Radicals and moderates: finding a politically effective middle ground

I come from your ‘typical’ latte-sipping, queer theory-embracing, Greens-voting, feminist Melbourne background. You can see shades of me in a lot of different (mostly unflattering) labels: the ‘bunyip alumni’, the ‘yuccie’, and if you squint, even the ‘hipster’. I’m not particularly secretive about these facts. I’ve never needed to be in Melbourne, where our Federal and State seats are both held by the Greens, and most of my friends were from similar, ‘stereotypical’ backgrounds.

So it was eye-opening moving into full time office work in Canberra. I’ve written about this previously, about having to work out how to find a middle ground between being the outspoken feminist leftie I want to be and that I admire, and not making work intolerable because everyone thinks I’m annoying.

That’s not to say that everyone in Canberra is right-wing – in fact, Canberra’s voting patterns are pretty clearly left-wing, with the territory going to Labor for the past two decades. However, most professional contexts are far more moderate than the fairly radical bubble I was used to. And I don’t really get out a lot, so I’ve become used to toning it down at work. But recently, I was chatting to someone at a party who reminded me of my friends back in Melbourne.

After a year of slowly moderating myself, it was a shock to talk to someone who was an outspoken feminist, queer, socialist. It was fun talking, and arguing. At one point we got onto the topic of Waleed Aly, a darling of the centre left.

‘Waleed Aly is the worst,’ said the guy, promptly. Aly, he said, panders to people. ‘All he does is talk in soundbites that get shared across Facebook, so people can like them and share them and feel good about themselves. It doesn’t change anything.’

I don’t really watch The Project, but regardless, I think Aly is an intelligent, eloquent voice for the issues he argues. And having spent more time amongst centrists and even people who I would call right-wing, I know that Aly is able to make his voice heard by a wider cross-section of Australia than say, Clementine Ford (someone who is more vocally left wing) might be able to, and I proceeded to argue along those lines.

The debate continued over laksa and wine, and although neither of us convinced the other, I came away from that night still thinking about it. As long as I’ve been interested in politics, I feel like people have yearned for some grand old time where people respected each other, or at least didn’t harass and dox and send death threats to each other over differences of political opinion. Truth be told, though, I believe it’s quite possible there was no such time, and that politics was always a dirty, mud-slinging, rough-and-tumble game.

In some of the circles I ran in in Melbourne (and online), a common view is that we (feminists, people of colour, queer people, so on) shouldn’t need to spend our time explaining basic aspects of our views to others. This sounds unreasonable, but for activists and other people who have spent much of their time educating others on, say, what feminism is, or why ‘political correctness’ isn’t actually really a bad thing, it’s seen as an act of self-care, as well as a rejection of the imposed emotional labour of having to explain easily searchable issues to others.

This view is less acceptable on the more moderate side of the line. After all, if you don’t try to educate and explain to others, how can you ever hope to win? If you’re abrasive and aggressive, people who disagree with you are less likely to listen to you, and then to change their minds. Instead of espousing views that are relatively unpopular and unlikely to become socially and politically accepted in the near future, work on slowly changing people’s minds on the little things, and make gradual change. This view relies on incrementalism, and of slowly but surely marching towards a better future. (Here, moderates and radicals may differ: radicals may view the above as tone-policing, in which someone dismisses another person’s argument based on their tone rather than their content. Moderates may simply see this as commonsense.)

There’s a design concept known as MAYA: Most Advanced Yet Acceptable. This concept is based on the theory that people will gravitate towards familiarity, known as the ‘mere-exposure effect’. Essentially, MAYA is about mediating two instincts in humans: the neophile (who is attracted to the new) and the neophobe (who is scared by the new). If you can make the familiar different, or the different familiar, you create a design that people will want. On the other hand, if you make something radically different, most people won’t like it – it’s only after they’ve been exposed to something different enough times that they’ll come to appreciate it.

MAYA is, ostensibly, how moderates work: slowly making the different familiar, and thus acceptable.

On the other hand, think about how many social movements you’ve heard about that happened because people slowly and politely made incremental changes?

Nelson Mandela was considered a terrorist for a long time. The Stonewall Riots were riots, not well-moderated exchanges of ideas. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich said: ‘Well-behaved women seldom make history,’ a quote which has made the rounds. Ulrich was actually lamenting the fact that many women are overlooked in the history books, but the point stands: historically, radicals are celebrated relatively more than moderates are. Maybe there’s a reason for that – radicals blaze the way for real change, while moderates plod along behind, slowly enshrining that change in law and politics and society.

Sometimes I feel like I’m standing with one foot in each camp – one in the land of the radicals, full of riots and protests, one in the land of the moderates, with promises of slow but steady change. The problem is, I’ve been on both sides, and I’ve been attacked by both too.

I can’t go back to the guy I met at the party and tell him that he’s wrong (because he isn’t, of course). Much of the time, advances are made thanks to trailblazers and radicals.

At the same time, I don’t think it’s helpful to dismiss moderates entirely. That’s simply a matter of pragmatism – you need as many people on your side as possible. In the end, I suppose I am a true moderate – stuck in the middle.

Image: Alexis Brown


sharonaSharona Lin is a recent graduate and recent Canberra convert. She is the founder and editor-in-chief of Pop Culture-y (popculture-y.com), has written for The Age, Tone Deaf and The Music, and has written several award-winning short stories. In the coming years, she hopes to publish her first novel.



This piece has been published with the support of the ACT Government.


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