Unknowing is commitment to moderation

Unknowing is inescapably an exercise in moderation. I’m talking here about political moderation. In other respects, unknowing encourages us towards an immoderate lifestyle. One which embraces mischief and counters convention. In an age of populism and polarisation, though, an inclination to political moderation is unknowing’s contribution.

But moderation is a term that is fraught with ambiguity. What I’m referring to in invoking moderation is a disciplined eschewal of the easy certainties of extremism. What I’m not advocating is a lazy gravitation to the centre of wherever mainstream political debate is located.

As the last decades have demonstrated, the Overton window can be re-situated at the extremes, and positions previously recognised as moderate recast as outside the mainstream or even treacherous. In my lifetime, this has happened to the advocacy of, for example, social democracy, the maintenance of friendly relations with our European neighbours and solidarity with the Jews as an oppressed people. The years of Conservative rule have overseen a dismantling of the social contract behind the welfare state and a return to conditions of employment which evoke the Victorian era or the 1930s. Centrist opinion has colluded in the normalisation of such policies. A disciplined moderation might have named the assault on hard-won rights as an extremist aberration.

Moderation can be radical. It might seem uncontentious to argue that everyone who works should enjoy a living wage or that a wealthy economy should be able to provide a decent home for all its citizens. These were noble and mainstream aspirations in the post-war period. Their realisation today would take a sustained reshaping of the state by politicians courageous enough to challenge the ideology that has, in the past four decades, made it seem natural to marketise everything.

Moderation is a commitment to a journey with no destination. We understand the rough direction and we have an intuitive sense of when we step off course. But sometimes our mind is scrambled into not taking these moments seriously. And, before we know it, we find ourselves unmoored in a world in which human decency is a deprecated value. Where the public realm, and increasingly our private sensibilities, are appropriated for corporate gain. Where the meaning of our lives becomes nothing more than to play our bit parts in enabling the anonymous accumulation of capital. And where the only alternative offered is an outlandish politics of identity that glories in its own sense of righteous opposition and never once engages in the hard graft of achieving meaningful change.

If unknowing is necessarily an exercise in moderation, the reverse is also true. Aurelian Craiutu, who has written a compelling exploration of modern political moderation, says moderates cultivate a conscious relaxing of their own cognitive attachments:

The moderates versed in the art of self-subversion develop a systematic habit of questioning and nuancing some of their views, and are not embarrassed to acknowledge that what they once thought to be right turned out, in fact, to be wrong.

Jerry Taylor, an American advocate of moderation, also emphasises this willingness not to know things too rigidly:

The best we can do is to police our inner ideologue with a studied, skeptical outlook, a mindful appreciation of our own fallibility, and an open, inquisitive mind.

For those who hold emancipatory values, moderation can engender a degree of impatience. Emancipatory movements often elevate equality above other values, such as freedom. Taylor maintains that moderates hold the values of freedom, community and equality but recognise the tensions between them and hold an absolute commitment to none of them.

Moderation is a stance that enables democracy to happen. Moderates do not indulge in a fantasy that democracy is perfect. Rather, it creates an arena in which political disagreement can occur without descending into violence. Instead of demonising those who disagree with them, as is the fashion of our era, moderates welcome the civil expression of difference. As Craiutu puts it, democracy calls for strong ethical bearings but not sanctimony:

While it is important to strive for moral clarity, we should never assume that we possess it, because that would give us a false and dangerous sense of self-righteousness. Moral clarity is not a moment of instant enlightenment, but a normative goal that we should work for our entire life to achieve.

Moderation is a lot harder than ideological certainty. It demands that we cultivate not just civility but psychological awareness, appreciation for complexity and a certain playfulness.

But it is a playfulness that does not extend to the contemporary notion of the malleability of truth. Two of my heroes of moderation are Vaclav Havel and Albert Camus, both of whom knew totalitarianism and opposed it with moral courage. Both insisted on an idea of truth that is under attack in our postmodern intellectual climate.

As a dissident playwright in Communist Czechoslovakia, Havel was an astute analyst of the oppressive nature of the denial of truth. Through his example of the greengrocer who displays a sign saying “Workers of the world, unite!”, he described how the Communist state elicited from people rituals of support – expressions of compliance that they might not believe deep down, but which they were content to offer for the sake of a quiet life. If enough people complied, the state derived its power by persuading people effectively to live a lie. Havel instead advocated – and practised – living in truth as the means to recapture the power the totalitarian state held over its citizens. He was imprisoned for his integrity (though eventually became president of a democratic Czechoslovakia).

Camus, who witnessed the Nazi occupation of France and the outbreak of the Algerian civil war, deplored how revolutionary projects so often ended in tyranny and disaffection. He was prone to drawing attention to complexity and moral ambiguity which did not endear him to others on the French left. As his biographer, Robert Zaretsky, has described, his commitment to truth was informed by his appreciation of Greek tragedy – in particular, its portrayal of those tragic moments in life and art that are immune to resolution.

In a letter to a fictitious German friend during the Second World War, Camus pointed to the moral resilience in truth-seeking that such moments demand of us:

Simply that you readily accepted despair and I never yielded to it. Simply that you saw the injustice of our condition to the point of being willing to add to it, whereas it seemed to me that man must exalt justice in order to fight against injustice, create happiness in order to protest against the universe of unhappiness.

The relativism of our post-truth society may blind us to those situations that demand moral clarity. Postmodernism began as a critique of the grand narratives that enabled totalitarianism. But its application in politics risks becoming that from which it sought liberation: a forceful reconstruction of reality through domination. As Marci Shore has argued, the postmodern turn represents a form of nihilism to which Havel’s assertion of living in truth represents a resistance. That people collude in living a lie, does not make the truth go away:

No amount of propaganda or blind ritual or ‘bad faith’ can dissolve the ontologically real distinction between truth and lies.

Both Havel and Camus in their advocacy of intellectual modesty recognised the paradox that truth is unattainable and always contingent on circumstance. But this did not deter their pursuit of truth as the ultimate purpose of a human life. Zaretsky quotes Camus from another letter:

Only, truth … that is the uninterrupted seeking of it, the decision to tell it when one sees it, on every level, and to live it, gives a meaning, a direction to one’s march.

This strikes me as a more life-affirming stance than the nihilism and fearfulness of polarisation.

In holding convictions lightly, moderation is closely related to pluralism. It is an antidote to the singular attachments of identity politics. People generally tend to have multiple affinities, but come to emphasise some singular aspect of themselves – often in response to feeling it to be under attack. Movements of identity politics manipulate these feelings – exacerbating our sense of jeopardy, valorising victimhood and causing us to lose sight of our multiplicities that connect us with diverse communities. Succumbing to this is demoralising in every sense of the word. As Mark Lilla put it in The Once and Future Liberal:

Many identity communities are not even real communities. They’re just a loose group of individuals, narcissistically exploring some trait in their self that others around them happen to share. Many identity-based communities are not defined by internal compassion but by external rage.

In contrast to the rage of ideological certainty, moderates cultivate a quality the American commentator, David Brookes, identifies as equipoise:

It’s the ability to move gracefully through your identities — to have the passions, blessings and hurts of one balanced by the passions, blessings and hurts of several others. The person with equipoise doesn’t feel attachments less powerfully but weaves several deep allegiances into one symphony.

As another great moderate, Michael Oakeshott, has it, the best answer to ideological polarity is to cultivate enjoyment of life in all the pluralism of our interests and the diversity of the world around us.

12 thoughts on “Unknowing is commitment to moderation

  1. Thank you, this (as indeed does the little I know of the Unknowing Project) post contains thinking that draws me and of which I feel a kinship. I will be thinking about it for some time.


  2. Thank you for this latest post of your blog, Martin. For me it raised a question that I have often asked myself: what is it that drives people towards polarising identity politics and away from moderation?

    I think you are right when you suggest that it is the ease of the polarising mindset. It does not involve complexity or psychological awareness. Everything is cut and dried. The ‘me’ group is right and the ‘not me’ group is wrong. The ‘me’ group feels full of virtue and righteousness and is freed of all their ‘shadow’ qualities because these have been projected onto the ‘not me’ group.

    A moderate mindset strives not to project in this way, but to integrate the ‘shadow’ within itself. This is hugely painful and demands much energy, and soul-searching because integrating that which is not acceptable to our conscious selves is painful. Nobody wants to know how destructive of life we can be; and then, when we begin to grasp some sense of it, to think: what is the ethical way to proceed? And for this to be never-ending, always evolving and needing to be acted upon, not just thought about. Furthermore, far from knowing the truth, such a moderate mindset can only ever strive to reach it, the journey, not the goal, being the important thing.

    This huge difficulty in being moderate is, in my view, why it is far easier to lie to ourselves that we have the truth and everyone else is misguided. No uncertainty, or doubt there, no woolly-minded liberal thinking, or agonising doubt.

    But also, no challenge to the creativity required to process the complexity of the moderate position. Just slugging it out endlessly in a variety of contexts as polarisation increases and, with it, threat, paranoid and eventually real danger to life. In my view, the moderate position alone can avoid this; for, through a creative culture, it processes the ‘death instinct’, which a polarising mindset only amplifies, the more each pole attacks the other.


    • Peter, thanks for this insightful reflection. It rather counters my suggestion that moderation can be the more life-affirming path. But I think I can reconcile the tension. In projecting one’s shadow, one is rejecting a part of oneself. Facing up to the shadow may be hard but the prize of integrating it is, I want to say, integrity if that isn’t too tautologous. One reaches a more robust sense of meaning that allows for the flaws in oneself and others. Also, complexity is exhausting but it is the reality of modern existence. So there’s equanimity in coming to terms with it and the creativity you identify is energising. And it’s not as if the counter-factual is restful. It can also be exhausting to insist on the simplifying denial of reality. Especially as reality has a habit of intruding on one’s polarising fantasies, as Nicola Sturgeon and Liz Truss have recently discovered.


  3. I agree with you Martin. I think the moderate position is ultimately the more life-affirming one. I just wanted to emphasise the emotional cost and the work it involved. The polarising mindset seems easier in the short term, but obviously in the middle to long term it doesn’t lead anywhere except to conflict within individuals (neurosis/psychosis) and between them (violence/war) It’s a pity democracy encourages such a short term approach.


    • It is. But, while democracy has a bias to the short term, I’d say that it encourages more tolerance of complexity than other available systems of government.


  4. Hi Martin,
    You might have listened to this programme (see link below) I just have and found it very interesting in the context of your blog and the moderate mindset v polarised mindset. It charts the rise of the latter historically, philosophically and culturally and then explores where it is now and where it might go. It struggles to value subjective feeling and yet hang on to the possibility of a dialogue that does not descend into literal and/or metaphorical blood letting. I’d be interested to hear what you think about it. One of my thoughts is that at no point does it mention the surely objective facts that: we cannot create ourselves – we need others to do that; we are dependent on others for our early years and arguably all our lives; and that we cannot and surely will never be able to keep ourselves alive forever. Or am I missing something here ?



  5. Another fascinating read Martin. Thank you! Also the dialogue following. Briefly, at the risk of sounding simplistic, I would add into the mix of the psychological foundations for polarisation that currently untrendy word ‘patriarchy’. Based on the work of Carol Gilligan I think this is relevant to the widespread proclivity to polarised certainties. Gilligan defines patriarchy as an organising system of gender codes that demands that boys at an early age (4-7 years) start to split off and deny emotions with all their messiness and complexity, as being ‘girlish’, ‘sissy’ or ‘gay’ under pressure of ridicule and bullying from their peers. To be a member of the tribe of men, and therefore gain superiority and power one must stereotypically be hard and fast and not ‘soft and wavering’. Girls on the other hand discover around adolescence that to be accepted as a woman in such a culture one must be pleasing, caring, not loud or strong of opinion. So they trade their assertiveness and authenticity to be accepted as selfless: good friends, helpers and mothers. Both polarisations deny the real messiness of being human, both aim for neat categorisations rather than the authentic fluidity of identity – and therefore one’s ever-changing views, ideas, and roles in a fluid world. In reply to the standardised moral dilemma scenarios, while boys offer clear good/bad, right/wrong response, girls will tend to say “it all depends….”


    • Thanks, Hetty. “It depends…” is a great moderating response and Gilligan’s work is certainly relevant to the discussion. Unknowing is, in part, an exploration of whether we can free ourselves of the conditioning caused by dominating power structures, which would certainly include patriarchy.


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