressed.

  4. “I always thought that one has got to start thinking as though nobody had thought before, and then start learning from everybody else.” – This reminds me of teachings from Krishnamurti, Osho and Fukuoka. I guess you could also call it being totally present, which negates interpretations based on past experience and allows us to look at a situation with fresh eyes.

    I never understood political affiliation, because I thought it made the most sense to decide on each topic based on your own reason; to be thinking independently rather than agreeing because you’re this or that party. I’m not sure if I understand going down the middle, but I think you’re saying is that if we live by a particular method as an end, for example taking the middle road as a principle, then indeed that is just as bad as extremism because it’s not based on finding the truth of the situation at hand.

    I enjoyed reading this! Thank you for the insight and challenge to think outside the box.

  5. Michael,

    Of all your most excellent commentaries, this really struck a chord with me. It’s really the basis for my registration as an Independent politically; but as your article implies, even that is not truly adequate. I often find myself resenting (thanks to the new belief in the “science” of demographics) that one political part assumes their ownership of my vote when nothing could be further from the truth.

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