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Posted by on Aug 29, 2007 in At TMV | 42 comments

The Moderator’s Voice

When I joined this blog (middle of 2005) I was significantly more “moderate”, in the usual sense of the term, than I am now. I freely admit that since then, I have drifted distinctly off to the left. It actually probably looks worse from your vantage point, because on the issue I most care about (race relations), “drifted” probably is less accurate than “ran with reckless abandon.” Preparation to join the academy, I guess. But at the end of the day, the subjects I blog on definitely place me on the left-wing of this site.

A while ago I would have apologized for this. After all, this is The Moderate Voice, and folks can expect to come here and read Moderate posts–which my treatises on how structural racism maintains a de facto system of White Supremacy in America really don’t qualify as. But the more I think of it, the more I’m actually quite comfortable in my role here. This has to do with my personal conception of what it means to be moderate as a virtue, rather than an affiliation, and what the ideal “moderate” site consists of.

Even when I joined TMV, I never really identified the virtue of moderation as being at the midpoint of all political disputes. Rather, it was more closely affiliated in my mind with pragmatism. I was (and remain) committed to identifying and advocating for solutions based on whether they work, not based on whether they fit within particular ideological parameters. Admittedly, one’s ideals affect both what problems you want to “solve”, and what types of solutions are said to “work.” But even still, I think a more flexible identity in this regard is a superior virtue than moderation for its own sake. And pragmatic outlook can lead to policy positions that are nowhere near the center. For example, my leftist views on race are heavily influenced by pragmatism–I’m less concerned with making sure my proposed solutions fit within an overarching meta-framework (like “color-blindness”) than I am in “solving the problem” of racial hierarchy (y’all may disagree as to whether what I propose actually will accomplish that, I’m just talking about my outlook–an ideological position like “color-blindness” is meaningless to me except insofar as it is instrumentally valuable to ending racial hierarchy).

The second issue, one which was always present but has emerged recently as quite dominant in my thinking, is my belief in pluralism. Pluralism, in my opinion, is essential to effective democratic deliberation, because nobody has a monopoly on truth, and because perspectives are non-substitutable. I cannot adopt the standpoint of another–nobody can give voice to the experience or life of a given body, but that body. Since no democratic body can include everybody (every body), the closest approximation is to insure that our deliberative institutions are drawn from a representative cross-sample of the community. As Iris Marion Young argues, “Normative judgment is best understood as the product of dialogue under conditions of equality and mutual respect. Ideally, the outcome of such dialogue and judgment is just and legitimate only if all the affected perspectives have a voice.” (Iris Marion Young, Intersecting Voices: Dilemmas of Gender, Political Philosophy, and Policy (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1997), 59 (emphasis added)).

One of the things I’ve noticed about TMV is–ideologically speaking, at least–we have one of the most diverse arrays of contributors one will find blogging together while identifying as part of the same community. There are some sites that are specifically set up to be polemical (“the right and left square off!”) and others which host a huge array of writers but whose members don’t necessarily see themselves as “co-bloggers” as much as atomistic contributors. Few, however, have managed to create such a vibrant community of posters expressing different views while still seeing themselves–at least somewhat–as being part of a single interpretative community. This is a tremendous asset, and one that I think is far more valuable than it would be if we all were clustered together “in the center.”

This is important, and I think cuts to the heart of the ideal “moderate voice.” I think Young is definitely correct that democratic decision-making only justly occurs in a forum where all affected perspectives have a voice and all voices are treated with dignity and respect. However, such fora are few and far between. As Cass Sunstein warned in Republic.com, the internet has assisted in the extreme balkanization of our political communities, such that there is very little deliberation among the “we”, replaced by self-reinforcing cheerleading by “us” in opposition to “them” (who, of course, do the same).

A common misunderstanding (one I admit I used to buy into) was that only those in the middle could hope to bridge these gaps. In this view, the “moderate voice” should be made up of a council of people, all roughly in the center of the political spectrum, mediating between the dueling poles. I no longer hold that belief. For one, I’m not even necessarily sure I know what such a “center” would look like. The political center is a nebulous concept–it is both contested and shifting. I’m not confident I’d be able to identify the ground, even if it exists. For two, I think it overstates the solidity of our political positions. As I said above, I know my views on a variety of issues have evolved considerably even during these past few years. It is far from guaranteed (and, I’d argue, far from ideal) that even those who are in the center will stay there through hell or high water. For three, insofar as anyone actually does identify, in a hard sense, as “sitting in the center”, I’m not sure that type of static viewpoint is anymore conducive to mediation than a similarly ossified position elsewhere on the spectrum. It seems at least as likely that a “hardcore” centrist might be reflexively resistant to an otherwise good socialist or libertarian idea, because it strikes them as extreme or out of the mainstream.

Rather, I believe that the true Moderate Voice is the Moderator’s Voice–people of varying and diverse perspectives, agreeing to come together in mutual discourse to debate and discuss the issues of the day. The moderator is the appropriate metaphor because the goal is not to create false uniformity, but rather to create the appropriate conditions within which pluralized perspectives can spark dialectic. The best moderators construct panels of people who hold positions encompassing as much of the political terrain as possible, and who are committed to sparring with their interlocutors both vigorously and respectfully. The diversity is important because it is the only way to create an effective microcosm of the public–10 people who all share the same views, even if those views constitute the middle or average position of the citizenry, are not in any meaningful sense representative. In every meaningful sense, the type of discourse that flows out of difference is advantageous vis-a-vis homogeneous back-scratching. Hence, the moderator’s voice should actively seek views from all over the political spectrum–left, right, center, up, down, all around. And while I want the debate to be respectful, I do not want it to be deferential. If the subject is race relations, then you’re going to hear folks arguing that a given position perpetuates racism–as they should, if they believe that. If the topic is national security, then whether a position “makes America less safe” is absolutely fair game. Respectful means refraining from assuming bad motives on the part of one’s interlocutor, but deferential means refraining from assuming bad results. Adopting the latter course leads to just as impoverished a civic discourse as one that has no diversity at all. Political discussion is a contact sport–so long as the arguments are made in good faith, there’s nothing inherently wrong about showing some teeth.

When I wrote about what my ideal Supreme Court would be, I did not urge that it be stacked with nine centrists. I do not think such a court would really serve the American people. Rather, I advocated a Court whose membership encompassed all of the major schools of legal thought–from originalists and textualists, to pragmatists, to “active liberty” types and crits. Imagine the type of legal discourse we could have in such a judiciary! Imagine if these camps were forced to be part of the same interpretative community–to think and deliberate (and ultimately decide cases!) with reference to each other! I want to put Clarence Thomas and Charles Lawrence III in a room on affirmative action cases. I want to see what happens when a textualist runs into a post-modernist. Even if there isn’t always synthesis, the fires of intellectual combat should at least invigorate the theories, in a way that a bland, tasteless “moderation” (in isolation) can never hope to achieve.

So, back to me. I am happy to take my place at the Moderator’s Table as the resident Critical Race Theorist. Is it a “moderate” position? No, not really. But it contributes to the wonderful array of ideas and perspectives that circulate this forum–and that, ultimately, ought to be the ambition of the The Moderate Voice.