"Moderates are the most dangerous" - what's the name for this?
March 12, 2018 7:31 AM   Subscribe

Over the last few years, I've noticed a frequent argument, employed in many different areas, that goes "(moderate) believers are the ones most at blame". It's been employed most often against Islam, but also against progressives and by sceptics & atheists against religion. What do you call this rhetorical device? Is there a take-down or analysis of its use?

It's not the fallacy of the middle or fake compromise. It has some similarity to the Overton Window - even your moderate views are totally beyond the pale - but more seems to argue that extreme believers are unreachable, and that moderates enable the extremists or should "know better" or are somehow being dishonest and meal-mouthed about their "real beliefs".

Examples (heavy on religion because that was the easiest to google): 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
posted by outlier to Religion & Philosophy (6 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know if there's a term for it but Martin Luther King Jr employed it in Letter from a Birmingham Jail; searching "Martin Luther King white moderates" will get you a lot of articles and thinkpieces about it. Perhaps one of those will analyze its usage or define the concept? I would also suggest reading Letter from a Birmingham Jail because MLK articulates the reasoning behind the belief quite clearly, which may help your search.
posted by brook horse at 8:12 AM on March 12

I would also note that there may be an important distinction between this idea directed at religion and this idea directed at politics. At the very least I only ever see far right folks talking about Islam moderates and only ever far left folks talking about political moderates. That said I have seen left folks critize Christian moderates but it still seems to function differently than criticism of Islam moderates.
posted by brook horse at 8:18 AM on March 12

And of course, don't forget Barry Goldwater:
I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.
Perhaps what you're talking about is the fallacy of the Argument to Moderation.
posted by adamrice at 8:48 AM on March 12

The fallacy of the argument to moderation is also known as the "false dilemma" – it's not about moderation, but about moderation between two postulates which have to be accepted as the starting point for moderation. In other words, it's not actually fair/inclusive moderation, but weaponized moderation (to use the modern parlance).

Aristotle wrote about moderation/mean as a virtue, as did many philosophical traditions, Taoism being another well-known example.

I suppose that false dilemma could in fact be at the heart of attempts to cast moderates as cowards/enablers. Interestingly, we don't hear that sort of argument against moderates in France (which I'm only using as an example because I live here and know it well). A lot of the most effective resistance during WWII was carried out by people who "simply" believed in humanity. You could cast that as "not taking sides", which is a false dilemma. Where there was vocal and physical resistance, there was also the quiet resistance of people protecting others. Schindler's List as one example. It's not a zero sum game; there's no one single "right" resistance. It was many differing acts of resistance taken together.

FWIW my ex-grandfather-in-law was a member of the French Resistance in Lyon, and one of the quiet moderates people often accused of not taking action. He did, but he didn't tell anyone at the time, in order to protect people. After the war his group could finally talk.

Fire burns, drought cracks the ground, mold eats away at matter, and water erodes even rock. None of these things is inherently superior, inferior, or the only right or wrong way to change the earth.
posted by fraula at 9:25 AM on March 12 [9 favorites]

'Beware the fury of a patient man.' - Dryden.
posted by plep at 9:54 AM on March 12 [1 favorite]

Where there was vocal and physical resistance, there was also the quiet resistance of people protecting others

To build on this, from what I’ve read about resistance in WW2, most people who resisted only did so when they could without blowing their own cover. Your typical resister also, inevitably, engaged in acts that enabled Nazi crimes. People are complicated, and most of them did what they could, when they could.

The way I most frequently hear the argument against moderation is in the context of the white moderate construction, and it often seems to refer to that passive enabling behavior — racial injustice makes the white moderate uncomfortable, so they agree with the first take that makes them less uncomfortable (usually more racism with the serial numbers filed off), and then wish everyone would stop making such a fuss. They just don’t want to be disturbed, and that very much includes being made to confront their own racism and complicity.

I think the argument is significantly different when applied to how people operate under, say, Nazi occupation, as opposed to in modern day American society. The stakes are obviously completely different, and there is something deeply immoral and gross about prioritizing your own psychological comfort over the actual, physical well being of other people.

I have nothing to base this on other than my own gut feeling, but my sense is that King’s white moderate wouldn’t be among the complicated resistance under a Nazi occupation. They would become a believer and full fledged member of the Nazi party, and then later they would deny that they had ever done so willingly.
posted by schadenfrau at 11:00 AM on March 12 [3 favorites]

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